Obituary: Paul Mellon

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The Independent Culture
A PHILANTHROPIST, art collector, and sportsman, Paul Mellon made handsome gifts to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge and to the Tate Gallery, but he was perhaps especially known in Britain as the owner and breeder of the classic racehorse Mill Reef.

Mellon's life appeared to have been endowed with rare blessings. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1907, he was the only son of one of America's richest magnates, Andrew Mellon, who had amassed a great fortune in banking and who in later life entered politics to become Secretary of the Treasury for a term that spanned three presidencies, those of Harding, Coolidge and Hoover, and who was subsequently appointed American Ambassador to the Court of St James. Paul Mellon's mother, Nora McMullen, was a brewer's daughter from England.

Yet Mellon's childhood was far from happy, a fact that only became clear when he published his memoirs, Reflections in a Silver Spoon (1992), in his 86th year. The psychological impact on him as a small boy of his parents' wretched marriage and the tempestuous divorce that terminated it overshadowed his life well into middle age. This setback probably accounted for his extreme shyness as a young man but the shyness was skilfully hidden by exemplary good manners, great charm and a finely tuned, rather playful sense of humour. He was in fact the perfect gentleman, honourable, loyal, considerate of others, conscientious in his stewardships and invariably taking great pains to be fair.

He completed his education at Choate School in Connecticut and Yale University with two years as an undergraduate at Clare College, Cambridge, where he became a lifelong devotee of fox-hunting. Aware of his father's unexpressed wish that he should make a career in the Mellon Bank in Pittsburgh, but realising that he had no aptitude or enthusiasm for it, he resolved to follow his own leanings towards scholarship, the arts, country life and sport, and over a period of time he developed these interests into the spectacular accomplishments for which he became known.

He effectively disbursed a substantial portion of the fortune his father had amassed, funnelling over $600m, through personal philanthropy and through the vehicle of his foundations, into the fields of higher education, the arts, conservation and preservation, psychiatry, religion and science. He said of himself that he "became rather like a bird dog, a pointer perhaps, guiding others toward various artistic, charitable and financial efforts that I thought needed undertaking or improvement".

After his father's death in 1937, Mellon took a keen and lasting interest in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, acting at various times over a period of 47 years as Trustee, Vice-President, President and Chairman. Andrew Mellon had funded the original building (now known as the West Building) of the National Gallery of Art and presented it to the nation together with his renowned collection of Old Master paintings. It was opened to the public four years after his death in 1941. Thirty-seven years later, in 1978, Paul Mellon turned over the new East Building, designed by I.M. Pei, to President Jimmy Carter "to be dedicated forever to the use and enjoyment of the people of the United States".

This building had again been almost entirely funded with Mellon money, Paul's late sister Ailsa's foundation also playing a major part. Added to these benefactions he gave the gallery a large number of French Impressionist paintings collected over the years by him and by his wife Bunny.

Apart from his association with the National Gallery, Mellon started in the early Sixties to form a remarkable collection of British art. He had always been a dedicated Anglophile and his collection provided a comprehensive survey of British paintings, drawings, prints and books centred on the period from Robert Walpole's ministries up until the accession of Queen Victoria.

The architect Louis Kahn was engaged to design a gallery to be called the Yale Center for British Art, and in 1977 Mellon presented it, together with his collection, to Yale University. Over and above this he endowed the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art in London, to pursue research and scholarship under the umbrella of the Yale institution. After the departure of all the material from his own private gallery, the Brick House, on his 4,500-acre farm in Virginia, he amused himself by building up a collection of sporting art which was destined for Yale and for his local museum, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Mellon's interest in psychiatry stemmed from a period he spent in Switzerland shortly before America entered the Second World War, when he and his first wife, Mary, worked under the guidance of Carl Jung. Later, after the war, and shortly before her death in 1946, he and Mary started the Bollingen Foundation which, among many other publications, brought out a set of volumes of the complete works of Jung in English translation.

Mellon had been baptised in St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle and throughout his life made countless visits to see his friends in Britain, to view the art galleries and to attend the races. A much- respected figure in racing circles, he supported the work of the Royal Veterinary College and kept horses in training with Ian Balding and with Balding's predecessors, Ivor Anthony and Peter Hastings-Bass, for over 50 years. He must have been one of a dwindling number of old-fashioned sportsman owners.

In the corner of the study of his house in New York he had framed a quotation from Thomas a Kempis which read "Everywhere I have sought rest and found it not, except sitting in a corner with a little book." This quotation might equally have applied to Mellon, who was a somewhat solitary figure and an avid reader. With a great number of acquaintances, his circle of close friends always remained small and that circle was progressively reduced as his old friends predeceased him.

He was a good companion. Apart from enjoying his interesting conversation and his sense of fun, one always had a feeling of his soundness and loyalty. His tastes were simple and he was equally at home at a distinguished gathering, relaxing over a drink in an English pub or eating frankfurters at a hot- dog stand outside a racecourse. In 1948 he married Rachel "Bunny" Lloyd and over a very long period her creative and imaginative presence, helping to maintain five houses and over 250 employees, gave him a feeling of security which he had never known in his early years.

