An American’s Passion for British Art : Paul Mellon’s Legacy @ RAA, Oct 07

January 15th, 2009


An American’s Passion for British Art :  Paul Mellon’s Legacy is almost done and I’ve got a free pass.  I’ve been 3 times now, and never would have guessed …  I didn’t even want to like it.  Since I am also a Yank (from south of the Mason-Dixon line, thanks) I was a little suspicious.  Mellon hails from one of the richest American banking families on the planet, holding one of the largest collections of British Art in the world.  “What if this exhibit turns out to be some big tax dodge masquerading as philanthropy?”, I thought to myself?  I was fully prepared to don my best Dick van Dyke mockney and head for the hills, if anyone so much as asked me for directions while I was there.   I suspended my disbelief when I learned that the Royal Academy of Art is celebrating the centenary of his birth with this exhibit, having been made the beneficiary of his will.  I also discovered that the RAA considers him to be responsible for restoring art to its rightful place in the Pantheon, post WWII.   Once I braved entry I was swept away by the majesty of its Palladian interior and up the grand central stair case to catch the lift whose steward actually announced, “Paul Mellon’s Legacy:  The Sackler Wing”.  I drifted along, amongst the guillotined busts staring down with bulge eyes to the door of the exhibit, which was ram packed.

There are 7 categories of focus inside, mainly Georgian on the walls, mostly 17thC in the cases.

SPORTING ART – The gaming that made Britain Grrrr-eat!

“Hunting” is a subject chronicled in art for centuries.  Bearing this in mind, it was difficult not to view the horse paintings mounted on the walls as early 20thC cave art.  Beautiful though they were, I was in the dark as to their importance, other than as paying tribute to Mellon’s favourite British pastime:  blood sport.  It seems that, while reading History at Clare College, in Cambridge, a hunting buddy directed him to his 1st British art purchase from the Jockey Club in Newmarket, Gloucestershire.  George Stubbs’s Pumpkin with a Stable-Lad, 1774, defers to the Newmarket racehorse legend, Pumpkin, in all of his chocolate sheen & muscle-bound splendour, having won 16 of 24 races there in its late-Georgian hey-day.  Well, technically Pumpkin was not Mellon’s first British art purchase, since he did commission Sir Alfred Munnings to paint his portrait, positioned astride his favourite bloodsport stallion, Dublin:  Paul Mellon on Dublin, 1933.  (Mellon’s commissioned portrait is found in the John Madejski Fine Rooms on the 1st floor of the RAA).   Stubbs’s near hysterical attention to detail is made more evident by his etchings of human, tiger & common fowl skeletons, which are described in the lengthy title as  “…comparative anatomical study”.  We are assured of Stubbs’s dedication to process, describing him skinning the animals to draw each successive layer until reaching the skeleton.  Luckily these works hail from his studies at York Hospital, and not from some Silence of the Lambs scenario.    Looking around the SPORTING ART room, hunting does seem to dominate – John Wooton and Jan Wyck’s lush hunting scenarios and Francis Barlow’s 17thC ink drawings of hunting hounds are sheer lyrical mastery.  Amongst the many wonderful illustrated manuscripts in the vitrine, there is a 15th C letterpress book of “Hawking, Hunting and the Blasing of Arms”, presumably written in Middle English, by Dame Julia Berners – in nearly pristine condition.  There is a vibrant, hand-coloured aquatint A3 sized picture book, 17thC, depicting the natural history of India and the gaming that made Britain great, entitled “Wild Sports of the East” – again, nearly perfectly preserved.    Also within the case is a 14th C pen & ink letterpress manuscript on parchment, instructing its medieval reader on chess, heraldry and “craft of venery”, illustrated with woodcuts, watercolour and the occasional gold lettering – I couldn’t believe my eyes and almost stroked my own chin to make sure I wasn’t wearing a wimple.  In spite of my post-structuralist arrogance, I had to give Mellon his due for acquiring seminal specimens of Britishness, and for his careful, meticulous devotion to their preservation.

