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For most visitors, Strawberry Hill House is synonymous with Horace Walpole, who built this villa in ‘dear Twick’ and filled it with his collections. But what we find today has only survived thanks to the action of subsequent owners who lived in and renovated the house in the 19th and early 20th century, two of whom came from a Jewish background.
To celebrate the European Jewish Days of Culture, Strawberry Hill has created an online exhibition to spotlight the contribution of these two figures: Frances, Countess Waldegrave (1821-1879), whose father John Braham was an internationally famous Jewish opera singer; and Herbert Stern, 1st Baron Michelham (1851-1919), who belonged to a European Jewish dynasty of bankers.
The aim of this exhibition is to explore, through a selection of images and objects, those aspects of Jewish culture and sociability that, in an era of deepening integration, continued to characterise the lives of Lady Waldegrave and the Sterns.
The following themes will be addressed in particular: family ties, cosmopolitanism, art patronage, social status, religious identity, anti-Semitism and different forms of philanthropy.
As you explore the exhibition, you can click on the images if you wish to take a closer look.
At Strawberry Hill the attentive visitor will find some traces that testify to the presence in the house of Lady Waldegrave and the Sterns. Between 1860 and 1862 Lady Waldegrave added to the original villa a wing in neo-gothic style (Fig. 1). Her portrait in bas-relief is still visible on the façade (Fig.2) and her coat of arms and initials (F.W.) decorates door handles and stained glasses (Fig.3 and fig. 4) as well as being inlaid in the Gallery’s wooden parquet floor that she imported from Paris (Fig.5). Remnants of the colourful Victorian wallpaper put up by both Lady Waldegrave and the the Sterns are hidden in the recesses of the house (Fig.6). The Sterns transformed Walpole’s Blue Breakfast room into a Turkish smoking room (Fig.7) while their beautiful neo-classical relief sculpture Virgilia by Thomas Woolner (1871) is still visible in the Pantry (Fig.8). Next time you walk through Walpole’s Gothic villa, see if you can spot the influences left by the many who called Strawberry Hill home!
Lady Waldegrave was the daughter of the Jewish Opera tenor John Braham and the Anglican Frances Elizabeth Bolton. Her unconventional background certainly did not go unnoticed. Despite her Christian upbringing (she used to say her prayers in the little China Room at Strawberry Hill) Frances’ contemporaries often referred to her as ‘the Jewish Lady Waldegrave’. In her Reminiscences (1906) writer Lady Dorothy Nevill, a descendant of Horace Walpole, gives us this rather irreverent description:
“She [Frances] was a woman of very determined character, not a bit ashamed of her origin, she would jokingly say, when present at a party, at which any curious unknown people were amongst the guests ‘I am sure everyone will say that they are some of my vulgar relatives’”.
Writer and historian Harold Nicolson in his review of Oswald Hewett’s Strawberry Fair: A biography of Frances, Countess Waldegrave (1956), further outlines Lady Waldegrave’s extra-ordinary character:
“How came it that the daughter of flamboyant and generally bankrupt Jewish singer should so early have become, and so long remained a leader of Victorian society? How came it that a woman who had four husbands in such rapid succession did not incur the disapproval of an age that was strictly monogamous? How came it that a widow who married within a few months her deceased husband’s brother should not have been reproached with a breach of prayerbook rules? (…) The answer, I suppose, is that she possessed such overwhelming charm that she made no enemies (…). From her father she had inherited bravura, from her mother optimism, extravagance, a hot temper and a taste for histrionics; and from both a wonderful constitution and a vitality that never flagged”.
Probably born into a humble German Jewish family in Whitechapel in 1774, very little is known about John Braham’s childhood. He was orphaned at an early age, and taken in by Meyer Lyon (1750-1797), the Cantor of the Dukes Place Synagogue, better known to the London public as the celebrated opera singer Michael Leoni. Young John lived with Lyon and sang as a Meshorrer (an apprentice to a cantor) in the synagogue choir. It was thanks to Lyon that Braham had his debut on stage at Covent Garden on 21 April 1787.
