Photo: Paul Burns
“Inestimable” is the word used by the director of Somerset House, Gwyn Miles, to describe Lord Rothschild’s contribution to British cultural life. And indeed he has been giving to the arts for so long, and so generously, and proved so influential with other donors, that it is difficult to give a proper estimate of his achievements. Having chaired the government’s arts and media honours committee for three years, perhaps Lord Rothschild himself might be the best person to attempt it.
In truth, there are simply very few people alive who know more about giving, and giving cleverly. Lord Rothschild’s belief that a project is worth backing sends a clear message to other philanthropists, which reads as follows: it is. Often messages don’t need to be sent, because he has already spoken to them personally.
Fine art is his particular passion. He served on the board of the Courtauld Institute, and chaired the National Gallery for seven transformative years in the 1980s, when public funding could not keep pace with the prices being commanded by old masters. Only a £50m endowment from Sir Paul Getty allowed the gallery to keep making acquisitions, while another very large donation from the Sainsbury family paid for its expansion into the Sainsbury wing. Lord Rothschild helped to bring those donations about.
Director, Somerset House
Through the Rothschild Foundation, he has given a great deal to the gallery too, of course, along with the Courtauld, the British Museum, the Royal Ballet School, the Ashmolean Museum, the Royal Academy of Music, the new Migration Museum, and many others. Recently the foundation played a leading role in the campaigns to save Titian’s Diana & Actaeon and Diana & Callisto for the country, and helped to fund the restoration of Auckland Castle, making it a huge draw for the northeast.
On a personal level, he has devoted a tremendous amount of time to Waddesdon Manor, which the foundation runs on behalf of the National Trust. There his innovative and ambitious projects, such as the recent lighting scheme from Bruce Munro, have brought in record numbers of visitors and made Waddesdon the third most visited National Trust property in the country. This is all part of a family tradition of philanthropy, which his children are continuing.
His record of investing in culture is so impressive, in fact, that in 1992 he was asked by the British government to do it on their behalf, as chair of the National Heritage Memorial Fund and then also, from 1994, as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund.
“Chief shopper for the British nation,” he has called the post, which involved giving away more than £1bn and carried intense scrutiny on every decision.
There was little doubt, however, that something had to be done about Somerset House. For more than 20 years people had campaigned to rescue this neoclassical palace from its fate as Europe’s most beautiful tax office. What had not been clear was how. It was a “classic case”, Lord Rothschild told the Academy of Achievement in 2000, of having to find a modern purpose for a neglected piece of public heritage. It was a classic case, as well, of his unique ability to make things happen.
The catalyst was the Gilbert Collection, a group of superb decorative objects amassed over many years by the British property tycoon Sir Arthur Gilbert. A good friend of Lord Rothschild’s, he agreed to give it all to Somerset House – the largest gift of its kind ever made to Britain. A further boost came from the loan of some exhibits from the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg – again resulting, quite by chance, from a conversation between Lord Rothschild and the museum’s director, another old friend.
Today, more than anybody else, Lord Rothschild is responsible for that rescue, which has turned Somerset House into a public palace of art, culture and ice-skating – a project he also pushed for. “This is Jacob having his ideas and nobody saying no,” Miles says, trying to explain how it all came together. “I get infectious enthusiasms,” is how Lord Rothschild puts it.
The Prince of Wales Medal for Arts Philanthropy celebrates individuals whose significant cultural philanthropy has played a crucial role in shaping and sustaining the cultural sector across the UK.
Arts & Business, part of Business in the Community, is managing this award on behalf of The Prince of Wales who is our President. This is the sixth year in a row he has presented these medals.
This year, the five honourees whose contributions have been both instrumental to the organisations they have supported, and inspirational to others are: