Mr. Paul Mellon (1907-1999), a revered philanthropist and sportsman, was a lifelong incurable collector. He and his first wife Mary famously purchased their first George Stubbs painting in 1936 – Pumpkin with a Stable-Lad, 1774, now in the Yale Center for British Art collection.
At the height of his collecting, Mr. Mellon was acquiring in the neighborhood of 200 works a year. By 1955 he and his second wife Rachel “Bunny” Mellon converted the Brick House, a former residence on their Rokeby Farm property in Upperville, Virginia into a library and art gallery to house their growing British sporting art collection.
Another collecting interest that Mr. Mellon developed was in vintage and antique weathervanes. He loaned one of his early acquisitions, a 19th century stamped copper cow, to the Popular Art in America exhibition held at the Brooklyn Museum in 1939. “Mr. Mellon loved the sculptural form of the weathervanes,” noted Beverly Carter, his former administrative assistant in 2002. “He used most of these pieces in the same way that he used the sculpture from his collection, displaying them on tabletops or on freestanding pedestals throughout the Brick House.”
In 1998 Mr. Mellon generously donated the first of several weathervanes to the National Sporting Library & Museum to adorn the main cupola of the current Library building, then under construction. Carter made arrangements to have the piece transferred from the basement of the Brick House so that it could be installed while a construction crane was on site.
When Mr. Mellon passed away in 1999, he bequeathed an additional eleven weathervanes that he had collected between 1973 and 1991, one of which was a life estate bequest. The latter and another weathervane bequeathed by Mrs. Mellon came to NSLM when she passed away in 2014, bringing the collection to a total of thirteen objects. Hound Chasing a Fox adorned the Hunter Barn at Rokeby Farm, and is a little worse for wear. Remnants of gold leaf are still visible, however it is oxidized and has several holes that seem to have been the result of target practice!
Several of the weathervanes are on display in the Library and Museum, and the collection as a whole provides a significant overview of desirable forms, subject matter, finishes, and sizes produced in the 19th century by a variety of manufacturers, some unknown. Not surprisingly there are five weathervanes that are equine-related, including the two previously mentioned, a mid-19th century trotter and rider, a full-body figure horse and jockey, and a highly-detailed child and pony cart manufactured by J. L. Mott Ironworks, NY, c. 1893. The three latter ones adorn the Library’s Paul Mellon Foyer.
Farm animals and wildlife subjects that Mr. Mellon added to the collection include a running fox, a small ram, a large ram, a bull, and the massive pig that adorns the stacks in the Main Reading Room. Mr. Mellon was particularly fond of the pig which he displayed on a table in the Abbey Room, the main library at the Brick House.
Another fine example is the 26-inch long copper and gold-leaf grasshopper that is on view opposite the NSLM Executive Director’s office. Mr. Mellon originally had it installed outdoors at his private airstrip for several years before having it regilt and placed on display at the Brick House as well.
In an interview “Paul Mellon on Collecting Art,” before his passing, Mr. Mellon was seated in the Brick House surrounded by the iconic collection he had amassed over several decades and planned to gift to several public institutions. Behind his left shoulder was his famed first Stubbs painting of Pumpkin and over his right – a horse weathervane with left front leg raised, most likely the one now in the National Sporting Library & Museum’s collection. When asked to give advice on collecting, Mr. Mellon said about his lifelong passion, “Immerse yourself in whatever you are interested in,” jokingly adding, “but if you’re very lucky, you won’t do it at all.”
I will be adding this little gem to my sticker collection. The image is based on the outline of the weathervane which sits atop the NSLM’s Library building. Since it has the distinction of being the only weathervane that Mr. Mellon gifted to NSLM during his lifetime, it is fitting that we introduce this graphic while we are the opening venue for the exhibition of the Paul Mellon British Sporting Art collection traveling from Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Sporting Vision: The Paul Mellon Collection of British Sporting Art from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Claudia Pfeiffer has been the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Curator of Art at the National Sporting Library & Museum since the position was underwritten by the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Foundation in 2012. Her primary focus is the research, design, interpretation, writing, and installation of exhibitions. E-mail Claudia at firstname.lastname@example.org