When Lyon went bankrupt in 1789, the Goldsmids, a Jewish banking family, took over and started supporting Braham’s training. Braham studied singing with the most recognised masters of his time. While trained by the famous Rauzzini in Bath, John duetted with Nancy Storace, who had been the first Susanna in the opera the Marriage of Figaro and was much admired by its composer, Mozart. This was the beginning of Braham’s collaboration with the Storaces, a family of Italian singers, an association that would last more than 20 years.
A love of excess was one of the main traits of his personality. In 1787 Braham made his debut at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. He eventually set out for the Continent to perfect his technique. He sang in the major opera houses of Europe and for the greatest personalities of his time, including Nelson and Bonaparte, among others. Braham thus became the first English-born male singer to command a European reputation. It was said that ‘Non c’è in Italia tenore come Braham’ (there is no tenor like Braham in Italy), while Sir Walter Scott remarked that ‘Braham was a beast of an actor, but an angel of a singer’. His repertoire included works by Handel, Haydn, Salieri, Bishop, and Rossini.
His Jewishness remained a prominent feature of his public persona, as he gave prominently to Jewish charities. Over time he came to incarnate ‘the Jew’ in the British cultural imagination.
1816 was a momentous year in John Braham’s life. In November he married Frances (Fanny) Elizabeth Bolton. Fanny, the niece of Braham’s Manchester concert promoter, was only seventeen and very beautiful. John was much older than her and at the peak of his career. In this portrait we can admire Fanny’s delicate beauty and the resemblance to her daughter, Lady Waldegrave. They had six children: Hamilton, Augustus, Frances, Charles, Ward and Josephine. In 1830 the family moved from Tavistock Square to The Grange, a large and fashionable 18th-century mansion on the South side of Brompton road, where young Frances Waldegrave grew up. By this stage Braham was performing for the King at Buckingham Palace, and Fanny dreamed of brilliant futures for all her children. She loved to entertain, and launched the house with a party for her husband’s friend and patron, Prince Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex, the brother of George IV. Fanny was a practicing Anglican, whereas it is still debated whether John ever actually converted to Christianity. According to archival sources, after his marriage John stopped his support for Jewish charities.
In 1835 John Braham invested his life savings (over £90,000) in building the St James Theatre and leasing London’s largest visitor attraction, The Colosseum. At first everything seemed to go well. The St James was designed by Britain’s leading theatre architect, Samuel Beazley. The magnificent red and gold interior could seat 1200, and Braham sang the lead male role in “Agnes Sorel” for the opening night. Sadly Braham was better suited to being a singer than an impresario. The Colosseum failed financially, and Braham sold the lease at a loss. The St James Theatre Management Company went bankrupt in 1839, forcing Braham to flee abroad to escape debtors prison. The Braham family retained ownership of the St James Theatre building; Braham carried on singing into old age to earn money to repay the debts, and three of Lady Waldegrave’s brothers became opera singers. The brothers took turns running the St James Theatre, often performing lead roles there (e.g. the 1857 Opera Buffa season – see token). Lady Waldegrave also took boxes in other opera houses, but she was most loyal to her family, supporting them throughout their lives, and inviting them to perform at Strawberry Hill.
Lady Waldegrave was very proud of the coat of arms granted to her father in 1817 – a symbol of his success, and his patronage by important figures such as the royal Duke of Sussex. Lady Waldegrave used the Braham coat of arms at Strawberry Hill (e.g. in the stained glass window in the round room). Appropriately enough for a poor orphan from the East End, who had sold pencils on the street as a young boy, he chose a Phoenix rising from the ashes as his crest. The Phoenix holds a lyre in its beak – a suitable symbol for a musician (the lyre was the crest of the Worshipful Company of Musicians). The lyre appears again between two English talbots (dogs) on the shield below – hinting at a double meaning: it could easily be interpreted as the Harp of King David.
During his career Braham achieved great fame and successfully integrated into English high society. The marriage of his daughter Frances into the noble Waldegrave family is a clear sign of this success.
