Obituary: Jacob, 4th Baron Rothschild

Jewish banker whose philanthropy boosted the environment and the arts in Britain and Israel


Lord Rothschild pictured at Waddesdon Manor. Pictured behind - Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, known as Guercino (1591-1666), King David, 1651. A new loan to Waddesdon for 2023. On display in the Red Ante Room. Byline John Nguyen/JNVisuals 12/04/2023

Despite his position as a scion of a dynastic banking family, Jewish aristocrat and hereditary peer Lord Jacob Rothschild, who has died aged 87, was known for his disarming manner and air of sobriety. It ran counter to his modest outlook to play the city grandee, and he was not keen on media interviews either, sometimes suggesting they choose someone else, instead.

His social consciousness, which emerged during his undergraduate years at Oxford, would shine through in occasional interviews with the media, in which he would reference his funding of Israel’s civil society. His family described him as “a towering presence in many people’s lives” .

A city mogul, regarded as one of the sharpest brains in the City, who participated in several high-profile deals, Lord Rothschild was a man of many parts, equally drawn to the arts and philanthropy. Something of his contemplative character can be seen in Lucien Freud’s 1989 intimate portrait of him in the National Portrait Gallery, during his time as chairman of the National Gallery. In another, by David Hockney, his blue eyes are penetrating, and his expression, inward looking.

The Rothschild Bank had risen to prominence as far back as 1815, when Nathan Mayer Rothschild anticipated Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and made his fortune buying British government bonds. The present family have an estimated fortune of around £825 million, according to last year's Sunday Times Rich List, and give away a reported £66 million to Jewish causes, education and art.

Following in the footsteps of his dynastic family, Lord Rothschild left an indelible mark on Israeli society. As chairman of Yad Hanadiv, the Rothschild family’s Israel-based philanthropic foundation, he oversaw the funding of the construction of the Knesset, the Supreme Court, and the new National Library building, completed last year. But in this, too, Jacob Rothschild was, like all his forebears, reluctant to speak publicly about the foundation, which he led into educational and environmental areas, and helped promote equal opportunities for the country’s Arabs.

Former Yad Hanadiv CEO Ariel Weiss noted that Jacob Rothschild sustained the family tradition of “not seeking credit” without having his name emblazoned on the institutions supported by the Rothschild family foundation.

“It is a cardinal factor in Jewish life that we must give back and I am deeply conscious of my Jewish roots,” said Jacob Rothschild.

“When he became chairman, Yad Hanadiv was a small operation, in terms of trustees and staff,” Weiss told The Times of Israel. Rothschild, despite his modest front, greatly expanded the foundation’s scope, concentrating on the environment and Arab society.

“We are strong supporters of Israel, but not politically, at the foundation,” Rothschild told Italian journalist Alain Elkann in 2014. “We have worked a lot to help bring about the integration of the Arab-Palestinian population.”

In 2018, the mogul stepped aside in favour of his daughter, the filmmaker Hannah Rothschild, to chair Yad Hanadiv and play a more active role in its activities.

Born in Cambridge, Jacob was the eldest son of Victor 3rd Baron Rothschild, and his first wife Barbara Judith née Hutchinson. He had two sisters, Sarah and Miranda, a half sister, Emma Georgina, and a half-brother Amschel. The Rothschilds were an Orthodox family and his mother converted when they married. 

After Eton College, he gained a First in history at Christchurch, Oxford, under his tutor Hugh Trevor Roper. There he met the philosopher Isaiah Berlin who would mentor him during his undergraduate years. In 1956, Berlin recalled dissuading him and his friend, the conservative commentator David Pryce-Jones, from volunteering to take part in the student-led Hungarian uprising against its Soviet-influenced government. “I lectured them both on the fact that one must not take oneself so seriously, that undergraduates are undergraduates,” Berlin said. Rothschild remembered Berlin as “brilliantly clever, brilliantly charming, brilliantly nice.”

