15 January 2013

Anglo-Jewish art collectors

Since I returned to university in 1990 to do history and art history, my interests have been very broad. But if I had to specify which subjects appeal most, the key labels in the blog return again and again to seven topics:

1. Jewish paintings, architecture and decorative arts;
2. British history, especially Victorian and Edwardian;
3. art patronage, collecting and museology;
4. World Fairs, cultural salons and exhibitions;
5. Belle Epoque in Paris;
6. The Vienna Secession and the Bauhaus; and
7. Huguenot arts, after the 1685 expulsion from France.

Imagine the thrill in finding a reference to a thesis titled: ANGLO-JEWISH ART COLLECTORS OF THE VICTORIAN PERIOD: PATTERNS IN COLLECTING, by Barbara Gilbert 1986

The abstract notes that this study focuses on six Anglo-Jewish art collectors who shared in England's growth as the world leader of private art collections. Since the Jews had the opportunity to participate in English life earlier and to a greater extent than in most other countries, the phenomenon of Jewish integration into English society can be investigated through the vehicle of art collecting. The objects collected were characteristic of English collections ranging from Old Master paintings to decorative arts, prints and paintings by living English artists.

Moses Hart (1676-1766) and Samson Gideon (1699-1762) were both financiers who successfully acquired gentry status. Each purchased a large country estate which was filled with customary types of Old Master Italian and Dutch paintings acquired by other gentry.

Lionel de Rothschild (1808-1879), in his preference for Old Master Dutch paintings, was a collector transitional between 18th and 19th century interests. His acquisition of Rococo decorative arts was more forward looking, reflecting the aristocratic taste of the Rothschild family in England and on the Continent. Ralph Bernal (c1786-1854) was one of the first collectors to focus on the decorative arts. His collection included objects from as early as the C10th and reflected current Gothic Revival attitudes as well as providing models for English industrial design. Samuel Mendel (1811-1884) was a Manchester textile merchant who had one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of contemporary Victorian paintings, most of which were acquired with the guidance of art dealer Thomas Agnew. Israel Solomons (1860-1923) was an antiquarian and a collector of Anglo-Judaica which documented the Jewish experience in England beginning with the resettlement of the Jews in 1656. He participated in the Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition (1887) and the Exhibit of Jewish Art and Antiquities (1906), which were among the first exhibits to focus on Jewish material.

Commode by the French master Adrien Delorme, 
from the collection of Baron Lionel de Rothschild. 
The rosewood veneer is arranged in an inlaid wooden frieze of flowers. 
The 145 cm-wide front is outlined by a gilded bronze frame

I realise copies of this PhD thesis are available only from Micrographics Department, Doheny Library, USC Los Angeles. But a reader might direct me to a journal article or conference paper by the same author on this topic.

While the 18th century personalities in this thesis (Moses Hart and Samson Gideon) were probably a tad early for me, the other four worthies were amazing people. Ralph Bernal, in particular, was a Whig politician, president of the British Archaeological Society and built up a substantial collection of glass, ceramics and other decorative art objects.

The questions to be asked of the thesis are complex. Where did these collectors live? Did they have a personal philosophy of collecting? Did they have expert advice from art historians and connoisseurs? How much of their income was spent on collecting and from which country were the art objects collected? Was the architecture of their country homes designed or redesigned to hold the treasured objects they collected? Who from outside the family had access to these treasures? What happened to each collection after the patron died?

And because the collectors were Jewish, I want to know if their collecting differed from non-Jewish collectors of the same era and the same social class. Dr Gilbert is the right person to ask. She is senior curator emerita of fine arts at the Skirball Cultural Centre, has organised major exhibitions on artists Max Liebermann, Henry Mosler, Larry Rivers and George Segal.

The Victoria and Albert Museum acknowledge its debt to some of these connoisseurs. Just one example. John Webb, a dealer and adviser to the South Kensington Museum, was charged with the responsibility of  acquiring objects from the sales of several high profile collections, notably the Ralph Bernal, Jules Soulages and Prince Peter Soltykoff collections. During the 1850s and 1860s, holdings of the V & A's Italian Renaissance tin-glazed maiolica and French Renaissance earthenware received a considerable boost with the purchase of  stunning maiolica from the Ralph Bernal sale of 1855. A report on the sale of the Bernal Collection, including a list of descriptions transcribed from the sale catalogue, was published in the Third Report of the Department of Science and Art, London, 1856.

Reliquary Chasse with the Adoration of the Magi
Copper gilt, enamel champlevé
Limoges, c1200–30
Donated by Ralph Bermal to the British Museum in 1855.


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Hels:
How very fascinating all of this is and how extraordinary that the thesis should cover so many of your principal interests.

Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, which you may indeed have visited and now the property of the National Trust, was certainly built to house the remarkable Rothschild collection of eighteenth century furniture.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

In 1865 Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild (1839–1898) married his cousin Evelina de Rothschild, the daughter of Lionel de Rothschild (1808–1879). Thus the relationship of the younger man, Ferdinand, was both nephew and son-in-law to the older man, Lionel.

Ferdinand was the Rothschild who had Waddesdon Manor built between 1874-89. Waddesdon Manor is rather special, I think, quite like a Renaissance château in the Loire Valley. But it was insanely huge. Did Ferdinand think that Uncle Lionel was going to leave all his art treasures to Evelina’s estate, even though Eveline died in 1866 before the house was started? Probably not, since four other children lived long and healthy lives, and were suitable heirs.

Did Ferdinand think he was going to amass an enormous collection of furniture, porcelain and paintings himself? Rightly so; Ferdinand’s collection turned out to be HUGE.

Perhaps Barbara Gilbert should have included Ferdinand instead of, or as well as Lionel de Rothschild. Perhaps I married into the wrong family.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, As you suggest, it is interesting to ponder how these Jews became interested in forming art collections, and whether their interests and interactions with the art world were different from other collectors' experiences. I would also be interested in knowing the degree of scholarship they exhibited--whether they studied and published in their fields of interest.

In America there are also many examples of Jewish patrons of the arts--the Guggenheim and Hirshhorn museums are two that spring to mind.
--Road to Parnassus

Hels said...


good point! I too would be very interested in knowing the degree of scholarship the patrons and collectors exhibited. They were "only" politicians, professionals and businessmen, so if they were wise, they would carefully consult art historians and learn from them.

In an earlier post, I was very interested in the role of Joseph Duveen, Bernard Berenson, Alfred Flechtheim, Herwath Walden, Paul Cassirer, Jacques Seligman, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and Berthe Weill. I wonder who was the Bernard Berenson of the 1850-1900 era.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the Manley Hall reference. I do like Mendel's mansion, his silver collection and his Manchester business. Christie's book was more than useful in describing the sale of Mendel's collection - 21 days of nonstop auctioneering made the collection very large.

Hels said...


my pleasure. My first link to Manley Hall was
http://manchesterhistory.net/manchester/gone/manleyhall.html There is a story worth telling.

Stanley Workman said...


Hels said...

Thanks for the reference Stanley. I hope you enjoyed the post.