Paul Mellon (1907–1999) was one of the greatest art collectors and philanthropists of the twentieth century. Born in Pittsburgh, he was the only son of the financier, industrialist, and Secretary of the Treasury Andrew W. Mellon, and his English wife, Nora McMullen. His childhood summers were spent in the English countryside visiting his mother’s family, where his lifelong love of British culture began.
After attending the Choate School in Wallingford, Connecticut, Paul Mellon studied at Yale (1925–29), receiving his BA in 1929 and developing a keen interest in English literature. Taking his mother’s advice, he then traveled to England to pursue a second degree at the University of Cambridge, where he was a student at Clare College, graduating in 1931. At Cambridge he developed a passion for horses, most especially foxhunting, which led to his first acquisitions in the field of rare British sporting books. In later years he become a leading breeder of racehorses and was a champion trail rider until well into his seventies. His finest horse, Mill Reef—considered one of the greatest horses of the twentieth century—won the Epsom Derby, Eclipse Stakes, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, and the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, all in the year 1971.
After graduating from Cambridge, Paul Mellon stayed in England while his father served briefly as the US Ambassador to the Court of St. James (1932–33). On returning to Pittsburgh, he worked for a short time as a clerk at the Mellon Bank before deciding not to pursue a career in business or banking. Instead, he moved to Upperville, Virginia, with his first wife, Mary Conover Brown, whom he had married in 1935 and with whom he had two children, Timothy and Catherine. In 1941 the Mellon family moved into the Brick House, a neocolonial property designed by William Adams Delano; that same year Paul Mellon enlisted in the Army, electing to join the cavalry. After two years in Fort Riley, Kansas, he served in the Office of Strategic Services in England and rose to the rank of major.
Tragically, Mary Mellon died from an asthma attack in 1946. Two years later Paul Mellon married Rachel (Bunny) Lambert Lloyd, an eminent horticulturalist and gardener, whose fondness for French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting, as well as American art, he came to share. Together they built a new house, Oak Spring, on the Virginia estate, with the Brick House becoming over time a home for the couple’s growing collection of art.
Shortly before Andrew Mellon's death in 1937, construction had begun on the National Gallery in Washington, a project which Mellon had planned for the nation in his final years, intending to give the gallery both funds and his outstanding collection of Old Master paintings. Four years later Paul Mellon opened the building, designed by John Russell Pope, and officially transferred his father's 115 paintings to the nation, among them works by Raphael, Giorgione, Titian, and Vermeer, as the core of the National Gallery’s collection. Paul Mellon served on the museum's board for more than four decades, as a trustee, as president (twice), as the board chair, and as an honorary trustee. He commissioned I. M. Pei to design the gallery's East Wing and, with his sister Ailsa Mellon Bruce, provided funds for its construction in the late 1970s. Over the years Paul and Bunny Mellon donated more than one thousand works of art to the National Gallery, among them many outstanding examples of French and American painting. His generosity extended to other museums, including the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Yale University Art Gallery. In 1969, Paul Mellon and Ailsa Mellon Bruce consolidated their existing charitable foundations to create the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, dedicated to supporting the arts, humanities, and environmental conservation.
In 1936, Paul Mellon purchased his first British painting, Pumpkin with a Stable-lad, by George Stubbs, an artist who remained a favorite throughout his life and whose reputation his collecting did much to rehabilitate. From the late 1950s he began to amass a major collection of British art with the help and encouragement of English art historian Basil Taylor. By 1963 the collection was large and comprehensive enough to mount a seminal exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts which then traveled to the Royal Academy in London. The exhibition helped revive serious interest in British art among scholars. As the London art dealer Geoffrey Agnew once put it: “It took an American collector to make the English look again at their own paintings.”
Paul Mellon's largesse to Yale University knew no bounds; to date, he is one of the University's most generous benefactors. In 1966 he gave the building, works of art, and endowment that established the Yale Center for British Art, and he was responsible for the creation of its sister institution in London, the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, which is the leading supporter of teaching, research, and scholarly publication in the field. (The PMC will be closed for rennovations starting October 24, 2014, and will reopen at the end of June 2015.)
In addition, Paul Mellon endowed two residential colleges at Yale, Ezra Stiles and Morse (both 1961), as well as the masterships and deanships in all twelve of Yale's residential colleges. He endowed numerous professorships, fellowships, and interdisciplinary programs in the humanities and also supported teaching in the Schools of Medicine, Divinity, and Forestry & Environmental Studies. While he claimed no credit and insisted that the Yale Center for British Art not carry his name, he wished to privilege others as he had been privileged.
A private man, modest, and mild-mannered, Paul Mellon was a wonderful conversationalist with a quick wit and a self-deprecating sense of humor. As an exemplary donor, he quietly supported the causes in which he believed: higher education, the arts and humanities, poetry, religion and psychiatry, conservation and the environment. He will be remembered as a collector and connoisseur, patron and benefactor without equal, and he will live on in countless institutions and organizations that continue to benefit from his extraordinary generosity. As Paul Mellon described himself: “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.”
Further information about Paul Mellon can be found in his autobiography (with John Baskett): Reflections in a Silver Spoon: A Memoir (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1992).
A catalogue featuring Paul Mellon’s British art collections, with essays by John Baskett, Jules David Prown, Duncan Robinson, Brian Allen, and William Reese is also available: Paul Mellon's Legacy: A Passion for British Art (New Haven and London: Yale Center for British Art and the Royal Academy of Arts in association with Yale University Press, 2007).