Among his friends were some of the greatest personalities of his age: Horatio Nelson, Josephine de Beauharnais, Sir William Hamilton and Lady Emma Hamilton, Charles Dickens, John Soane, and the young Franz Liszt. However, Braham’s fame didn’t spare him from anti-Semitic attacks, even by those, like the poet Charles Lamb, who admired his art.
In 1821 Lamb wrote: “B–[raham] would have been more in keeping if he had abided by the faith of his forefathers. There is a fine scorn in his face, which nature meant to be of Christians. The Hebrew spirit is strong in him, in spite of his proselytism. He cannot conquer the Shibboleth. How it breaks out, when he sings, “The Children of Israel passed through the Red Sea!”.
This enchanting watercolour by James Rannie Swinton depicts Frances Countess Waldegrave in the prime of her youth, probably around the date of her marriage to John Waldegrave (1838), the first of her four husbands. When John Waldegrave died in 1840, Frances controversially married his brother, George, the Seventh Earl Waldegrave. He was the grandson and descendent of Horace Walpole’s great niece, Elizabeth Waldegrave, and it was through him that Frances inherited Strawberry Hill, thereby maintaining her link with the house and the title of Countess Waldegrave. After George’s death in 1846, Lady Waldegrave was left a substantial income, and fifteen years later, by now married to her third husband, George Granville Harcourt, she used her fortune to secure Strawberry Hill House’s future. Between 1860 and 1862 she expanded the house and built a new wing in the gothic style.
The Horace Walpole collection was dispersed at auction in 1842 by Lady Waldegrave’s second husband, the dissolute 7th Earl of Waldegrave.
“So the trinkets of Strawberry Hill are to be sold. O perpetuity! O fame! And family pride! Those acquisitions of Horace Walpole fall into the hands of a Jewess and are sold”
This is how a member of the Waldegrave family commented on the 1842 sale, blaming the one person who would instead play a vital role in preserving Walpole’s legacy.
Frances Waldegrave not only spent lavishly in order to restore Strawberry Hill to its ancient splendour, she also committed herself, where possible, to the recovery of works of art once belonging to Walpole.
In this historic picture, on the back of the wall of the Waldegrave Drawing Room (the centrepiece of the new wing), is clearly visible Joshua Reynolds’ Three Ladies Waldegrave (1780-1) accompanied by other paintings that once belonged to Horace Walpole.
Lady Waldegrave honoured her father, and hung a full length portrait of the Jewish singer in pride of place in the Waldegrave Drawing Room. She was also an enthusiastic supporter of contemporary artists, such as William Holman Hunt, James Sant, Marshall Wood, and Edward Lear. The latter was a frequent guest at Strawberry Hill as he was the great friend of her fourth husband, the British Liberal politician Chichester Fortescue, who she married in 1863. Lady Waldegrave commissioned a pair of significant paintings from Lear, depicting Jerusalem and Masada – two key sites in Jewish history. Lear wrote to Fortescue from Corfu on the 27 December 1857 in advance of his trip to what was then Palestine: “Now my particular idea at the present hour is to paint Lady Waldegrave’s 2nd picture from Masada whither I intend to go on purpose to make correct drawings… My reason for this choice is, that not only I know the fortress of Masada to be a wonder of picturesqueness (sic), but that I consider it as embodying one of the extremist developments of the Hebrew character, i.e. consistency of purpose & immense patriotism. This subject I believe will as it were ‘match’ Jerusalem well.” (The Letters of Edward Lear, ed. Lady Strachey, 1907, pp.69-70).
Lady Waldegrave became known as one of the foremost political hostesses of Victorian Britain. She, along with her last husband Chichester Fortescue, managed a wide circle of political friendships, both nationally and internationally. Whilst she was deeply involved with the fortunes of the Liberal Party, for which Fortescue was an MP and cabinet minister, the parties she hosted at Strawberry Hill were deliberately bi-partisan. Lord Russell, Gladstone and Disraeli were all regular visitors to Strawberry Hill.
