A Letter from America III: Paul Mellon's Legacy (April)

From the Antiquarian Book Review


Upperville , Va.

The late Paul Mellon, who died in 1999, was one of the great book collectors of the 20th century. Mellon’s career as a patron of the fine arts, especially his immense benefactions to the National Gallery of Art and the Yale Center for British Art, largely overshadowed his achievements as a bibliophile; and in England, no doubt, he will most be remembered as a one-man swarm of locusts who removed vast amounts of British art to American shores. But Mellon deserves also to be remembered as a great bibliophile and patron of libraries. He vigorously supported rare book collections throughout his life, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, created by Mellon and his sister, Alisa, has been the single greatest force (and pocket) assisting American research libraries. His contributions also funded such great publishing enterprises as the Bollingen series and the Trianon Press editions of William Blake. I was fortunate to do some work for Mr. Mellon from time to time, and I frankly admit to hero worship. They don’t make collectors like this anymore.

Any visitor to Mellon’s personal museum, the Brick House, on the grounds of his country estate in Upperville , Virginia , would have quickly seen the centrality of books in Mellon’s interests. The largest single space was the second floor library, dubbed "the Abbey Room" because its primary contents was the great collection of books illustrated in aquatint and lithography formed by Major J.R. Abbey, and described by him in four volumes of detailed catalogues, which remain a primary reference in their field. Mellon bought the collections for Abbey en bloc in the early 1950s (via John Carter), and then added to them over a twenty-year period. It was typical of Mellon that he made sure to keep such a resource together for future scholars. The Abbey Collection is now intact at the Yale Center for British Art.

Mellon began by collecting sporting books, mainly Alken, et al, while a student at Cambridge in the 1930s. With his first wife, Mary, who died in 1946, he soon found more sophisticated fare in assembling alchemical and occult manuscripts, as part of the same Jungian enthusiasms which fueled the Bollingen series. With his second wife, Rachel Lambert Mellon, he shared a passion for great works of botany and horticulture; Mrs. Mellon’s Garden Library and her collecting are justly famous in their own right. On his own, in high gear from the early 1950s to the early 1970s, Mr. Mellon tackled British books in the largest sense, from Caxton to Blake, and especially illustrated works, Americana and Virginiana, atlases, and additions to Abbey and the sporting collection. Whipped cream on top was the surviving core of John Locke’s library (later given to the Bodleian), and scattered around the edges were purchases for libraries, including the ever controversial Vinland Map for Yale, as well as Boswell Papers.

In the end Mellon gave all of the collections to research libraries. Much of the British material moved to the Yale Center for British Art in his lifetime, but enough remained in Upperville at the time of his death to make the bequests from his estate a major event for recipients. Once again, the lion’s share went to the Center, who got the sporting books, the rest of Abbey and atlases (the Holy Roman Emperor’s copy of Blaeu’s Atlas Major), and British fine printing (all of Kelmscott, another early enthusiasm). The surprise, for many, was the Americana and Virginiana. Had Mellon collected nothing else, this comparative sideline would have ranked as one of the great collections in the field. It was divided by Mellon’s executors between four libraries: the Center for British Art and the Beinecke Library at Yale, and the University of Virginia and the Virginia Historical Society in Mellon’s adopted home states.

The actual transfer of the bequests prompted a string of exhibitions and publications. UVA put on a striking show from their new arrivals in the fall of 2000, ranging from the first illustrated Columbus Letter of 1493 to wonderful Jefferson material. The Virginia Historical Society launched its bequest exhibit in September 2000, and happily, this show of one hundred items has a beautifully illustrated catalogue, Treasures Revealed, detailing high spots relating to Virginia history. Copies of the catalogue can be purchased from the VHS for $60 plus $20 for first class shipping to England ; write Museum Shop, Virginia Historical Society, P.O. Box 7311 , Richmond , VA 23221 , phone 804-342-9603.

The Yale Center for British Art put on two shows from the bequest. The first, a selection of the sporting books, appeared in the spring of 2001 and has a small catalogue, ‘The Compleat Horseman’: Sporting Books from the Bequest of Paul Mellon." It can be ordered from YCBA, P.O. Box 208280, New Haven, CT 06520, phone 203-432-2800. The second, "Wilde Amerike," drew on Americana and atlases from the bequest and material from earlier gifts, and was on view in the fall of 2001.

The one Mellon bequest show that you, the reader, can actually go see is the Beinecke Library exhibit, which opens May 3 and will be up through the summer. Entitled: "Illustrated to the Life: America Pictured Americana From the Paul Mellon Bequest," it was organized by George Miles of the Beinecke and William Reese (yes, yes, I must keep busy), and focuses on the wide and wonderful variety of Mellon’s illustrated Americana, encompassing illustrated travel narratives, grand plate books, maps and atlases, works of architecture, art instruction, and natural history, children’s books of games, trade catalogues, images of Native Americans, original watercolors and drawings, and much more. The Beinecke has spared no expense in producing a superb catalogue, all in color, and coffee table appropriate, with descriptions of the material by Miles and Reese. It can, it will, it must, find a place on every reference shelf! Copies can be had from the publisher, the University Press of New England, 23 S. Main St. Hanover , New Hampshire 03755-2055 (call 800-421-1561 or


for $50. Better yet, come to Beinecke and see the show, any weekday from 8:45 to 4:45 from May 3 through the summer, and see why Mellon should be remembered for books as well as art.

- William Reese