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November 21, 2007

Christie Davies admires an American devoted to collecting the glories of British Art: An American's Passion for British Art: Paul Mellon's Legacy at the Royal Academy

Posted by Christie Davies

An American's Passion for British Art: Paul Mellon's Legacy
Royal Academy, London
20th October 2007 - 27th January 2008
Daily 10am - 6pm (Fridays until 10pm)

Paul Mellon's Legacy is a reminder of how rich the British artistic tradition is. It took an American to remind us that we should not undervalue it. He should know, he had a passion for it and a passion for buying it.

England's extremity and stupidity was Paul Mellon's opportunity. At a time when England's public galleries were in the grip of absurd trendies and England's bullish art market speculators, both individuals and institutions, were going for French Impressionists and capital gains, Mellon bought traditional British art because he loved it.

Items came on the market which had once hung in the country houses of families who had now fallen on, if not hard, uncomfortable, times. He got it at reasonable prices because the British undervalued their own art; they bought foreign or they bought fashionable. Likewise Mellon had no trouble getting permission to export those works, which now sit in the art gallery Mellon had built for them at an East Coast American college called Yale.

The same artistic advisers who told their British clients not to buy true British art now with equal stupidity told the government to let it go. It will never come back, for the same reason the Elgin Marbles will never return to wretched Greece, land of the Abderitic, Boetian Milesians. Finders buyers keepers. It is a law of nature that dynamic countries buy up moribund ones.

Mellon loved England and its art fiercely, an affection that began when he was a postgraduate at Cambridge, England's premier university and which was to lead to his founding and endowing the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art in London.

In particular he loved the British countryside or rather an idealised version of what it once might have been. He was also a keen horse rider and foxhunter and like those other new arrivals, Enoch Powell and Roger Scruton, rode to hounds with the class of people whose pictures he was later to buy up. I am not of course implying that Powell and Scruton had Mellon's taste in buying pictures; I have no idea what they bought and buy and anyway Mellon was a billionaire which does give you rather more scope.

It does though explain why Mellon bought sporting prints at Cambridge and one of the first paintings in the exhibition is George Stubbs Pumpkin with a Stable Lad, 1774. Far from being squat and close to the ground, the flying Pumpkin, by Matcham out of Old Squirt Mare, won over nine hogsheads of claret racing for his owner.

Stubbs can be a tedious, grovelling hack, churning out flattering horseflesh for philistine owners but this one, like Whistlejacket, 1762, is a winner. The chestnut horse dominates the softly lit peaceful landscape and a timid stable boy in a bright red jacket comes to feed him. There is an absence of the crass triumphalism that often mars Stubbs work. There are no bow-legged simian jockeys with hunched backs and jutting faces, no degenerate grooms, no coarse drink-drenched stable managers or horse dealers. There is no striving for effort. Just a horse and a boy and a landscape rendered with great skill.

Here too are noted paintings by the other great figures of British painting, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Zoffany, Constable, Palmer and especially Turner. Turner was a master of smoke as we can see from his picture Leeds, 1816, even dirtier then than it is today, if that can be believed. Factory chimneys compete with church spires to tell us where Leeds is. The landscape is blessed by a drifting white smoke, through which the black smoke from the chimneys tries to cut.

Smoke is also necessary to Turner's Staffa, Fingal's Cave, 1831-2, a picture divided between a dark sea and sky and the high bright white spray through which we can just see the cliffs battling through it all towards a faint but vivid setting sun is a dirty little steamer, its black smoke blown horizontal. The man who had mastered the light of Venice and could compete in Dordrecht with the best of the Dutch landscape artists also knew his British dirt, the dirt that built the modern world, the dirt of Mellon and Warhol's Pittsburgh.

Another delicious piece of dirt is to be seen in Thomas Rowlandson's The Exhibition Stare-Case, Somerset House, 1800. The elegant ladies climbing the steep staircase to the exhibition have tumbled down and themselves become the exhibition, and their fair, bare posteriors match those of a statue of Venus in a niche. Venus turns to see what is happening. Elderly debauchees and roués look on in delight from the side, staring at the case in question. Stare-case… geddit? One of them leans forward and holds his lorgnettes close to his eyes to make sure he isn't missing anything.

The eager lustful gaze of the seriously myopic and astigmatic never ceases to amaze me. I have even known one of them to carry a fine silk handkerchief in his top pocket ready to polish the lenses of his glasses should some chance exposure of female curves make his day. The speed with which they can lean and leer is a tribute to the lens grinder's art. The Dutch are much politer in this respect than we are. Whereas in Britain the man follows the woman up a steep stair case to catch her if she falls, a Dutchman always goes up first so that he will not be tempted to see more than he should. In fairness it must be added that the Dutch women are built on a more baroque scale than we are used to.

When you are cycling in Groningen and one of them comes high pedalling towards you, it can be most disturbing. Yet we have our revenge in Turner's Dort or Dordrecht, the Dort packet-boat from Rotterdam Becalmed. We have here a match for the great Kuyp, an Englishman who has mastered a Dutch seascape. A Turner for the book.

It is only one of the many delights in the exhibition and it is cheaper to go to London than to New Haven. Better to go to the RA than only Connecticut.

Christie Davies, the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, recently returned from a visit to the art galleries of New England.


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Turner’s “Staffa, Fingal’s Cave” – can this really be the same place that Mendelssohn’s* music is about?

*with two s’s, not the chap involved in donation laundering

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at December 3, 2007 08:24 PM
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