I couldn’t move to the next phase of the collection, without mention of the most visible work of the exhibit:  A Zebra, 1763, another Stubbs creation.  The horse por(n)traiture of Stubbs, Ben Marshall & James Ward is curated so that the paintings seem to lead up and point to Zebra, in which the subject is positioned like an Egyptian hieroglyph – profile view so that the eye follows you around the room.  The painting celebrates the arrival of the 1st zebra on British soil, transported from the Cape of Good Hope, S Africa, as a present from King George III to his baby consort, Queen Charlotte.   This “African She-ass” – their words – is a true celebrity, and her presence in the collection speaks volumes – cultural integration and exotic status symbol for the wealth of the British Empire.   We are enlightened by the info that Stubbs’s friend, Dr William (ahem) Hunter, RA’s Professor of Anatomy, provided him the opportunity to paint this portrait for King George III – any American’s arch-enemy.  Is there a Groucho Marx-ist, American passion at work here?  I take a deep breath and move on to LANDSCAPES

LANDSCAPE – The Magic Hour

The Landscape rooms are divided between Finished Works and Studies.  The former feature some rather obscure paintings of JMW Turner, alongside his characteristically stormy seascapes; serenely luminescent landscapes of Gainsborough; surreal pastoral paintings of John Constable and a few other notables.   There seems to be a common visual motif weaving through the work of these three artists in Mellon’s collection:  gold suffused skyscapes informed by dawn or dusk, a quality of light known to filmmakers as the “magic hour”.  Turner is certainly a renowned sorcerer for nearly projecting light, rather than merely reflecting or conducting it from his paintings.  However, I was not prepared for my range of response to the different ways he manipulates that “calm evening glow” – as exhibited in Mellon’s collection.  Witness Staffa, Fingal’s Cave (1831-32).  I am drawn to the setting sun on sea in the background, before realising the imminent danger of being devoured by the mouth of a storm and swallowed by a black tidal wave in the foreground. It is truly frightening, very sneaky of JMW and I don’t want to get too close:  call it Impressionism by default.  This is extreme distancing device to make even Berthold Brecht wince just a little.  Then there’s Dort, or Dordrecht:  The Dort Packet Boat from Rotterdam (1817-18) depicting a boat taking refuge from a passing storm at sundown.  Local merchants, in rowing boats, have corralled the passengers and are conducting trade.  Though traumatic for the passengers, it’s business-as-usual for the locals.  Is it trade or aid, I can’t be sure, but I feel as if I’ve had a good cry, just looking at it – shock/relief is written all over this painting.  The notes explain that Dort is Turner’s nod to the 17thC Dutch golden age of painting, and I deduce, to Holland’s reign of Empire enabled by their navigational prowess.  Read familiar?  The juxtaposition of blasé merchants engaging traumatised, soft-target passengers in the “art of the deal” with a ghetto of other packet boats in the background – set against sunset – insinuates  the end of an era/empire to my eye.   Hmmm, here’s the sunset of one golden age of United Kingdom, as depicted during the golden age of another United Kingdom, and then purchased for display by its hegemonial COO and former colony – Hey, Paul, this is getting really good.  One other honourable mention from Turner is Vesuvius in Eruption 1817-20:  a fine example of a capriccio or imagined view of happenings/mythology from Venice.  The Venetian subject matter would also adhere to the spirit of the Grand Tour, whereby a wealthy young Englishmen would complete his education by seeing the world in the company of a painter as guide, with Venice/the Veneto being the principle destination. Vesuvius is a far cry from the hazy-climate ambience often associated with Turner’s work.  The nocturnal sky, defined by a crescent moon – perhaps a new moon – is lit by the volcano.   I am inspired by the notion that this painting could embody the mind-blowing, revelatory adventure of the Grand Tour – providing opportunity for experimentation, discovery and thus individuation.   Where do I sign up?

LANDSCAPE STUDIES features preliminary sketches and drawings by notable English artists including Alexander (senior) and John Robert (junior) Cozens, Richard Wilson, Turner, Constable, Gainsborough and other OBAs.  There is nothing displayed here that departs dramatically from the recognised styles of the “finished” landscapes to which they contribute as works in progress,  though there is some interesting process revealed – particularly in the watercolour sketches of Turner and the chalk drawings of Gainsborough.  Constable’s 1819 cloud study of actual meteorological conditions in the sky is beautiful and fascinating.   How British is that?  So obsessed with the weather, he frames it.  In any case, Mellon’s collection demonstrates his vast appreciation for the creative process and not just the finished product – the makings of a proper patron for my money.   In fact, it is the various sketch books and ancient manuscripts displayed in the vitrines throughout the exhibit that steal the show.

TOPOGRAPHY & THE PICTURESQUE – Hallucinations of poetic device?

