The Yale Center for British Art, or, Plentiful Portraits and a Curious Cabinet

Yale Brit Header

The Yale Center for British Art recently reopened this spring, after a 16-month closure that topped off years of conserving, renovating, and updating its facility. In late May, I took a gander to the Center, the largest collection of British art outside the U.K., after seeing images of the newly revitalized sun-lit galleries (and a free admission tag).

Mostly the collection of philanthropist, Yale grad, and horse owner1 Paul Mellon, the Center opened to the public in 1977. Mellon’s collection, given to Yale in the 1960s, included over 1,000 works of art and 35,000 rare books and manuscripts. Over 500 works are on display,2 spanning five centuries of British (or British-influenced) work from the Elizabethan to the contemporary.

I never visited the Center before its closing, but I would likely not have noticed too much of a difference even if I had; most of the changes are infrastructural and invisible to museum-goers. The most prominent changes in the galleries include:

  • updates to aging backdrops, such as rugs and walls;
  • the installation of moveable, floating “pogo” walls, which, beyond introducing an airier gallery, also allow curators more freedom in redesigning the space;
  • and the opening up of the Long Gallery.
The entrance courtyard, adorned with John Cheere’s copy of “Samson Slaying a Philistine” and three modern sculptures (including the ironically-, or even self-deprecatingly-placed “Bin Bag #4,” a modern bronze by Galvin Turk that very much resembles a bag of garbage misplaced next to an 18th-century statue).

The modern architecture of the building, designed by the late architect (and Yale professor) Louis I. Kahn, immediately hits the visitor upon entering the lobby, where a large courtyard, mostly cement and oak, stretches up to the fourth floor. The building feels industrial and minimalist with its choice of materials, but also airy with its use of open spaces and natural light.3


The galleries span the second, third, and fourth floors, with the permanent collection on the fourth and the former two displaying temporary exhibits, light-sensitive materials, and loaned objects.

The docents recommended starting on the fourth floor, which was mostly arranged chronologically with large labels introducing the span of years covered in the rooms. The museum says that it focuses on the artistic and cultural impact of the spread of the British Empire, which is especially prominent in the Long Gallery, the Center’s true gem.

DSC_0033200 works are hung salon-style in this room, which spans 140 feet — nearly the length of the building — for huge impact. The art is organized thematically, with topics focusing on content, from “The British Empire” to “Women of Distinction.” Just like the collection, the works in the gallery are dated between the 15th century and today. Though at times it was be a little jarring to see an Impressionist stuck among the realistic landscapes of the 17th century, I appreciated the unique4 exhibition style, which used this long space to evoke such a dramatic effect.

DSC_0041There are not any labels affixed to the walls of the Long Gallery, in what is likely an effort to maximize wall space and avoid detracting from the objects. Instead, printed booklets and an iBook5 are available to guide visitors through the gallery. Following the instructions on a sign to download the latter (on Yale’s free wifi), I was flipping through the iBook within minutes. The digital booklet is well-designed, if somewhat difficult to see on a smartphone screen without zooming.

A downloadable guide is just one example of how museums are utilizing technologies to connect with, and convey information to, visitors in new ways. Lacking a smartphone would not exclude visitors from accessing information; the printed booklets are easy enough to find and borrow for the interested visitor.

Also for the interested visitor is a satisfactory amount of information on the labels throughout the museum. In addition to the standard title-artist-year, the context, history, and significance of the work are included in a perfectly-sized paragraph on the label. The labels were readily consumable and written in a way that was easily understood, even without much prior knowledge.

John Constable’s cloud studies, 1821-5

This information was especially useful with the galleries’ portraiture. Because while I understand this is a British gallery, and portraits are an important part of British art history, there sure are a lot of British portraits, particularly in the first few rooms. For people who fully appreciate this genre and age, this will likely be a treat. I think, for the rest of us, it has the potential to feel a bit stuffy and unapproachable. The labels, at least, give us historical context for the portrait’s subject.


“The Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin,” unknown artist, 1450-1500

As the galleries proceed chronologically, there is more of a variety in representation and subject matter. There are many of the British “greats” on display, from J. M. W. Turner to John Constable, and even a wall of paintings by the Italian-born (but periodically London-based) Canaletto, a personal favorite. As the second floor finishes out, there is even a dash of modern art.

The objects’ display, like the building’s architecture, is very clean and minimalist. The arrangement — both within the museum and each individual room — was clearly carefully considered, as related pieces are placed adjacent to one another, resulting in a natural flow within and between the rooms. There are even some clusters of paintings — such as a collection of cloud studies by Constable — that break up the repetitive one-painting-per-wall arrangement that I think can lead to monotony.



A curious cabinet

Now for a purposeful (if dramatic) digression on a very minor detail that I find nonetheless important to consider: That of an attempt at innovation and/or interactivity, in the form of a cabinet.


As I made my way through the galleries, one of the rooms held a cabinet. This cabinet did not look like much. Painted the same color as the wall, it very much gave the appearance of being some sort of maintenance, not-for-visitors cabinet. Being the nosy/overly-attentive museum-goer that I am, though, I noticed white text at the bottom of the cabinet: “Please open and close doors carefully,” which I took as an invitation to cautiously open a door. This did not set off any alarms and revealed, not a broom cupboard, as expected, but a collection of cameos very much meant for the museum visitor.