Paul Mellon's unstinting passion for horses can be gleaned from his first, unsuccessful effort at his autobiography, writes Julian Muscat. Having scribbled furiously for the better part of 1980, he abandoned the work on realising that some 100 pages had been devoted exclusively to his equine allies of yesteryear.

No doubt he had much to say; a veritable library of books has been written on his outstanding home-bred Mill Reef, possibly the finest horse to grace Britain's racecourses since the Second World War. And when, as a four- year-old in 1972, Mill Reef shattered a limb on the gallops, Mellon accepted an offer which allowed the horse to assume stallion duties at the National Stud in Newmarket rather than be sold more lucratively abroad.

This gesture of benevolence would have been familiar to those in the art world, and the fact that Mill Reef was nevertheless syndicated for a record sum serves to underline the esteem in which the colt was held. The little bay with the white star on his forehead was to prove immensely influential in his new role; the mere mention of Mill Reef still brings a shine to the eyes of his most ardent admirer, the racing commentator John Oaksey.

Horse racing and breeding gave Mellon excitement in a way art never did, so much so that he became irritable if distracted on the racecourse when he had a runner. Of his seven properties the one he called home was Rokeby Farm in Virginia, his American racing stable and nursery to a plethora of home-bred champions.

So smitten was he with riding to hounds that he fled to Ireland on 20 January 1936, the day King George V died and hunting was temporarily suspended. He also rode in point-to-points, on one occasion unknowingly risking his life aboard Knight of the Galtees. The horse, bought from Liz Whitney, had been retired from racing by Whitney's then husband, Jock, after veterinary diagnosis revealed Knight of the Galtees to have a shockingly bad heart.

Mellon's hunting days were brought to an abrupt end in 1975 when he was almost fatally kicked in the chest at Bath racecourse; he owed his survival to what he described as a "well-filled wallet". A season's hunting with the Middleton, as guest of his friend Lord Halifax, earned him the sobriquet "Water Mellon", so regularly was he unseated into the deep, water-filled ditches of the Yorkshire landscape.

Mellon started buying breeding stock in 1946. Three years later he made what was to prove his most momentous purchase, giving 12,000 guineas for the unraced two-year-old filly Red Ray. She produced only three live foals, the only filly being Virginia Water, herself unraced due to ankle problems. Virginia Water, in turn, bred Milan Mill, a fragile filly who was unsuccessful in a handful of starts. Yet from this decidedly unsound bloodline was foaled, on 23 February 1968, a bay colt - by Never Bend from Milan Mill - that was to capture the hearts of British racegoers with his talent, daring and durability.

Named after a stretch of water near Mellon's Antiguan summer house, Mill Reef annexed the Coventry, Gimcrack, Imperial and Dewhurst Stakes in a dazzling two-year- old campaign. After a defeat by his deadly rival Brigadier Gerard in the Two Thousand Guineas, Mill Reef was raced over distances of more than one mile and swept all before him, gaining runaway victories in the Derby, Eclipse Stakes, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes and the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in 1971.

Mill Reef picked up the winning thread as a four-year-old until he fractured the cannon-bone in his near-foreleg when preparing for a confrontation with Brigadier Gerard. A life-saving operation rescued him for stud duties, during which he sired two Derby winners in Shirley Heights and Reference Point, an Irish Derby hero in Shirley Heights, a French Derby winner in Acamas and an Italian Derby winner in Mellon's home-bred Glint of Gold. His progeny had conquered the Derbys of Europe.

Mill Reef was trained by Ian Balding, who took over the Mellon horses from Peter Hastings-Bass in 1964. Balding later married Hastings-Bass's daughter Emma, who managed Mellon's British-based broodmares, while Mellon was godfather to Hastings-Bass's son William, now Lord Huntingdon and until recently the Queen's principal trainer.

Mellon's Rokeby Farm enjoyed sweeping success in America. His first trainer Elliot Birch handled Mellon's first Classic winner Quadrangle, hero of the 1964 Belmont Stakes, and guided Arts and Letters to Horse of the Year honours in 1969. Fort Marcy repeated the feat for the Birch/ Mellon team the following year. Mackenzie "Mack" Miller took over from Birch in 1976 and trained many Rokeby colour-bearers to championship honours.

For all these glittering Turf prizes, Mellon stated that, although he would be forgotten in 50 years' time, his name will always be printed in the Stud Book as the breeder of Mill Reef. Paul Mellon's name will be remembered in thoroughbred circles for a lot more besides.

Paul Mellon, art collector, philanthropist, racehorse breeder: born Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 11 June 1907; Trustee, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC 1945-85, President 1963-79, Chairman of Trustees 1979-85, Honorary Trustee 1985-99; Trustee, Andrew Mellon Foundation 1969-99; Hon KBE 1974; married 1935 Mary Conover (died 1946; one son, one daughter), 1948 Bunny Lloyd (nee Lambert); died Upperville, Virginia 2 February 1999.

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