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Photograph of Paul Mellon

Paul Mellon
Photograph by Yousuf Karsh, 1980


Paul Mellon KBE(1907-1999)

Born in Pittsburgh in 1907, Paul Mellon was the son of Nora McMullen, daughter of a Hertfordshire brewer, and Andrew Mellon, the US banker. Andrew Mellon was one of the wealthiest men in early twentieth-century America and later Secretary of the US Treasury. A major collector of old master paintings, he was also the founder of the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Paul Mellon’s childhood was divided between happy summers spent in rural Hertfordshire and unhappy months spent in industrial Pittsburgh, further overshadowed by his parents’ divorce in 1912. He was sent to Choate School in Wallingford, Connecticut, and then went on to Yale University. Not surprisingly, given his fond memories of summers spent in Hertfordshire, Mellon took a keen interest in English art, history and literature. Following graduation in English Studies in 1929, he was reluctant to step into his father’s footsteps and spent another two years reading English history at Clare College in Cambridge. While Mellon found Cambridge lectures ‘dull and dry’, he much enjoyed the rowing on the Cam and the racing at Newmarket. It was here that he became a true Anglophile:

Cambridge I loved, and I loved its grey walls, its grassy quadrangles, St Mary’s bells, its busy, narrow streets, full of men in black gowns, King’s Chapel and Choir and candlelight, the coal-fire smell, and walking across the quadrangle in a dressing grown in the rain to take a bath. In the winter, it got dark at 3.30, and all winter the wet wind whistled straight down from the North Sea – and on grey days and sunny days, the flat, wide, seemingly unpeopled, limitless fields stretched endlessly away to the north across the mysterious fens. To the east they rolled gently towards Suffolk and lovely Newmarket, its long straight velvet training gallops, its race-course, to me the most beautiful one anywhere.

[P. Mellon, A Collector Recollects, 1977]

A keen equestrian himself, Mellon was given a chestnut hunter in 1930 and named her Lady Clare. Three years later he bought his first racehorse, fully aware that his father thought that ‘any damn fool knows that one horse can run faster than another’. John Wootton, A race on the Round Course at NewmarketStill, horseracing was to remain his passion and following the purchase of Rokeby Farm in Upperville, Virginia, in 1936, he was to produce such well-known winners as Mill Reef and Sea Hero. While Mill Reef was able to secure victories at Ascot, Epsom and Longchamp in 1971, Sea Hero succeeded in 1993 to finally add the Kentucky Derby to Mellon’s many trophies.

Meanwhile Mellon had married Mary Elizabeth Brown, née Conover, in 1935. They had a daughter, Catherine, in 1936 and a son, Timothy, in 1942. Further to these personal responsibilities, his father’s death in 1937 placed a heavy burden of financial responsibilities on his shoulders. It entailed the administration of a vast fortune and the completion of the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The latter achieved in 1941, Mellon almost immediately changed into army uniform. From 1942 to 1943 he served as instructor at the US army’s cavalry training centre at Fort Riley, Kansas, and then, from 1943 to 1944, as officer at the Office of Strategic Services in London. After D-day he served in France and Belgium. In 1945 Mellon returned to the USA with the rank of major. Here, however, his wife was seriously ill. Following her death from chronic asthma in 1946, Mellon married Rachel ‘Bunny’ Lloyd, née Lambert, in 1948. A horticulturist by training, she shared his interest in art and took a special interest in French painting and sculpture.

Edgar Degas, Arabesque over the right leg, left arm in frontOnce calm had returned, Mellon concentrated on building up his art collection and on ‘giving away a fortune wisely’. Advised by the English art historians Basil Taylor and John Baskett he added to George Stubbs’ Pumpkin with a stable-lad and assembled the most important private collection of British art outside the United Kingdom. In 1966 Mellon bequeathed the majority of this collection to Yale University to establish the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven. Four years later he established the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art in London. But his generosity also benefited Cambridge, where Mellon was a major benefactor of Clare College, Clare Hall and the Fitzwilliam Museum. Further to numerous gifts, which included John Wootton’s A race on the Round Course at Newmarket and Edgar Degas’ Arabesque over the right leg, left arm in front, he also bequeathed $8 million [£4.9 million] to the Fitzwilliam Museum. During his lifetime Mellon agreed that £1 million of that sum could be allocated to the museum’s Courtyard Development. Following his death in 1999, his Executors allocated, under the terms of his will, a further $12.5 million [£7.7 million] to complete the renovations associated with the Courtyard Development, including the re-lighting of all of the museum galleries. The remaining balance was added to the Paul Mellon Fund which was established as a trust fund for the Fitzwilliam Museum at the time of the bequest, the income from which is used to support education, exhibitions and publications.

A major benefactor of many UK institutions and a key supporter of British art, Mellon received an honorary knighthood in 1974. He was also a fellow of the British Academy and received honorary degrees from Cambridge and Oxford universities.

Looking back on a fulfilled life in 1992, Mellon wrote:

I have been an amateur in every phase of my life; an amateur poet, an amateur scholar, an amateur horseman, an amateur farmer, an amateur soldier, an amateur connoisseur of art, an amateur publisher, and an amateur museum executive. The root of the word ‘amateur’ is the Latin word for love, and I can honestly say that I've thoroughly enjoyed all the roles I have played.

[P. Mellon, Reflections in a Silver Spoon: A Memoir, 1992]

Paul Mellon died at Oak Spring in Upperville, Virginia, in 1999


Selected Bibliography

D. Cannadine, Mellon: An American Life, Knopf, 2006

P. Mellon and J. Baskett, Reflections in a Silver Spoon: A Memoir, W. Morrow & Co., 1992

P. Mellon, ‘A Collector Recollects’ in Yale Center for British Art, Selected Paintings, Drawings and Books (exh. cat.), Yale University Press, 1977

D. Robinson, 'Paul Mellon', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004-8

D. Robinson, Paul Mellon: A Cambridge Tribute, Fitzwilliam Museum, 2007

Royal Academy of Arts and Yale Center of British Art, An American’s Passion for British Art: Paul Mellon’s Legacy (exh. cat.), Yale University Press, 2007

J. Wilmerding (ed.), Essays in Honour of Paul Mellon: Collector and Benefactor, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1986

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John Wootton, A race on the Round Course at Newmarket

John Wootton
A race on the Round Course at Newmarket
Britain, 18th century
The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Edgar Degas, Arabesque over the right leg, left arm in front

Edgar Degas
Arabesque over the right leg, left arm in front
France, c. 1882 to 1895
The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge