After years of private study - of a subject vastly different than those he used to treat in his feared and famous column - Joseph Alsop yesterday delivered the first of the 1978 Andrew W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts in the new East Building of the National Gallery of Art.

Ranging wittily and widely, from the Ice Age to the present, from chamber pots to saints, Alsop began what he calls "the first lectures on the general history of art collecting that have ever been delivered."

The subject of his lectures (five more will be given on succeeding Monday evenings) is "The History of Art Colecting," which, he insisted, is not at all the same thing as the history of collecting, or the history of art.

Works of art, he noted, are as old or older than the painted caves of Altamire and Lascaux. Collecting, too, is ancient. Since the people of the Ice Ages gathered quartz and pretty seashells, "the human magpie-instinct," said Alsop, "has expressed itself in innumerable different ways."

But true art collecting is much rarer. Among the "thousands of traditions that have come and gone since art began," that of art collecting has developed in five cultures only - in ancient Greece, Renaissance Italy, China, Japan, and the world of Islam. "It is," said Alsop, "a highly complex and specialized human behavioral system, almost as unlikely as the courtship behaviors of bower birds."

In a talk both erudite and sprightly, Alsop cited King Attalos I of Pergamon ("the world's earliest clearly documented art collector"), stuffed crocodiles and matchbook covers, the horses of St. Mark's in Venice (which were looted from Constantinople not as works of art, but as valuable chunks of bronze), the statue of Lincoln on the Mall, and the verse of Dorothey Parker.

Alsop differentiated art patronage and art collecting. "The theme of patronge of the arts has always been, and still is, art for-use-plus-beauty; the theme of all art colecting is art-as-an-end-in-itself," he said.

"It was not art collecting to ask Daniel Chester French to provide a cult statue for the Lincoln Memorial," for that statue has a public use. Tutankhamun's treasure also had a use, he said. They resemble "the grand furnishings of a very rich modern apartment provided, en masse, by a leading interior decorator . . . From wallpaper to tapestries, from daubs to great paintings, the planned adornment of a patron's surroundings is simply a use of a special kind."

Such patronage of the arts, said Alsop, "has all but vanished. In the abnormal situation of the 20th century, almost all art is made for the market, without a patron's intervention. I cannot take time to explain how abnormal this is. There has in fact been nothing like before in the world history of art."

"Art was not an end-in-itself, and therefore there was no art collecting at any time or place in the whole history of art on earth beyond the limits of the five rare art traditions," Alsop said. "If this be true - and it is true - it is a major fact in the history of art."

In his second Mellon lecture Alsop will discuss "The Siamese Twins: Art Collecting and Art History." Thereafter he will speak on "The Roots of Art Collecting," "The European Centuries without Art Collecting," "Renaissance Collecting" and "Western Art Collecting Reaches Maturies Without Art Collecting," given at 6 on Monday evenings. Admission is free.