One of the many gifts Paul Mellon (1907-1999) made to his alma mater, Yale University, was the foundational ollection of the Yale Center for British Art, the largest and most comprehensive such holding outside the United Kingdom. It is an almost bottomless pit of remarkable objects of the highest quality, housed in one of the rchitect Louis Kahn’s finest buildings. Beyond the renowned animal paintings by George Stubbs, there are sculptures, rawings, watercolors, prints, rare books, and much more. In sum, it is a true “Wonder House,” the phrase used by Rudyard Kipling to describe the Lahore Museum at the start of his novel Kim.
The Center’s director, Amy Meyers, and her team of curators mount shows drawn from this collection, often bringing art and science into dialogue. Invariably, they are fascinating, even if you thought the subject might not be for you. And so we arrive at the latest, “Of Green Leaf, Bird, and Flower”: Artists’ Books and the Natural World, an exhibition of some 300 objects that celebrate Britain’s distinctive natural world. About half of them are rigorously selected from Paul Mellon’s vast gift, and the rest are recent acquisitions and by contemporary, mostly British, artists. (Also present are loans from private collectors and other Yale University institutions.)
The show closes August 10 and will not travel beyond New Haven.But why should Mr. Mellon have amassed such a collection, have taken his eye off the grandeur of Stubbs, Constable, and Turner for even a moment? We find the answer in the catalogue for the Center’s opening exhibition in 1977, where Mellon wrote about his love for the British untryside, which began when he was a young boy: “From my first year to my seventh, my parents spent almost every summer in England…. I suppose it was in those summers that I first developed a taste for the English countryside, for English houses, English rivers, English parks, English skies, English clouds…. There seemed to be a tranquility in those days that has never again been found, and a quietness as detached from life as the memory itself.”
That explains all. Elisabeth Fairman, who organized Of Green Leaf in her role as the Center’s senior curator of rare books and manuscripts, is lively to Mellon’s memories. “I have looked at ways in which self-taught naturalists and artists have observed and recorded the natural world around them,” she says. “And I have looked at the ontinuity of past and present intellectual and aesthetic concerns, at the shared impetus to document, interpret, and celebrate nature. Mellon talked of aesthetic kinship of artists over the centuries.” To underscore this inship, Fairman has arranged the show by topic, juxtaposing historical with contemporary, setting groups of objects together to create her own Renaissance-inspired “cabinets of curiosities.”
CLASSIFIERS PAST AND PRESENT – Yale Center for British Art
One gallery, for instance, looks at early field guides, microscopes, drawings, and notes. The exhibition’s very enesis can be found in a single cabinet: two comparative responses to the simple occupation of gathering blackberries in the wild, reflective of Fairman’s focus on “the ordinary, not orchids but dandelions and daisies.” She points to one of the Center’s great treasures — a pattern book of plants and animals known as the Helmingham Herbal and Bestiary, completed around 1500.
Mellon bought it in 1961 not just, he wrote, as a “charmingly natural and a thoroughly English work,” but also for its “stark simplicity and directness of the drawing and coloring of the objects, as though there were a mysterious aesthetic kinship between these fifteenth-century artists or designers and our own twentieth-century artists.” Fairman points to the cabinet’s other object: “I myself bought Rosaleen Wain’s A Printmaker’s Flora of 1996. One of my duties,” she adds with relish, “is to enrich the collection.”
Another case binds the historical and the contemporary even more strongly. The older object is a large mahogany boxful of envelopes prepared in 1861 by the enigmatic young “Miss Rowe from Liverpool.” Upon joining the newly founded Liverpool Naturalists’ Field Club, she, like other new members, was issued with the labels of all 101 orders of Dr. Dickinson’s Flora of Liverpool and challenged to collect and arrange as many as possible to win the “Botanical Prize.” Miss Rowe clearly jumped right in, preparing 90 envelopes containing 500 specimens, each pressed and mounted on thin writing paper, labeled in pen and ink, sorted into genus and species. On each envelope, she painted a watercolor of one of its contents, and attached the correct label.
Aside from superb organizational and watercoloring skills, Miss Rowe’s envelopes reveal her grand passion for the subject, something that permeates the whole exhibition. Whatever the object and whenever it was made, it results from intensely accurate observation. Fairman and the contemporary artists she has added to the Center’s collection believe in the importance of drawing, of that same intensity. She notes that scientists are now reverting to making painstaking drawings of their observations, arguing that they are more accurate in detail than photographs.
In mid-Victorian England, Miss Rowe was part of a growing collective enthusiasm for botany, a very democratic occupation that did not require training. After all, Linnaeus had, back in 1753, provided a clear classification system for all to use; no expensive equipment was required; and botany was considered “virtuous,” that is, close to nature, refined, healthy (with all those outdoor walks to find specimens), and relaxing (an escape from arduous, repetitive jobs). In short, botany was ideal for everyone, especially women. It is no surprise that the Liverpool Naturalists’ Field Club had 500 members within its first year.
Miss Rowe shares the case with Mandy Bonnell’s work of 2012, which she directly inspired. After looking through Rowe’s box, Bonnell made her own delicate graphite sketches of some of Rowe’s pressed flowers and placed them in 20 folded envelopes stored in a bespoke box. She calls the project Wild Flowers Worth Notice, referencing Phebe Lankster’s 19th-century field guide of that name, and gives it the subtitle “In Memory of Miss Rowe of Liverpool.”