Despite being a liberal salonnière, Lady Waldegrave deeply admired Benjamin Disraeli. In 1853 after listening to Disraeli’s oration at the Duke of Wellington’s state funeral, she told her husband that she was “proud of being a Jew”.
Among the objects belonging to Lady Waldegrave that have recently re-emerged, are a photographic portrait of Disraeli embellished with a graceful hand-decorated frame and the novel Lothair (1870). The novel explores the merits and demerits of the Catholic and Anglican churches as heirs of Judaism (leaning in favour of the latter).
Among her closest neighbours in Twickenham were members of the Orléans family, the French royal dynasty that had been forced into exile by the 1848 Revolution. Lady Waldegrave took the Orleans under her wing, and developed strong friendships with the duc d’Aumale and the duchesse d’Aumale, copies of whose portraits she hung at Strawberry Hill. Aumale was a highly respected soldier, historian, art collector and political figure: he was delighted to make Lady Waldegrave, or ‘Wawa’, his confidante. His nephew, the comte de Paris, also looked to her for advice on regaining the throne. Both men were deeply saddened when Lady Waldegrave died in 1874. At Chantilly, the French chateau renovated by the duc d’Aumale, there are many letters and paintings testifying to this special friendship.
The Sterns were a Jewish family originally from Frankfurt, Germany, where Jakob Stern established the family bank in 1805. Following in the footsteps of the Rothschilds, the patriarch later sent a number of his sons out to build new ventures in Paris and London.
The brothers David and Hermann set up the Stern Brothers in London, soon to be recognised as one of the most successful and reputable banking houses in the capital.
Baron Hermann de Stern (1815-1887) (the title was conferred by the King of Portugal) was an active member of the Anglo-Jewish Association (AJA) established in 1871 and a patron of the Jews’ Free School.
In 1884 he acquired Strawberry Hill from Chichester Fortescue, but could enjoy it only for a few years as he died in 1887. At the time of his death, he was the 13th richest man in England.
He was buried in the Balls Pond Road Jewish Cemetery along with prominent members of the West London Synagogue, such as the Goldsmid and Mocatta families.
Hermann de Stern invested in many charities in the Whitechapel area and after he died, his younger son Herbert (Alfred, the elder, was mentally ill and died in a sanatorium) sponsored the addition of a clock tower in memory of his father to be built at the People’s Palace, situated on the Mile End road. At the turn of the 20th century the areas of Whitechapel, Spitalfields and Stepney were home to the UK’s largest Jewish community. Most of the inhabitants lived in precarious conditions but were actively sustained by the leaders of Anglo-Jewry who sought through donations to develop community organisations and education. The People’s Palace was established to provide these communities with ‘intellectual improvement and rational recreation’. The original building was completely destroyed by a fire in 1931, but the tower, probably designed by architect Edward Robson, survived.
From the late 1850s, members of the Stern family engaged in the newly popular pastime of posing for a photograph. They exchanged their portraits with other family members, friends and acquaintances and displayed their collection in leather-bound albums.
One such album reveals the Stern family’s social world in the 1860s and 1870s, as well as the family’s engagement with European culture, and the German ideals of self-cultivation and education (Bildung). It exhibits portraits of Baron Hermann de Stern, his children, and relatives, in England, Paris, Frankfurt and Vienna, alongside financiers (Sir Moses Montefiore, Junius Morgan and George Peabody), and their daughter’s piano teacher Clara Schumann, as well as Royal Academy artist Henry O’Neil, novelist Wilkie Collins and the scientist John Tyndall, with whom the Baroness corresponded.
The album also displays commercial portraits that illustrate the family’s cultural identity. These include portraits of contemporary statesman (Léon Gambetta and Kaiser Wilhelm I), German artists (poets Schiller and Goethe; writers Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and Alexandre Von Humboldt) and musicians (Schumann, Liszt, Schubert and Bach).
