Monday, 21 January 2008

An American's Passion for British Art

I did wonder what British art would be on show in the exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts: I mean, there's an awful lot of it to choose from so where would they start and where would it end. As it happens the choice was made long ago when the American collector and philanthropist, Paul Mellon (1907-1999), started collecting British paintings he liked.

There were a few things that got him going: his father was already a great collector, his mother was English, he loved horses, he started collecting before many of the artist's works became unaffordable but he had pots of money if he took a fancy to something that was.

So here it was, a really diverse collection of paintings but with a bias towards subjects and artists Mellon particularly admired. For example, being horse mad, sporting art formed a large part of Mellon's collection. The exhibition starts with some of George Stubbs' (1724-1806) superb paintings of horses.

The horse is always the star in his paintings and the background very sparse but in the same room there is also a wonderful painting of the first zebra ever seen in Britain with a very busy background: it was sent over from the Cape of Good Hope in 1763. The zebra is quite beautifully executed but quite incongruously it stands in an English wood!

I liked the painting of Mellon atop his horse, Dublin, which is not hanging in the exhibition but outside of it in the Fine Rooms: it does have a setting which literally gives us a background to the subject whereas Stubbs' paintings don't. Mellon obviously loved the countryside and collected landscape paintings too and in the exhibition there are finished works and sketches that chart the change in British landscape painting.

We Brits started by copying the idealized painting style of French seventeenth century artists - Claude Lorraine and Nicolas Poussin – and we copied them too in our landscapes. John Robert Cozens' 'The Lake Albano and Castel Gondolfo' 1779, is such a painting – the subject in the foreground surrounded by trees with hills, ruins, a lit sky and a view in the background – the idealized sort of landscape certain to appeal to those doing the Grand Tour.

Mellon's collection exhibits a slow but steady progression in landscape painting, starting with Thomas Gainsbrough and Robert Wilson through to Turner and Constable all of whom also show the influence that Dutch paintings had on their style. This is followed by a landscape studies section: the sketches that these same artists did in the landscape in order to paint their watercolours later.

One of the most amazing things about these is their timelessness: a pencil sketch of a tree by Wilson, some more trees in watercolour and pencil by Cozens, rocks and vegetation by the river by Turner. It would be easy to believe that these were only drawn yesterday, the simplicity of them is so unexpected.

I liked the section on Topography and the Picturesque with the literal depictions of buildings and views, too. My favourite here was a small painting by Francis Towne, 'Ambleside', 1786. It's a small landscape view done in watercolour with pen and brown and grey ink, but it's styalized and simple, so much so that it could be mistaken for a late 20th century work.

The exhibition also covers some paintings done in Italy (with a lovely one by Richard Parkes Bonnington, 1802-1828, of the perfect skies and reflective waters of Venice) and other Europen scenes but it is to views of England that Mellon comes back to collecting.

William Blake was one of those amazingly all round talented individuals - artist, engraver, writer, printer – and Mellon particularly liked his work and began collecting it before it was fashionable. He also collected a few 19th century works by less famous artists of family groups, the style of which we know well with Mr and Mrs Rich and their family set in a landscape to reflect their social importance.

It was a really interesting collection. But sad that so many British paintings are no longer here although, as Mellon donated his collection to Yale, it does mean that it can be seen as a collection, viewed by many including those of us lucky enough to see it in London. Perhaps we need more collectors who have An American Passion for British Art.

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