The Wealth of Loneliness

Why Andrew Mellon started buying so many fine paintings in his old age we can only guess, for he was not one to talk about the inner man. Maybe the lifelong loneliness in which he had wrapped himself finally became unbearable and the paintings provided a desperately needed sense of warmth and friendship. David Cannadine thinks it quite likely. At the end of his absorbing history of Mellon’s emotionally stunted life, he finds it “difficult to avoid the conclusion that the pictures Mellon called ‘his friends and companions’ were indeed a belated substitute for the genuine intimacies which he sadly never enjoyed.”

There is something implausibly romantic here, something too much like fiction: a man of limitless wealth who “could never really give or receive love,” as Cannadine puts it, finds his humanity at last in the companionship of the old masters. In The Forsyte Saga John Galsworthy created the cold, money-obsessed Soames Forsyte, a fictional character remarkably similar to Andrew Mellon. Cannadine takes on a hard job, however, in trying to persuade us that Mellon was emotionally capable of succumbing to the charms of art and thereby rounding out a singularly unromantic life with an improbably romantic grace note. The Mellon presented by Cannadine in unsparing detail was a man so relentlessly devoted to “acquiring and accumulating” that it left him neither time nor energy for human relationships.

“There may have been color and warmth in his life, sometime and somewhere, but if so, he suppressed them so much that no one later knew where to find them or how to draw them out,” Cannadine writes. Behind his “steely exterior,” he adds, it seemed to many, and notably his wife, “that there was either something vaguely unpleasant—or nothing at all. He was a hollow man, with no interior life.”

As an emotionally frozen man of countinghouse mentality, Mellon is strongly reminiscent of Ebenezer Scrooge in the utter joylessness of his life and his indifference to society’s losers. Scrooge is redeemed by buying the Cratchits a turkey and going to dinner with his nephew. At Christmas the tale goes down like mulled wine and ginger snaps, probably because everyone knows that it is just seasonal hokum of a very high order and that life’s real Scrooges never abandon their conviction that profit is nobler than handouts for Cratchits.

That Mellon, this living, breathing specimen of the countinghouse soul, could be humanized at long last by exposure to great paintings seems a far-fetched proposition. That Cannadine cottons to the idea tells us a good deal about Cannadine, first and foremost that he has the gifted writer’s eye for a good story. He is a rarity among modern academics: a historian who writes well and has the storyteller’s instinct for exploring personality and its effect on events. His essays on such British eminences as Florence Nightingale, Cecil Rhodes, Lord Beaverbrook, Harold Macmillan, Queen Victoria, and Margaret Thatcher are pleasures to read, partly because he dares to write history as if he wants…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.