In 1897, ten years after his father’s death, Herbert Stern, inherited Strawberry Hill. In this photo, published in Sketch in 1908, we see Herbert in front of the main entrance at Strawberry Hill together with his wife Aimee Geraldine Bradshaw.
When they married in 1899, Herbert was 47 and Geraldine 17. Theirs was described as a quiet wedding, presumably because of the difference in religion and age. In July 1905 Herbert de Stern was created a Baronet of Strawberry Hill and in December of the same year he was raised to the peerage as Baron Michelham of Hellingley, in the county of Sussex. There was some criticism in the press – ostensibly because he was not a sufficiently distinguished public figure – but presumably also because he was a Jew. The Washington Post commented: “Of all the new peerages that have been created there is none that has excited so much criticism as this one, which cannot even be regarded as a compliment to the Jewish race since Lord Michelham has never been identified with any of the Jewish philanthropic movements and is, moreover, married to a Christian …”.
Apart from Strawberry Hill, Lord Michelham owned Imber Court Park in Surrey and occasionally resided with his family at Michelham Priory. In the 1890s his town residence was situated at n. 26 Princes Gate, just off Hyde Park. For it he commissioned some especially lavish redecoration from H. Hanks, probably the decorator Herbert Hanks of Berners Street. A marble staircase was installed, the walls of the entrance hall and staircase were veneered in grey veined marble, and the floor was laid with marble mosaic. An oak dado and scagliola columns were added to the dining room, and the library was fitted with richly carved bookcases, a massive Renaissance chimneypiece and a Jacobethan-style moulded-plaster ceiling. The marble work in the hall and the staircase still survive.
We don’t know whether Herbert Stern was observant or not, perhaps his ties to religion had been weakened by his marriage to a Christian woman. However, Herbert never converted to Christianity and is buried like his father in the Balls Pond Road Jewish Cemetery in Islington, London.
His parents Hermann and Julia were undoubtedly observant in Jewish religious matters, like his sister Laura. In this slide is an image of Laura’s copy of The Old Testament with her mother’s dedication from 1870.
Families like the Stern were inherently European. Herbert and his wife Geraldine, by now Lord and Lady Michelham, used to spend long periods in France where they participated in the exciting life of Herbert’s family, who lived between elegant chateaux in the countryside (fig.1) and sumptuous mansions in the French capital. The couple owned a lavish apartment full of works of art at number 23 rue Nitot in Paris (fig.2). Herbert’s cousin, Louis, lived at n.68 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré (fig.3) and was a renowned collector of portraits by Reynolds, Moorish ceramics, Egyptian antiquities, Islamic art and medieval sculptures, some of which were eventually bequeathed to the Cluny museum and the Louvre. Louis’s wife, Ernesta Stern née Hierschel de Minerbi, was a beguiling writer and a socialite. Louis and Ernesta owned Villa Torre Clementina at Roquebrun, Cap Saint Martin (fig.4) and Palazzetto Stern on the Grand Canal in Venice(fig.5).
According to journalist Colin Simpson, Herbert Stern and his future wife met for the first time in 1898, at the Epsom races, having been introduced by Ernest Duveen.
The Duveen brothers, of Jewish Dutch origin, were among the most prominent art dealers of the first half of the 20th century.
They started their careers as interior designers and eventually gained international fame for selling French antique furnishings, objets d’art and old master paintings to American collectors for record prices. Between 1909 to 1939, the troubled economic conditions in Europe, coupled with the vast disposable income of America’s millionaire class, created the ideal market conditions for the transfer of European art treasures to the mansions of America. The Duveen maintained branches in London, Paris, and New York, and were instrumental in the formation of private collections that became the core of the Frick Collection, the Huntington Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
Lady Michelham would later become one of the Duveen’s most important clients on this side of the Atlantic, liaising especially with Joseph Duveen, the most prominent member of the firm.
Joseph Duveen set about educating Geraldine (whose nickname in Duveen’s notebook was Cupid) in matters of taste and all things fashionable in France. Duveen provided the fixtures and fittings of the Michelhams’ homes at Strawberry Hill, Princes Gate, rue Nitot and Arlington Street, their last conjugal mansion in London.
