Elaine Merians and the School of London

Blog 6 November 2017

On a recent trip to New York (see previous journal entry) Jan and I had the rare pleasure and privilege of being invited to the home of Elaine Merians who lives not five minutes away from our friends Arnold and Kate in Larchmont, NY. After the sad death of her husband Mel a few years ago, Elaine continues to surround herself with the art she and Mel had collected over many decades in her private home. Now in her mid-eighties, Elaine remains spritely, enthusiastic, engaging and very knowledgeable about the art she and her husband had chosen personally together – the only criterion being they had to agree they both liked the work enough to purchase.

Detail from  Table with Conversation  by David Hockney                                                 Bruce Bernard  by Lucian Freud aiuction valuation £5m

Detail from Table with Conversation by David Hockney                                              Bruce Bernard by Lucian Freud aiuction valuation £5m

As Anglophiles, Elaine and Mel enjoyed many visits to the UK, especially London and particularly the London art scene, as they saw it through ‘American eyes’. They got to meet and befriend many artists, visiting studios and seeing work in creation and production that gave them a deep understanding of the quality, value and importance of the art they collected.

‘The School of London is a twentieth-century art movement that evolved over a period of some forty years. Those constituting the School concentrated their attention and their artistic efforts on the human figure and the environment in which they depicted it -- the associated cityscape, landscape or studio setting. Today, School of London artists are considered among the world's most important active painter groups.’

 – Neuberger Museum of Art, NY – 2001 exhibition

The term ‘School of London’ was a movement coined by the artist R.B. Kitaj in 1976 during an exhibition he curated for the Arts Council of Great Britain. The two 19th century London-based teaching institutions, The Royal College of Art and the Slade School of Fine Art are contributing factors to the formation of the ‘School of London’, as was the later Borough Polytechnic, as well as the looming presence of The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. Although the movement is primarily post 1940s, its roots can be traced back to three influential earlier artists, David Bomberg, Walter Sickert and Stanley Spencer.

Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon are now seen as two of the ‘founding fathers’ of the movement’s post-war era that developed during the following decades with the exhibition of work by artists such as Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. In the 1960s the three artists, Peter Blake, David Hockney and R.B. Kitaj became very influential and the ‘school’ continued to evolve into the 70s with Euan Uglow and John Wonnacott, in the 80s with Tony Bevan and Paula Rego and into the 90s with Peter Doig and Antony Williams.        

All these artists, apart from Francis Bacon, appear at some point in the collection of Elaine and Melvin Merians and the book The School of London and Their Friends: The Collection of Elaine and Melvin Merians (Yale Center for British Art, 2000) gives a superb insight into their collection and love of the art of this period. Included are photographs of meetings with the artists and a frank conversation between Mel and Elaine and Patrick McCaughey, Director of the Yale Center for British Art and Emily M. Weeks a doctoral candidate in the History of Art at Yale University.

Melvin and Elaine Merians in conversation with Euan Uglow, cigarette in hand

Melvin and Elaine Merians in conversation with Euan Uglow, cigarette in hand

Elaine and Melvin began collecting Post-Impressionist art that included works by Leger, Vuillard, Bonnard and drawings by Matisse, Picasso and Modigliani. However, due to the soaring prices of Post-Impressionist work during the 1980s they became intrigued by English art and decided to specialise and collect only English art. The quality of the art they collected and its importance for the promotion of English and particularly London art can be summed up by the quote from Patrick McCaughey,

‘To my knowledge, no other private collection of its kind exists on either side of the Atlantic, and no public art museum besides Tate Britain could muster comparable holdings.’

To have the opportunity to meet Elaine on a wet Sunday afternoon in Larchmont and listen to her talk and show us around her collection in her private home was a real privilege.