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‘Truly the end of an era’ – a tribute to Jacob Rothschild (1936–2024)

1 March 2024

Such phrases are routinely trotted out when the great and the good pass away, but the announcement of the death of Jacob (Lord) Rothschild at the age of 87 truly does represent the end of an era. This is not the place to explore his roles in the worlds of finance and philanthropy, in both of which he was a titan, but it may well be that – over time – the arts ended up meaning even more to him.

In addition to his later chairmanship of the National Heritage Memorial Fund from 1992 to 1998, and of the Heritage Lottery Fund from its foundation in 1994, his supreme achievement as a public servant was arguably as chairman of the board of the National Gallery from 1985 to 1991. These years witnessed Sir Paul Getty’s gift of £50 million in 1985, which has in the main been used for acquisitions, and the funding and creation of the Sainsbury Wing, which was opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1991. (Its cost of £30.5m was another small fortune at the time). No wonder Lord Rothschild was awarded Britain’s highest honour, the Order of Merit, in 2002.

One of his greatest accomplishments during his time in Trafalgar Square, however, tends to be overlooked. In 1986, on the retirement of Michael Levey, Ted Pillsbury, the director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, was appointed as his successor. After an avalanche of negative press comment, he decided not to take up the post. Inspired by the wise advice of Isaiah Berlin and Francis Haskell, Lord Rothschild recognised the potential of the inexperienced if brilliant editor of the Burlington Magazine, 40-year-old Neil MacGregor, who became director in 1987. The rest – including MacGregor’s own Order of Merit in 2010 – is nearly history, but it seems important to add that there can be no doubt that many of MacGregor’s unrivalled gifts in the sometimes dark arts of getting one’s way in a good cause were learnt at Lord Rothschild’s knee.

As if all this were not enough, Lord Rothschild also played a decisive part in establishing Somerset House as a centre for the arts, firstly by finding a home for the Courtauld Institute and Gallery there from 1989, and then by securing the Gilbert Collection, which subsequently moved to the V&A in 2008, and by opening the Hermitage Rooms in 2000.

The two other major strands in Lord Rothschild’s involvement with the arts related to his leasing and opening up of Spencer House in Westminster, hitherto an inaccessible sleeping beauty in need of a major facelift and, above all, his crucial involvement in the fortunes of Waddesdon Manor. Waddesdon is actually owned by the National Trust, but it is leased from the Trust by the Rothschild Foundation. Lord Rothschild had a transformational effect not only on its contents but also on its visibility.

As he himself explained, the extraordinary eminence – especially in the UK – of Waddesdon’s historic collections of 18th-century decorative arts, and in particular porcelain and furniture, was not matched by its holdings of paintings. In consequence, a conscious decision was taken to boost that section of the collection, and Chardin’s Boy Building a House of Cards (1735), two Paninis and other pictures, including more modern ones, have been acquired. A different kind of gap-filling is represented by a silver service commissioned in 1774 by King George III.

At the same time, other works added to the mix at Waddesdon are a series of portraits of members of the family, their friends and staff that were commissioned from Léon Bakst in 1913 by James and Dorothy de Rothschild. Best known as a stage designer for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Bakst depicted his subjects in narrative scenes which portrayed them as characters from The Sleeping Beauty. He also honoured the memory of his forebear, Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, by paying for the redisplay of his spectacular Waddesdon Bequest, which was given to the British Museum in 1898. The Rothschild name and the family tradition of collecting were both things Lord Rothschild cared about hugely.

In recent years, all these activities and initiatives have continued apace. Indeed, ‘Guercino at Waddesdon: King David and the Wise Women’ – will open later this month (20 March). Among the many delights of this focused exhibition will be the presentation of a rediscovered painting of Moses by Guercino, which came up at auction in Paris as recently as 2022 and has been acquired by the Rothschild Foundation, the chairmanship of which it seems will now been assumed by Lord Rothschild’s eldest child, Hannah. As at the National Gallery, where she was chair from 2015 to 2019, she is following in her father’s footsteps, and there can be no doubt that Waddesdon is in the safest of hands.

David Ekserdjian is a former editor of Apollo.