Under Duveen’s supervision, Herbert and Geraldine amassed large collections of fashionable 18th-century French antique furniture, paintings and porcelain but also invested heavily in Georgian portraits by Constable, Gainsborough, Romney and Lawrence. This was a taste that was quite widespread at the time, especially among the wealthy American collectors and the cosmopolitan Jewish elite.
When Lord Michelham died in 1919, Lady Michelham decided to continue the decoration of the house that her late husband had acquired in Arlington Street near the Ritz Hotel.
Elevation to the peerage made garden parties at Strawberry Hill increasingly lavish. Guests included prime ministers, foreign princes and numerous lords and ladies. In 1905 Lord Michelham counted, with Lords Rothschild, Swaythling and Wandsworth, as one of four Jewish members of the House of Lords, but unlike most of his political peers and members of his family, he was a Tory. Like Lady Waldegrave before them, the Sterns became members of the Anglo Jewish elite, moving in powerful social and political circles. They came to enjoy the company of the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII. Fashionable magazines like The Tatler (1908 and 1912) and The Sketch (1914) published illustrated inserts that documented the glamorous parties at Strawberry Hill. The most successful were those organised in 1908, when Lord and Lady Michelham entertained competitors and officials of the London Olympic Games, and in 1912, in honour of Lord and Lady Lansdowne and the vice presidents of the London Municipal Society. The last great event to be held at Strawberry Hill was a Fancy Dress Ball in 1914. During these parties guests were entertained by the great Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, by mime Malcolm Scott, by American singer Miss Ethel Levey and even by a living baby Elephant in the garden!
As emerges from the Duveen archives, most of the works of art in the Stern collection were located in their city mansions in Paris and London. However, Strawberry Hill also hosted fine pieces, especially during the garden party season. The villa already contained Lady Waldegrave’s early Italian works that Chichester Fortescue had sold to the Sterns together with the house. A photographic feature appeared in Country Life in 1924, just after the sale of Strawberry Hill to the Catholic Education Service, showed how some rooms of the house had been furnished in the Rococo style, associated with pre-revolutionary France. Moreover, perhaps inspired by Walpole’s antiquarianism, the Sterns had acquired some historical memorabilia, including the the so-called Napoleon’s armchair that was displayed in the Tribune and the famous Essex Ring donated by Queen Elizabeth I to her beloved Earl of Essex (now held in Westminster Abbey Library).
Thanks to contemporary sources we know that the highlight of the Michelham collection, the famous Portrait of Sarah Goodin Barrett Moulton, ‘Pinkie’, by Thomas Lawrence (now held at the Huntingdon Library, San Marino, California) was at one point displayed at Strawberry Hill.
The painting portrays Sarah Barrett Moulton, who was about eleven years old at the time. She was born in Jamaica from a family of rich landowners, slave owners and exporters of sugar. In September 1792, Sarah and her brothers sailed to England to get a better education and in 1793 Sarah’s grandmother, who had remained in Jamaica, commissioned a portrait of ‘dear little Pinkey…’ to be executed in London. Sarah probably began sitting for Lawrence, painter-in-ordinary to George III, at his studio in Old Bond Street in 1794. One year later, on 23 April 1795, she tragically died at Greenwich, aged 12.
The painting was bought by Lady Michelham in 1910 thanks to the mediation of the Duveen brothers.
In 1926 it was offered for sale with the rest of the Michelham collection. At the sale, the art dealer Knoedler opposed Joseph Duveen in the ‘battle’ for Pinkie, which Duveen eventually purchased for 73,000 guineas, a record price for Lawrence. It was then sold to the American railway magnate Henry Huntingdon of Pasadena, California.
