An absolutely have-to-see exhibition has just opened at the Royal Academy in Piccadilly, London featuring the very best – Constable, Turner, Reynolds, Stubbs, Gainsborough and the like – from the finest collection of British art outside Europe, a collection that owes its foundation to the unhappy marriage made by the granddaughter of the man that founded one of Britain’s last surviving family breweries.
The collection is the work of the late Paul Mellon, whose father was the unimaginably wealthy Pittsburgh steel, oil and banking magnate Andrew Mellon, and whose mother was Nora McMullen, brewer’s daughter from Hertford, a little county town only 25 or so miles from London.
McMullen’s claims a foundation date of 1827, though a trade directory for Hertford in 1826 shows Peter McMullen already working as a cooper at Mill Bridge. Peter was the fourth son of William McMullen, who had been at one time steward to the Marquis of Downshire, an Ulster landowner who had rented Hertford Castle from the Marquess of Salisbury around 1800. It looks as if William McMullen had come over with the Marquis from County Down, and decided to stay on in Hertford, where he later ran a seed merchant’s business.
Peter McMullen was still just a cooper in 1829, but soon after he took advantage of the opportunity given by the Beerhouse Act of 1830 to go into beer retailing: In 1831 he was described as “a cooper, and landlord of the William IV beershop, Hertford”. The next year a trade directory listed Peter as brewer, beer retailer and cooper. In 1836 McMullen’s first advertisement appeared in the local press, for XX ale at one shilling a gallon and X beer at eight pence.
McMullen’s business prospered, taking over extra brewery premises in Hertford and neighbouring Ware, and acquiring tied houses. In 1891, when the business was being run by Peter’s two youngest sons, Alexander and Osmund, a new brewery was built a short distance from Mill Bridge, to a design by William Bradford, the brewery architect (whose work included Harvey’s brewery in Lewes and the Hook Norton brewery). In 1897 the business was turned into a limited company, by which time it had around 100 tied houses and was one of the largest brewers in Hertfordshire.
In 1898 Alexander McMullen, his wife and their daughter Nora, 19 (the youngest of nine children, all the rest being boys), went on a world tour that took in the Mediterranean, India, China and Japan. On an ocean liner travelling back to Europe from the United States they met Andrew Mellon, who was visiting Europe with a friend, to look at art galleries and museums.
Mellon’s family background was similar, in some ways, to the McMullens: his family was also originally from Ulster, and of Protestant beliefs. His father, who had come to the United States aged four in 1817, had given up farming to become a lawyer, and then a banker, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Andrew Mullen joined the family bank, T. Mellon & Sons, and turned out to be a genius at investment banking – an ability to spot those men, and opportunities, best backed with the bank’s cash. It led to Mellon’s bank investing in companies such as Gulf Oil, AlCo, and Standard Steel, and Mellon and his brother Richard becoming two of the four richest men in the United States (with Henry Ford and John D Rockefeller the other two).
The McMullens invited Mellon to visit them at their home, Hertford Castle, which they, too, had rented from the Marquess of Salisbury. The American banker returned four more times to see the McMullens, on the fifth occasion, in 1899, proposing marriage to the young woman less than half his age. Nora turned him down. The next year, however, when Mellon visited Hertford Castle again, Nora told him that she would, after all, accept his hand.
The marriage was a disaster. When Nora came to smoky, noisy, polluted Pittsburgh with her new husband, she found it utterly, horrifyingly different from green, clean, rural Hertford. The middle-aged Mellon could not alter his work-oriented life enough to accommodate his young, vivacious English wife, and although Nora soon had a daughter, Ailsa, to occupy her, within two years of the marriage she had met the Englishman who was to be at the centre of the scandal when she and Andrew finally divorced in 1912.
Before then Nora and Andrew had had a son, Paul, born in 1907. Paul Mellon’s autobiography, Reflections in a Silver Spoon, relates how many of his happiest times were spent in England, staying with his McMullen relatives (Nora’s eight brothers took up a variety of careers: one, Alan McMullen, joined Guinness in 1895 and became head brewer in Dublin in 1931; another, Percy, was a naval officer at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth), studying for a couple of years at Cambridge University in 1929 and 1930 after graduating from Yale, and enjoying the pursuits of an English gentleman: riding, fox-hunting, going to the races, rowing, sailing.
Paul Mellon bought his first picture, a painting of a racehorse by George Stubbs, Pumpkin With Stable Lad for $5,000 on a visit to England in the 1930s. Its subject, and its Englishness, must have made it irresistible: Mellon described himelf later as “a galloping Anglophile”.
However, Mellon never began to collect British art seriously until 1959, and a meeting with Basil Taylor, then librarian of the Royal College of Art. Taylor began to advise Mellon on paintings to buy. It was, for a serious collector, even one of Mellon’s wealth (he had inherited around half a billion dollars when his father died in 1937), an excellent time to start buying. The reputation of British art of the 18th and 19th century had probably never been lower, with “chocolate-boxy” perhaps the politest adjective used of painters such as Gainsborough.
By the time he died in 1999, Mellon had bought almost 2,000 British paintings and some 5,000 prints, as well as 20,000 rare books. In 1977 he founded the Yale Centre for British Art, which cost him $165 million. The current Royal Academy exhibition is from the cream of the Yale collection, more than 150 paintings, many not seen in the country of their origin for decades.
An American’s Passion for British Art: Paul Mellon’s Legacy is at the Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, London, until January 27, 2008. See it, and pop up the road to the Spice of Life in Cambridge Circus for a pint of McMullen’s in memory of Paul and Nora.