Life & Culture

The lowly East Ender who gave Britain one of its greatest gifts

The Gilbert Collection — one of Britain’s most prized artistic possessions — is about to go on display at the V&A.


One of the most important art collections in the country is about to be unveiled in its brand new home at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Amassed over 40 years and worth more than £100 million, the collection includes some stunning Judaica, alongside important gold and silver pieces, and Italian mosaics. And it existence is thanks to an East Ender called Abraham Bernstein.

Even the most enthusiastic art lovers might be shrugging their shoulders at this point and asking: “Who is Abraham Bernstein?” That is because Bernstein, the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants to Britain, is far better known as Sir Arthur Gilbert, the Los Angeles-based multi-millionaire businessman who, before his death in 2001, carved out a reputation as one of the world’s most important collectors of art.

He was born in Hackney in 1913, the eighth child of furrier Lazarus Bernstein and his wife Bela, who had come to London from Poland in 1897. He grew up in Golders Green and was working for a solicitor when he met his wife, the dressmaker Rosalinde Gilbert. He went into business with her and eventually took her surname, changing his first name from Abraham to Arthur. The business was so successful that in 1949, the Gilberts decided to retire and emigrated, in search of the sun to Beverly Hills, in Los Angeles. There he became a successful real estate developer.

According to consultant curator Timothy Schroder, who worked closely with Gilbert, his interest in art started as an interior design project. “He did not start with the aim of amassing an important collection. He just saw pieces of silver he liked that he bought with the aim of furnishing his house.”

Gilbert himself explained that he came to be interested in mosaics by accident. “Looking around in Los Angeles, I saw two little paintings, which, when I examined them a little more closely, discovered that they were mosaic.” These are now known as micromosaics, a term that Gilbert coined himself.

“That interest led on to his interest in acquiring gold boxes, because some of the them contained micromosaics,” says Tessa Murdoch, the V&A’s curator of the Gilbert Collection, who describes it as “the most important private collection of decorative arts ever to be given to the British nation”.

Gilbert, who described himself as an “insatiable acquirer”, accumulated over 200 of these boxes.

“Gold boxes represent an interesting microcosm of 18th-century art,” says Schroder. “It was a fashion that developed because of the popularity of taking snuff. For almost 100 years these boxes really were the most special and lavish fashion accessory one could have. They were produced in public and passed around. People were fiercely competitive and wanted their snuff boxes to stand out. They were made of the most extravagant materials, in the latest fashion, with the greatest sense of novelty and inventiveness.”

Also on show at the V&A are two pieces of Judaica, a magnificently jewelled Torah crown and a pair of rimmonim, or Torah bells, donated to the V&A by Gilbert’s second wife, Marjorie (Rosalinde had died in 1995). Jennifer Marin, consultant curator to the Jewish Museum, says the crown is an important piece of Judaica. “It was the property of Rabbi Israel of Ruzhin, founder in the 19th century of the Ruzhiner dynasty of Chasidic rebbes. It is one of the few gold and jewelled items of Judaica in existence. While each feature is exquisite, the total effect is a little overwhelming, but this reflects the wealth and splendour of the Ruzhiner Court. For those who draw their ideas of the impoverished lives of Chasidim from the pages of Isaac Bashevis Singer, the opulence of some of the Chasidic rebbes may be disconcerting. Rabbi Israel is an extreme example. He lived in great luxury in Sadgora, in Ukraine.”

Schroder says that Gilbert “was definitely his own man” when it came to deciding what to purchase for the collection. “He once told me that he was considering buying an Indian silver howdah, an elephant carriage, which would have been a radically new departure. When I asked whether he thought this was an appropriate direction to take, he fixed me with a determined gaze and replied: ‘You’re a very nice boy, but you’re the curator and I’m the collector.’”

So how did Gilbert come to leave his collection to Britain, bearing in mind that he lived most of his life in California? “For many years it was on loan to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but Gilbert came to feel that because it had become part of his life, he felt it should be returned to the country of his birth.”

In 1996 he gave the collection to the nation, earning a knighthood in recognition of his generosity. For eight years his artworks were housed at Somerset House in London, but have been moved for financial reasons to the V&A. “There are aspects that very much complement our existing collections,” says Murdoch. “The Italian mosaics are really extremely welcome as is this is an area which is not particularly well covered.”

Just over half of the collection will be on display — other objects will be on show around the country. “There are a number of pieces of silver going back to the National Trust houses for which they were originally commissioned when they were in private ownership,” Murdoch says.

Unusually, the collection will be shown separately, in four dedicated galleries. “It gives the V&A the opportunity to celebrate the importance of the collector,” says Schroder. “Collectors tend to be unsung heroes. The display will focus public attention on Gilbert’s role.”

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