In 1904 Herbert de Stern acquired at Christie’s the sculpture Virgilia Bewailing the Banishment of Coriolanus by Thomas Woolner, an English sculptor and poet who was one of the founder-members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The sculpture had been commissioned from Woolner by the collector and philanthropist Lady Ashburton and presented at the Royal Academy in 1871. It cost Lady Ashburton £2000 but on her death Stern paid only 8 guineas for it. “It is a pity that sculpture is so much neglected in this country” was The Daily Telegraph comment about the ridiculous price. Virgilia is the only work of art purchased by the Sterns that still survives at Strawberry Hill. It was placed in the entrance lobby which was created by Lady Waldegrave. When Walpole’s original entrance was restored, the sculpture was moved to the Exhibition Room where Lady Waldegrave’s beautiful Minton tiles can also be seen. Herbert must have been an admirer of neo-classical sculpture since he also displayed at Strawberry Hill an imposing mythological figure of Semiramis realised by the American sculptor Thomas Waldo Story.
Herbert Stern shared with his brother-in-law David Salomons a passion for modern technologies and musical innovations. In an article appeared on The Sketch in 1905 we read: “Sir Herbert is a lover of music and has [at Strawberry Hill] two enormous orchestrions in the west wing. One is so large, indeed, that it occupies two storeys, and represents a Guards band of seventy performers. It came from Covent Garden and is the largest instrument of its kind in the world”. These were philharmonic electric organs similar to the one installed in 1914 by David Salomons at Broomhill and still on site, whereas the organs that were at Strawberry Hill are untraced.
Herbert and David had also another passion in common, cars, still quite rare at the time. In 1898 Herbert hosted at Strawberry Hill the annual meeting of The Automobile Club of Great Britain.
In Britain, where the tradition of donating art or money by the aristocracy to public institutions was far less developed than in other countries such as France and Germany, some Jewish magnates offered a striking counter example.
In 1906 Lord Michelham contributed the remarkable sum of £8000 to the campaign of the The National Art Collections Fund (today known as the Art Fund) to save an exceptional work of art for the nation: The Toilet of Venus by the Spanish master Diego Velasquez, also known as the ‘Rokeby Venus’ (National Gallery of London).
Lord Michelham gave also £3000 for the restoration of Selby Abbey, a Norman building in Yorkshire
The ‘Green Park Arch’, designed by architect Decimus Burton in the 1820s, had a troubled life. In 1828 the arch was completed, but deprived of its upper decoration because of a lack of money. It was temporarily topped with a gigantic and oversized equestrian portrait of the Duke of Wellington.
On the suggestion of the Prince of Wales, the arch was eventually crowned with a bronze charioteer (quadriga) by sculptor Adrian Jones (1845–1938), for the execution of which Lord Michelham made a donation of about £20,000. The quadriga was unveiled in January 1912.
A plaque on the west face of the arch reads:
The Quadriga surmounting this arch was presented to the nation as a mark of deepest loyalty and respect to his late revered Majesty Edward VII by Herbert First Baron Michelham of Hellingly KCVO.
It is said that the facial features of the young charioteer leading the quadriga were inspired by Lord Michelham son Herman, then 11 years old.
At the Epsom races Lord Michelham not only met his future wife, but also Jefferson Davis Cohn, a British American publisher, often described as an “adventurer”, and Horatio Bottomley, a gambler specialising in forming speculative joint stock companies. Cohn’s main function was to procure wealthy clients, such as the Sterns, for both the Duveens and Bottomley. Cohn eventually became Lord Michelham’s secretary and gossip runs that he fathered Lord and Lady Michelham’s second son, Jack.
In 1907 Lord Michelham, who was often described as a somewhat impulsive man, was heavily implicated in Horatio Bottomley’s second bankruptcy and two years later he suffered a stroke. From this moment on the couple spent longer periods in France either at Deauville, on Jefferson Cohn’s yacht Alberta, or in Paris where they lavishly entertained at n. 23 Rue Nitot. Lord Michelham withdrew from the family firm and registered a new company in Paris together with Cohn and Bottomley.
