YALE CENTER FOR BRITISH ART – Matthew Hargraves looks at Paul Mellon as a collector of William Blake and the impact of his lifelong fascination with psychology and psychiatry on his collecting.
The Yale Center for British Art holds one of the world’s greatest collections of the work of William Blake thanks to the enthusiasm of its founder, Paul Mellon, for Blake’s art and ideas. Looking back on his life, Paul Mellon remembered that Blake’s “haunting poetry with its arcane mythology and his beautiful illuminated books have always had a special appeal for me,” an appeal rooted in his early passion for English literature which he studied at Yale in the later 1920s.1 But it was the interest of his first wife, Mary Conover Mellon, whom he married in 1935, in thought and methods of Carl Jung that helped transform Paul Mellon into a major collector of Blake’s work.2
Mary had introduced Paul Mellon to Jung’s ideas after they met in late 1933; even before marriage they had begun Jungian analysis in New York. In the early summer of 1938, Mr. and Mrs. Mellon journeyed to Switzerland and spent several weeks in Ascona above Lake Maggiore hoping the mountain air would relieve Mary’s chronic asthma. By coincidence Carl Jung was also in Ascona and the couple met the psychiatrist for the first time that summer. They returned the following year and saw Jung again before settling in Zurich in September 1939 to meet with Jung as patients several times a week. Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 meant this Swiss idyll could not last. In the spring of 1940 Mr. Mellon took a walking holiday with Jung but the obvious threat from Nazi Germany could not be ignored. He and Mary returned hastily to the United States shortly before the occupation of Denmark, Norway and France in May. By June 1941, feeling compelled to take action, Paul had enlisted in the US army; December saw the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States enter the war.
While wartime service forced an end to the relationship with Jung, the year Paul Mellon enlisted was also the year he began to collect important works by Blake, an artist in whom Mr. Mellon found new interest through Jung’s exploration of the unconscious and his theories about collective archetypes. In 1941 he acquired some exceptional books. This included There is No Natural Religion (1794) [fig. 1], an “illuminated” book of eleven color-printed relief etchings with pithy text critiquing the reductive philosophical materialism of his day; a set of the engraved Illustrations to the Book of Job (1825) in its original binding; and a copy of Blake’s engravings illustrating Edward Young’s Night Thoughts (1797) [fig. 2], one of two copies believed to have been hand-colored by Blake himself.
Another very significant acquisition in 1941 was a version of Blake’s illustration to The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins [fig. 3], made around 1825 for William Haines of Chichester and one of four replicas of an original design drawn for his patron Thomas Butts in around 1805. Blake adapted the traditional iconography of the judgment of souls to capture the underlying theological meaning of the parable (Matthew 25:1-13), but in the Mellon version the setting has become distinctively English with its distant Gothic spires. It was also one of the first English drawings acquired by Paul Mellon who would eventually form the most comprehensive collection of English works on paper outside of Britain.