In reviewing Peter Stanksy’s book, Sassoon: The Worlds of Philip and Sybil (Yale UP, 2003), we need some historical context. The Sassoon family were Iraqi Jews who specialised in carpets, silk, cotton, spices, pearls and later opium. The first truly mobile family member was David Sassoon (1792-1864) who built an international business in Mumbai and staffed it with Baghdadi managers. Even the managers moved between countries, asked to run the branch offices of his business in India, Burma and Malaya. Soon David opened up in China - where the beautiful Sassoon House/now Peace Hotel on Shanghai’s Bund is famous still. Later in Shanghai Sassoon’s massive Cathay Mansions, The Grosvenor Mansions and Grosvenor Gardens apartments, all built from 1929 to the early 1930s, were elegant and modern.
Sibyl Sassoon, later Marchioness of Cholmondeley
John Singer Sargent, 1913
86 x 67 cm
David's sons cornered the shipping industry in India and then China, to free up David so that he could extend his endless charity to facilities for the sick, the poor and the young. Son Elias (1820-1880) opened offices in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Another son, Albert (1818-1896) took on the running of the firm in the next generation, and built the famous Sassoon Docks in western India. Albert later became prominent in England and became great friends of the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII. In Britain a third son, Sir Edward Sassoon (1856-1912), married one of the Rothschild daughters, and was a Conservative member of Parliament from 1899 until his death. That seat then passed to his son Philip (1888-1939), the subject of this book.
Sir Philip Sassoon
John Singer Sargent, 1923
Tate Gallery, London
95 x 58 cm
His father dying quite young in 1912 was sad, but it was not all tragic news for Philip. The young man “inherited” the Hythe electorate from his father, along with his baronetcy and the family fortune. Certainly Philip's election as the youngest Member of Parliament, from 1912 until his death in 1939, was carefully documented. As was his service as military secretary to Sir Douglas Haig during the bulk of WW1 (1915-1918) and as parliamentary private secretary in David Lloyd George’s cabinet after the war. Sir Philip became the nation’s Under-secretary of State for Air (1924-29 and 1931–37). Finally a wise Prime Minister chose to make Sassoon the First Commissioner of Works and Public Buildings (1937-39).
In the 1920s and 30s Philip became very involved in the art world, particularly as the trustee of important museums. In his city home in Park Lane, he bought many works by John Singer Sargent, J.A Whistler, David Bomberg and Wilson Steer, Thomas Gainsborough and Johann Zoffany. So Philip was hardworking, well connected, an art patron, mega-generous to his charities and in the right place at the right time. But he was Jewish, gay and his grandparents were not English-born.
My favourite section of the book examined Philip’s building and renovation of his country homes. Port Lympne Mansion in coastal Kent (built in 1912) had a very grand triumphal staircase, marble a go go and murals. Trent Park Herts was bought by the family in 1909 and inherited in 1912 by Philip. These homes enabled him to be surrounded by the gardens and collections he personally found to be beautiful. And to open up his private life to endless hospitality, including to members of the royal family and members of Parliament. Trent Park and Port Lympne became bases for paintings, sculpture, Rex Whistler's tentroom, murals, rich ironwork staircase, Moorish courtyards and impressive garden design.
Plus they became home away from home for the artists he chose to patronise, especially John Singer Sargent. Other than Sassoon, how many other aristocrats opened their doors and held influential art exhibitions in their country homes? And how many politicians were in regular correspondence with art world celebrities like Lytton Strachey, Roger Fry and Virginia Woolf?
Although Philip’s sister Sybil (1894-1989) was as well educated as her brother, she was depicted as living a less public existence. Yet this was the Sassoon who married into the dizzying heights of the greatest English noble families. In 1913 she married George the Marquess of Cholmondeley, had three beloved children and restored Houghton Hall in Norfolk. There were two connections here that would melt the heart of the hardest historian: 1. Houghton Hall had been the home of Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole in the mid 18th century. And 2. Sybil brought her own great art collection into Houghton, given that the sale of Sir Robert Walpole's collection to the Russian Czarina Catherine the Great had left some serious gaps. Her patronage was quieter than her brother's, but still significant.
I loved the book and I loved the images. Stansky was spot on when it comes to discussing great wealth, the English aristocracy, Jewish families, gay men, great art and modernity. But let me quote two other journal articles. Ferdinand Mount noted that almost everyone who met Philip Sassoon described him as "strange, unknowable and Oriental". Philip Hoare (BBC History July 2003) said the Sassoons (Philip and Siegfried) remained "exotics and sexual outsiders". Their conclusion was that Philip in particular was too far removed from Anglican aristocracy to be truly beloved. I agree. Only Sybil was fully accepted.
More about Siegfried Sassoon in 2013.