During the war the Michelhams directed their various philanthropic activities from Paris. They sponsored various military convalescent homes for French and British Officers. The first one was established in Cimiez on the Riviera. Lady Michelham was personally involved with the running of the hospital. She also funded a hospital train and in 1914 she was awarded the Legion of Honour. In 1915, while at the front with the ambulance train given by her husband, she became the President of the League of Mercy. In the same year Baron Michelham acquired the Hotel Astoria in Paris and transformed it into an hospital for the British troops.
Giovanni Boldini, a friend of Degas, was one of the most fashionable portrait painters of the early 20th century. Here Boldini depicts a lively and feminine 35 year old Geraldine. During the war and despite her activity as a Red Cross nurse at the front, Lady Michelham continued to organise parties and events in Paris.
In this portrait Boldini emphasises the unusual combination of glamour and wartime by focusing the viewer’s attention on Geraldine’s chest decorated with medals of honour and beautifully framed by a string of pearls (rumour is that Geraldine owned 19 yards of pearls!). The first medal on the right is the Legion of Honour; she also obtained the Order of Mercy, the Médaille des épidémies and the 1914 Star for her war work. After the death of her husband in 1919, Geraldine entered a louche circle of debts and alcohol. She had an affair with Captain Arthur Edward “Boy” Capel, particularly famous for having long been Coco Chanel’s lover. In 1926 Lady Michelham remarried with American rodeo performer Mr Fredrick Almy (also called the Cowboy Millionaire). In 1923 she resolved to sell Strawberry Hill while in 1926, probably due to the numerous debts she had contracted, she sold the grand town house at 20, Arlington street and the collection of English pictures and French furniture. Some of the paintings reached record prices.
Strawberry Hill was bought by St Mary’s College in 1923.
Lady Michelham died in 1927 at the age of only 44 in her apartment in Paris.
In different ways Lady Waldegrave and the Sterns’ brought the Villa back to the centre of the social and artistic attention of their time. The genius of Horace Walpole has for a long time eclipsed any serious research into their life and activity at Strawberry Hill.
We hope with this small exhibition to have corrected, at least in part, this oversight.
Jewish Country Houses Project
Since 2018 Strawberry Hill House has collaborated with the Jewish Country Houses Project, a 4-year research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, you can find more information about the project and the ongoing initiatives here: https://jch.history.ox.ac.uk/home
We would love to hear your feedback on this online exhibition, if you have any comments you would like to share then please email Silvia Davoli, Curator at Strawberry Hill House: firstname.lastname@example.org
Select bibliography for Lady Waldegrave:
Osbert Wyndham Hewett, Strawberry Fair. A Biography of Frances, Countess Waldegrave 1821-1879, London, 1956.
K.D. Reynolds, Aristocratic Women and Political Society in Victorian Britain, Oxford, 1998.
David Conway, “John Braham – from meshorrer to tenor”, in Jewish Historical Studies, 2007, vol.41 (2007), pp.37-61.
British Library Blogs:
Strachey Papers in Somerset Heritage Centre:
Select bibliography for the Sterns:
Cyril Grange, Une élite parisienne: les familles de la grande bourgeoisie juive (1870-1939 ), Paris, 2016.
Colin Simpson, The Artful Partners. The Secret Association of Bernard Berenson and Joseph Duveen, London, 1987 pp. 168-181.
Meryle Secrest, Duveen: A Life in Art, Chicago, 2005.
For a general overview of the Edwardian age and patronage, see:
J. Mordaunt Crook, The Rise of the Nouveaux Riches: Style and Status in Victorian and Edwardian Architecture, London, 1999.
This exhibition is curated by Silvia Davoli (curator at Strawberry Hill), in collaboration with Nino Strachey (writer and former Head of Research for the National Trust), Tom Stammers (Associate Professor in Modern European Cultural History, University of Durham), Michele Klein (Independent Researcher), Chris Jones (curator, Salomons Museum), Bethan Wood (Marketing and Communication Manager, Strawberry Hill) and Carole Tucker (Hon Librarian at Strawberry Hill).
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Strawberry Hill House is internationally famous as Britain’s finest example of Georgian Gothic Revival architecture.