In the eventful century and a half between the reigns of Queen Anne and Queen Victoria, English painting had its greatest flowering since the Middle Ages. But until Mr and Mrs Paul Mellon assembled their collection, there was in the United States no extensive documenting of this great era of British art. Public and private collections still stress the monumental formal portraits of the 18th century, with an erratic representation of the other aspects of English painting in this period.
With dedicated enthusiasm Mr and Mrs Mellon went about selecting works that now form one of the most representative and distinguished records anywhere of the pictorial art of England from 1700 to 1850, and certainly the finest in private possession. Their collection, however, is not an art historian's check list; it is a rare, personal probing of a neglected era, and the resulting assemblage is both as informative as it is refreshing.
This first showing of the Mellon English collection presents over 250 paintings, and a lesser number of water colours, drawings and illustrated books. The display, like the catalogue, is divided into four major parts:  landscapes;  portraits, 'conversation pieces', and scenes of contemporary life;  animal and sporting pictures; and  religious, historical and mythological paintings.
As one goes through the exhibition, the appropriateness of staging its inaugural presentation in Virginia is everywhere apparent. For Virginia was England's most populous and influential colony during half of the era presented, and ties to the Mother Country continued strong after the Revolution. The agrarian nature of the Virginia economy kept her cities small, while direct trade with England supplied all the more sophisticated needs of the area.
Echoes of 18th and 19th century contemporary life in England as presented in the Mellon exhibition are familiar in the Old Dominion today: the family portraits and silver still in place at 'Shirley'; the Virginia Gazette accounts of presenting The Beggar's Opera in Williamsburg; the bowling green waiting for players at 'Brandon'; the ancient warehouses along Alexandria's slumbering water-front; the letters from Washington to his factor in London about the ballroom curtains at 'Mount Vernon'; the self-written epitaph of William Byrd II of 'Westover' reciting his English triumphs.
The exhibition's landscapes present a concern with site and organization clearly reflected in Virginia today; Jefferson's 'Monticello' has beautifully calculated views of the Blue Ridge mountains; Mason's clipped box at 'Gunston Hall' is almost English in its intricacy; the man-made terraces of 'Carter's Grove' lead the eye majestically down to the James River and the spreading fields beyond.