Here are painting/drawing structures or landscapes as vehicles for visual record – Topography – and inspiration – The Picturesque.  My favourites are the works that convey crossover, surely the two concepts are not mutually exclusive.  Anyway it’s  fascinating to gaze at 18th C London, right-here-right-now, as a Naughties local:  pencil & greywash perspective drawings of Old St Pauls Cathedral  and a pagoda-style “waterhouse” that once inhabited the Thames – both pre-Great Fire of London structures (1663) – draughted by Thomas Wyck;  a pen and ink drawing of Southwark, by Wenceslaus Holler.  Canaletto’s Warwick Castle (1748-49) is also on display here: an excellent example of going above & beyond the call of topographical duty.  There’s a definite smirk on the face of Warwick Castle.  I was drawn to it because it first presents itself as the most flat and cartoonlike Canaletto I’ve ever seen.  Just look at those Georgian figures parading and posing on the lawn – which is described as a Lancelot Capability Brown design-in-progress outside the moat.  They almost look like paper dolls.  There’s defo some dodgy dealings with the characters ascending the landscaping from the water.  Some of the Dandys are fishing in it.  Follow the flatline frolic to your right and you see some shoddy-looking shady characters climbing the fence, to crash the party above the apathetic eye of an obsolete toy guard dog.  Follow the flow to the background and you see a quaintly portrayed ghetto of townie rooftops.  Mercantile barbarians are at the gate.   Warwick Castle, itself, is in the throes of piecemeal renovation:  medieval fortification modernised to be William the Conqueror’s castle to Tudor to Elizabethan to Georgian to “Gothick” windows superimposed on the crumbling stonework.  Oh, and they just happen to colour-coordinate with the pannier-ed and wigged out posers on the lawn, not to mention the useless miniature dog.  The castle is truer to life than the people, but is this sort of visual commentary defined by Topography?  Compare his more naturalised figures on  the River Thames in The City of Westminster from near the York Water Gate (1746-47) swept away in a tidal wash of activity.  York Water Gate is in construction in the background – Empire as work-in-progress, check.  Canaletto may not have liked the English, but at least he respects England.  Apparently he journeyed here to be near his English patron, since travel to the Continent was tricky during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.  He spent close to a decade here, so he was definitely shaped by “Englishness”.  Perhaps there was an equivalent of a Grand Tour for European gentleman and their accompanying artists, to refine craft and vision on the island where Empire was a contemporary phenomenon – a sort of informal, fraternal exchange programme. 

Paul Sandby’s Roslin Castle , Midlothian (1780) is a fascinating specimen of Picturesque mocking Topography whereby the subject matter is deliberately obscured, sinking into its gorge and relegated to backdrop.  Very non-Claudean.  The real happening here looks like an outtake still from the film “The Wicked Lady” (1945), if Margaret Lockwood’s highwaywoman were to wrestle the camera from Leslie Arliss’s hand.   Sandby paints an action portrait of Lady Frances Scott playing with a camera obscura, as if it were a dulcimer, perhaps reeling out the Scottish march named after her – 18thC ‘Lady Scot’s Reel’, by Daniel Dow.  Didn’t she lend a songbook to Adam Smith?   According to his correspondence – he couldn’t be bothered to return it.  There she is, Lady Frances Scott (The Lady of the Lake – Sir Walter Scott?) reeling her star spangled banner anthem, singing from the same hymnsheet as the high priest of Capitalism and keeping a camera eye on the Key bridge (as the Francis Scott Key Bridge is known in Roslyn County, Virginia -the Jamestown settlement state) across the rushing river to the sinking estate, again, at sunset.  A shot heard across the water, perhaps?   We seem to have caught Scott’s friend Lady Elliot in the act of lounging and basking in it, in the way she returns our intruding gaze.  Their boy attendant is wearing shoulders for earrings, nearly hiding in the shady pastoral wild.  This is way beyond pretty, as I understand the term “picturesque” to mean – this is pure political allegory and an earmark for where the twilight years of “painting as visual record” meets the dawn of photography.  There are other beauts here, like George Fennel Robson’s Loch Coruisk Isle of Skye (1826-32), Jonathan Skelton’s Harbledown Village near Canterbury (1757) and Celebration of the Thames near White Hall (1685) by Willem van de Velde the Elder and the frankly amazing hand coloured engraving of  Sir Drake’s W Indian voyage 1586 draughted by Baptista Boazio 1589.  You will marvel at Huguenot artist Jacques le Moyne de Morgue’s ethnographical watercolour of an Ancient Briton, A Young Daughter of the Picts (1585). In my imagination she’s the spit of your Boudica.  Anyway, Morgue moved to Blackfriars in 1580 and Sir Walter Raleigh was his patron.    

The best gifts come in small packages, though – the vitrined manuscripts rule.  Check out Theodor de Bry’s letterpress & illustrated engravings:  A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1600) and rethink all notion of American natives as noble savages.  Don’t miss the 17thC translation of Ptolemy’s atlas illustrated with woodcuts or a Woodcocke illustrated survey of America 1582. I’ve learned more about America from a British art collection than I’d care to admit.  The star of the vitrines, however, is James Forbes’s A3 sized manuscript of letters to his wife  illustrated by images of flora and fauna he’d discovered  in Asia, Africa and S America and recorded in vibrant watercolour, during a voyage en route to Bombay (Mumbai) and back, 1766-1784.  There’s an unassuming little A5 sized Channel Sketchbook belonging to JMW Turner close by.

