Concern over inequality and the power of huge corporations is nothing new. At the end of the nineteenth century the richest 1% of the American population owned 51% of the nation’s wealth.
One of the most powerful of the “robber barons” (or “captains of industry”, depending on your viewpoint) was J Pierpont Morgan (1837-1914) who amassed great wealth by consolidating already large enterprises into conglomerates – General Electric, International Harvester and the United States Steel Corporation.
In the financial emergency now known as the Panic of 1907 the United States government had, for lack of a central bank, to rely on Morgan to pull together enough support from his fellow financiers to keep the economy afloat.
When he wasn’t making money, J P Morgan took to spending it on great art, amassing a spectacular collection of books, manuscripts, paintings and objets d’art which his son, J Pierpont Morgan Jnr (known as Jack, 1867-1943), endowed as a public institution.
Ever since my first visit to New York in 1981 I’ve been familiar with the Frick Collection, the Fifth Avenue villa that houses the treasures amassed by Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919), but I only recently found the Morgan collection thanks to a Time Out 101-things-to-do-in-New-York feature.
The Morgan Library & Museum occupies the site of J P Morgan’s small colony of brownstone houses off Madison Avenue in Manhattan. He had bought a townhouse at 219 Madison Avenue at 36th Street as a family home in 1882, and commissioned from the architect Charles F McKim (1847-1909) a purpose-built library extension next door, completed in 1906. (J P Morgan also bought, in 1903 and 1904 respectively, the two adjacent brownstones, one to demolish for a garden, the other as a residence for his son Jack.)
The 1906 library building is a Palladian design in Tennessee marble, linked to the 1928 annex which Jack Morgan built on the site of his father’s townhouse and to the surviving mid-nineteenth century brownstone by the Expansion of 2006 – three glass pavilions and an atrium by Renzo Piano, the architect of London’s Shard.
The core of the museum is the McKim building – three main rooms, one a triple-decker library, linked by a rotunda. It was here that Pierpont Morgan corralled his banking colleagues in 1907, literally locking them in until they agreed on a rescue package to safeguard the financial system.
J P Morgan’s policy of acquiring great art with a significant story attached was continued after his death by his librarian, Belle da Costa Greene (1883-1950), a light-skinned woman of colour who was enormously influential in the New York art world.
This is why the collection embraces illuminated manuscripts, incunabula and Near Eastern cylinder seals, alongside the drafts of Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’.
Within a few paces I examined the manuscript of a symphony by the teenage Mozart corrected by his father, Dr Johnson’s handwriting, a first edition of Jane Austen’s Emma and a Gutenberg Bible. Hard-headed business dealings paid for this fabulous treasure house of art and human talent, accessible to the public simply by walking in from the street.