AN ARRAY OF APPROACHES
Surrounding the cases of curiosities, the gallery walls are hung with other juxtapositions: a delicate poppy ollected and carefully pressed in the 19th century hangs by Tracey Bush’s poppy made in 2006 as a collage of paper printed with all sorts of brand names, reminding us that, in Britain today, people can apparently recognize 100 brands such as Coca-Cola, but only nine flowers.
Here, too, we are introduced to the first of the Scottish poet and collector David Burnett’s substantial holding of wood engravings, which he has promised to Yale; the engravings scattered through this show mark the start of his giving. They include the bold relief engraving with its Thoreau-inspired title, Bufo the First, made in 2005 by Abigail Rorer, the only American among the otherwise British contemporary artists here.
Perhaps Burnett’s greatest find has been the work of the late Sister Margaret Tournour, a Londoner and a trained artist who, after spending decades as a nun, retired and took up engraving again. Several of her exquisite prints are in the exhibition, all displaying her strong draftsmanship and her exquisitely fine and confident line. Her Teasel, made around 1995, has added softness because, to print it, Tournour gently rubbed the ink on with her fingers, instead of using a press, so every grain of the wood is clear to see.
Other galleries take up the British countryside topics of flora, fauna, ponds, and streams. Each object merits close attention. There is a splendid 3-D flower, a teaching tool made by Robert Brendel, who sold them across Europe from the 1860s through 1890s; Fairman hunted this one down in an Amsterdam store. There is a cabinet full of manipulated and cut paper, including Dizzy Pragnell’s 2013 creations of tiny books that open to reveal vegetable
leaves made of paper she has dried and smashed to look like translucent papyrus. “She’s an artist I met last
October, when I thought we had the exhibition done,” laughs Fairman. “But I added her.”
There are fascinating 19th-century “commonplace books,” highly personal records of one individual’s experiences,
observations, and creativity that might include the description of a walk, a pressed flower, a poem.
Equally personal is the Scottish artist Helen Douglas’s mesmerizing photograph file called The Pond at Deuchar (2013); in this show, it is digital images stitched together to form what Douglas calls an e-scroll, recording the water in all its life and moods and lights. (A version of the e-scroll has been printed in a limited edition on 14-meter-long pieces of paper as an affordable artist’s book.)
To complete the evocation of the British countryside, visitors can listen to BBC recordings of birdsong, including a poignant one of nightingales made in 1943. By mistake, it includes the drone of Lancaster bombers heading off on a mission. (For security reasons, this tape was never broadcast.)
WHEN ONE TALENT DRAWS FROM ANOTHER
The exhibition’s final gallery opens out to convey the sensation of taking a walk. It is devoted to the work of one
artist, Eileen Hogan, whose studio is in Kensington, London. She takes her inspiration from Little Sparta, the 22-acre garden of the Scottish poet, artist, and gardener Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006), which lies about 20 miles south of Edinburgh.
“I went to Sparta in 1997 by accident,” Hogan recalls, “to pick up a friend recording Ian for the British Library’s artists’ lives project. He lived in a grotty cottage,” she laughs. “He and his wife, Sue, began the garden in 1966, carving it out of the Pentland Hills.” She pauses, then adds thoughtfully, “I’m not a green-spaces person. I live in central London and paint the urban environment. I had no idea this would become my subject matter for 15 years, or what it would do to me.”
What it did was set Hogan on a new and stimulating path. “I fell in love with it,” she says. “It’s a poet’s reation, considered his masterpiece. I started to visit a lot, to draw it, paint it, and even paint Ian, who was a presence and part of the garden.”
Hogan carries her sketchbook with her all the time, and believes passionately in the importance of drawing. “I drew that first day, when I arrived; walking and then stopping to draw is always the beginning for me. It helps me find what connects me to a place.” The central “cabinet of curiosities” in this gallery contains some of Finlay’s
artists’ books, as well as Hogan’s Little Sparta sketchbooks.
After Finlay’s death in 2006, Hogan continued to visit Little Sparta. Her pictures fill the gallery walls, ncluding three portraits of Finlay that reflect the force of his presence. “I’m very interested in how people stand and ress. He was always in old gardening clothes,” she notes, adding quickly: “Portraits are part of my working life, but I’m not a portrait painter. They are not commissioned, they’re for me.” Several of her paintings depict three empty white beehives placed by Finlay among trees at the edge of a grassy clearing. “The beehives became very mportant to me,” Hogan explains. “Upon my arrival, it would often be raining horizontally, but by the end of my visit the sun was flickering light over them, making a piebald effect.”
For Hogan, a picture is the result of an accumulation of visits. “I draw a lot, making some big drawings on site. And also work from memory — like Corot, who would set up a still life in one room, then paint it in another.” She pauses to look at her biggest picture on display. “I relate to that. Memory is very important.
It sifts through various experiences so that I can choose what of that I distill into the picture.” It was Paul Mellon’s memories of childhood that brought him back to Britain again and again, that stimulated him to collect British art in all its forms. Yale’s seminal exhibition puts a timely spotlight on a lesser-known part of his collection: the celebration of Britain’s natural world. Fairman, totally in tune with Mellon, brings visitors into that story, with the show’s handsome catalogue serving as their modern field guide.