Jacob married Serena Dunn, the granddaughter of Canadian financier Sir James Dunn, in 1961 and a year later, accompanied by Berlin, he embarked on his first trip to Israel joined by his great-aunt Dorothy de Rothschild, the widow of James de Rothschild and chair of Yad Hanadiv. He later acknowledged that it was Dorothy who stimulated his involvement in Israeli philanthropy. He was supported by Berlin in his desire to remain in Oxford and become a history professor. But in 1963, under the pressure of his auspicious name, he joined the family bank N M Rothschild & Sons in London. A dispute over strategy with hiis distant cousin, Sir Evelyn Robert de Rothschild, precipitated Jacob’s split from the business in 1980. He went on to co-found several; companies including J Rothschild Assurance Group, now St James’s Place, with Sir Mark Weinberg.

His other City roles included the deputy chairmanship of BSkyB between 2003 and 2008, and from 1988 to 2019. the chairmanship of RIT Capital Partners, one of the largest investment trusts quoted on the London Stock Exchange with a net value of some £2 billion. He chaired RIT’s subsidiary, J Rothschild Capital Management, as well as other venture capital interests.

He was appointed Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (CVO) for services to the Duchy of Cornwall for the Prince of Wales and a member of the International Advisory Board of the Blackstone Group.

In an interview with The Jerusalem Report four years after the economic crisis of 2008, he confessed that “the banking system as a whole has had a crippling effect in a number of areas throughout the world,” adding that he had “a lot of sympathy with people who protested about some of the excesses in the world of finance.”

His interests broadened as he played a prominent role supporting the arts and philanthropy, including as chair of trustees of the National Gallery, between 1985 and 1991 and chair of the National Heritage Memorial Fund between 1992 and 1998, which oversaw the distribution of £1.2bn in grants to the heritage sector.

He was involved in the restoration of London’s Somerset House, and in 2002 he received the order of merit for outstanding service in the field of arts, literature, learning and science. The Conservative peer Ed Vaizey, culture minister between 2010 and 2016, described him as “one of Britain’s greatest cultural philanthropists.” From 1994 to 98 Rothschild chaired the Heritage Lottery Fund And took on the restoration of Waddesdon Manor, the neo-Renaissance château in Buckinghamshire, built by his ancestor, Ferdinand de Rothschild in the 1880s.

The Rothschild banking family spans eight generation and traces its roots back to 18th century Frankfurt, fanning out across Europe to build its members’ banking interests. Yet its involvement with Zionism began with one man, Edmond de Rothschild, the namesake of Yad Hanadiv, who earned the title “Hanadiv Hayadua” — the notable benefactor — for his massive donations assisting Jewish migration to Ottoman, later Mandate, Palestine.

Edmond’s son James de Rothschild, and his wife Dorothy, further developed his Zionist interests and introduced Chaim Weizmann to their contacts in the British political elite, helping to bring about the 1917 Balfour Declaration,which supported a Jewish national home in Palestine.

In 1957, James de Rothschild bequeathed £1.25 million through the organization for the construction of Israel’s present-day Knesset building. However, he died shortly after, leaving his widow Dorothy to see the project to completion.

“It was Dorothy’s idea to build the Supreme Court but she passed away before it was done, so that fell on me to complete,” said Jacob Rothschild. “Today we have the great project of the National Library, which I have worked on for 20 years, and is now finally being built in Jerusalem.”

Like his predecessors, Lord Rothschild did not live to set foot in the new library, but took great pride in the 20-year undertaking and expressed his hope that the building would house “a library without borders.”

President Isaac Herzog described him as “a great man who carried the historic legacy of his family with pride and humility, working always for the well-being of Britain, Israel, and Jewish communities all over the world.”

Former UK chancellor and chair of the British Museum, George Osborne wrote on X; “He made the very most of the privilege he was born into, contributing hugely to the cultural and commercial life of Britain,.”

Lady Serena, his wife of over 50 years, died in 2019. He is survived by his four children, the Hon Hannah Mary, the Hon Beth Matilda, the Hon Emily Magda and Nathaniel Philip Victor James, 5th Baron Rothschild, his sister Miranda Daniel and several grandchildren. Sarah predeceased him in 2018.

Lord Jacob Rothschild: born 29 April, 1936. Died 26 February 2024

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