This cabinet is a great idea: To be able to display light-sensitive objects for visitors is great, and to require physical interaction is great. Instead of being great, however, the cabinet will likely remain hidden for a fair majority of visitors.DSC_0051

In the whole scope of the museum, this is indeed a minor flaw.6 I focus on this small feature to emphasize the importance of execution in exhibit design, which was lacking here. Museums must consider the reality of their exhibit designs, and strive to make their content as approachable as possible.


Currently in the second and third floors’ temporary galleries are “Modernism and Memory: Rhoda Pritzker and the Art of Collecting” and “Art in Focus: Relics of Old London.” “Modernism and Memory” focused on the collection of writer/philanthropist Rhoda Pritzker, who had very specific tastes in modern art. “Old London,” 19th century photographic prints of London, was a bit of a nice relief for me from the modern art that surrounds the installation.

Photography is not allowed of these exhibits, or of the objects on loan from Yale’s partner institution, the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, which was a little disappointing for me as I overall preferred the subject and style of these loaned objects to much of the permanent collection. Thankfully, the museum’s online collections search also includes these items, which are public domain.

Some of my favorites from the loaned works (linked in the sources), clockwise from top left: “‘And the Prayer of Faith Shall Save the Sick,'” John Frederick Lewis, 1872; “Evening Glow,” John Atkinson Grimshaw, ca. 1884; “A Lady Receiving Visitors (The Reception),” John Frederick Lewis, 1873; “The Story of a Life,” Sir William Quiller Orchardson, 1866.


The Center as a whole is a fine representation of the way a collector imprints on the collected; I found the personal tastes and preferences of Paul Mellon to come through quite clearly, visible alone in the abundance of animal — especially equine — art.

“Vice Admiral Sir George Anson’s Victory off Cape Finisterrea” (1749) by Samuel Scott in a fourth floor gallery

For the museum, this also means that those who enjoy the same subjects and styles as Mellon will also appreciate the Center. This can be extended, as stated earlier, to generalize that those who like British art from the Reformation onward will likely also delight in the Center. The overwhelmingly Britishness of the art becomes less apparent in the more contemporary galleries, but the early rooms especially are for Anglophiles. For being an institution with a relatively-narrow scope, there is some variety in the age and medium of the exhibited works.

Even without experiencing the full before-and-after impact of the Center’s renovations, the design feels updated and modern. The Long Gallery alone is worth the cost of the updates — or, at least, a good portion of the $33 million estimated by some.

View of the Library Court from the fourth floor, which epitomizes this so-called “gentleman’s club” style.

Despite the backdrop, however, in some ways the Center feels like an elitist museum of the past. Features like the Long Gallery and informational labels help to break the typical museum mold, but, perhaps it is because of the portraiture, or the austere paintings, or the so-called “gentleman’s club” style,8 my overall impression of the Center was a mixture of stuffiness and seriousness.

The museum states its intent is to focus on the impact of the British Empire. I think this objective could be strengthened by showing, or at least explaining the perspective of others impacted by the Empire, particularly those without power. Alternate narratives, often lost in the museum, can only give visitors a more complete understanding of that which is displayed. While it may not be entirely possible given the eras and collection itself, but I would hope for more diversity in artists — from gender and ethnicity, to training and background — and the art itself.

This being said, the Center — with its fresh appearance, occasional surprises, and free price tag — is worth a visit.

Yale Center for British Art

Contact: 1080 Chapel Street, New Haven, 203-432-2800,

Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday, noon-5 p.m.

Admission: Free

Details: Photography is allowed of the permanent collection. The facility seems fairly accessible, with an elevator and other accommodations available. The museum shop has literature and quirky gifts, open same hours as admission. Street parking, free on Sundays, will likely be the commuter’s best bet.


Thanks for reading! Feedback and comments (i.e. Have you visited the Yale Center for British Art? What did you think?) are always welcome. I apologize for any wonky formatting, as I am still a WordPress novice.

If not attributed below, the included information comes the museum’s brochure or  descriptive labels. Except for the loaned objects (sourced below), all the photos are my own.

  1. I couldn’t make this up: The summary on Mellon’s Wikipedia entry reads, “Paul Mellon (June 11, 1907 – February 1, 1999) was an American philanthropist and an owner/breeder of thoroughbred racehorses.”
  2. 500 works is quite a number, but there are even more available – to be exact, 5,385 – on the Google Cultural Institute, an online project that is digitizing museum collections around the world. There are still some operational peculiarities I have not yet mastered, however, and so I would also recommend the Center’s website, which has a searchable collections database with a good amount of information.
  3. Many reviewers said certain rooms have a  “gentleman’s club” style, especially the Library Court. While I understand the concept of the aesthetic, this phrasing — and the Court itself — does nothing for me.
  4. The arrangement does harken, however, to the also recently-renovated Morgan Great Hall in Hartford, Connecticut’s Wadsworth Atheneum, which I will hopefully discuss in a future post.
  5. … And its android equivalent, the PDF. The guide is available for download on the museum’s website as well.
  6. Though, for me, this cabinet perhaps epitomizes the aura of the Center.
  7. Public domain images used with great appreciation from the Yale Center for British Art. For full details on the paintings included here, visit their information pages on the Center’s website: “‘And the Prayer of Faith Shall Save the Sick,'” “Evening Glow,” “A Lady Receiving Visitors (The Reception),” and “The Story of a Life.”
  8. See note 3.



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