TRAVELS ABROAD – The Grand Tourist is free at last

Onwards and outwards to TRAVELS ABROAD.  The post Napoleonic war grand tour of Continental remains is led by John Warwick Smith’s The Villa Medici, Richard Wilson’s Temple of Minerva (1754), Colosseum of Rome (1778) by William Pars, Normandy coastlines & Venice-scapes of Richard Parkes Bonington and beyond to William Alexander ‘s bell & ruffled Orient depicted in City of Lin Trin, Shantung, with a View of the Grand Canal  (1795).  A Frank Encampment in the Desert of Mt Sinai 1842 – Convent of St Catherine in the Distance (1856) by John Frederick Lewis is an absolute must.

In the mighty vitrines below Pars’s Colosseum is a manuscript of Constable’s memoirs (1843), bookmarked by an autographed letter from John to,  umm John Thomas Smith,  draughtsman, and David Roberts’s record book of sketches & clippings of his grand tour.  Alexander Marshall’s manuscript is opened to late 17thC stunner, St George and the Dragon in mere watercolour.

BLAKE & OTHER VISIONARY ARTISTS – Blake-spotters beware

All right so it’s pistols at dawn, but I don’t get Blake’s illustrations or even inventions, like the copper stamp, so I didn’t bother to elbow my way through the punchy enthusiasts to get an extraordinary comic-book rendition view of a disembowelling  that is the Jerusalem selections (to me).  However, I was perfectly happy to kick some Blake-spotter shin to get to his vitrine-shielded Songs of Innocence and of Experience manuscript from 1795, beneath his mounted illuminations.  Hold me back.  I also had plenty of time for the work of his “Ancients” cult following, made evident by Samuel Palmer’s savage autumnal  Kent-scapes (1820s/30s) Harvest Moon and Weald of Kent.  I nearly had to pinch the punter next to me to see if he wasn’t dreaming that I wouldn’t body block him if he wouldn’t move outta the way … so I could gaze with a 5 centuries stare – point blank range – at Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, opened to the Wife of Bathe woodcut (1483) …. Mastery, indeed.    

GENRE SCENES & PORTRAITS – Who’s the boss?

Women seem to be dominating a new world in the bureaucratic family portraiture of Mellon’s collection, as demonstrated blatantly by Francis Wheatley’s The Browne Family (1790) where Mrs Browne lifts up her skirt to expose her hot pink petticoat and assumes a stance much like an English gent or Louis XIV might do, holding his lapel and showing his leg to demonstrate masculinity.  She’s fishing by the riverside with her other hand, while her husband is sketching the children:  all except for the daughter who’s reaching up to grab the rod away from Mother Browne.  Who’s putting food on the table and who’s looking after the children, here in this genre scene?  This Georgian man was Principle Clerk of Westminster at the Fire Office Insurance Company when the painting was commissioned.  In Thomas Rowlands’s The Exhibition Stare-case, set at the Royal Academy’s Great Room in 1800, Venus stares at her own backside, at the bottom of the “stare-case”, whilst the Royal Academicians,  High Art-ists & other climbers fall on theirs, trying to rise above her on it.  Apparently the 3 elliptical flights of stairs were impossible to climb, so it might have been a dig at Brit Architects too, who knows.  It’s clever and still funny.  I guess the RAA is gazing at its own rear-view mirror with a little wink at you watching her, before you go.  Note to self:  take the lift back down when I do…

An American’s Passion for British Art :  Paul Mellon’s Legacy is one self-ref (v)erential  showing and the RAA  does deserve a pat on the back for cranking out an  awe-inspiring mass of era-defining artists exhibited in this collection, but also for entrusting its care to Paul Mellon and his pro-bono advisor Basil Taylor, from the Royal College of Art.   Mellon cleverly targeted a high-growth market, post World War II, but he demonstrates a substantial investment into its upkeep.  It’s a fascinating tribute to what made Britain Great.  I was also amazed at how the collection embodies the relationship b/w Grand Tourist and advising artist –  with Paul Mellon as Collector and Basil Taylor as his Curator through time.

I was guided through the cool green of the Gamesroom, gazed through amber windows of pastoral and maritime splendour, winding through vitrined gardens & over the ponds into a brave new world of role reversal & hand-over of Empire.  Now that’s what I call Noblesse Oblige.  I might have to treat myself one more last time this weekend.  Merci bien, SG!