THE SASSOONS: A FASCINATING FAMILY. Esther da Costa Meyer is Professor emerita in the Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University, and Visiting Professor at the Yale School of Architecture. She has worked on both modern and contemporary architecture, on the architectural practices of the old colonial powers, particularly France, and on the emerging cultures of resistance in colonized nations that were highly resilient and creative. Her book Dividing Paris: Urban Renewal and Social Inequality, 1852-1870 (Princeton University Press) came out in February 2022. Her recent curatorial work (at the Jewish Museum in New York) includes Pierre Chareau: Modern Architecture and Design (2016), and The Sassoons (2023), this last co-curated with Claudia Nahson.

You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.

Esther da Costa Meyer, how did The Sassoons exhibition come about?

This exhibition is the fruit of my collaboration with Claudia Nahson, the Morris and Eva Feld Senior Curator at the Jewish Museum, who shared my interest in Jewish contributions to Shanghai. Victoria Sassoon, the daughter of the current Lord Sassoon, James Sassoon, had been in a student in a class that I taught on Shanghai. On a visit to that city, we saw several buildings erected by the Sassoons.  A few years later, Claudia and I came up with the idea for the exhibition centered on the Sassoons, which Claudia took to the Jewish Museum and they gave us the go-ahead. We worked on it for four and a half years before the exhibition opened.

Can you tell me about the Sassoon family?

The Sassoon family had to maintain its identity in the midst of constant change. This family has a social and cultural history like no other. They were Mizrahi, Jews from the Middle East, who had to flee Baghdad because of persecution. In 1830 David Sassoon went to Persia for about two years, and in 1832 he moved permanently to Bombay, as Mumbai was then called. The Sassoons began trading in a diversified portfolio of pearls, spices, cotton, dyes and eventually opium, like thousands of other merchants at the time, but their transnational trajectory was remarkable. It took them to Hong Kong and Shanghai in China, but also to Rangoon in Burma and Kobe in Japan. The Sassoons didn’t move through these cultures as self-contained entities. They absorbed cultures. They absorbed languages. They absorbed environments, cuisines.  Their collections reflect those cultures, whether  manuscripts, Chinese porcelain or paintings or Western art, but the Sassoons retained something of their identity in the midst of it all. It is a modern, transnational story of a family that embraced multiple identities and created a legacy through their cultural philanthropy and civic initiatives. They established hospitals, libraries, and schools in their adopted countries, be it India or Britain.

“The Sassoon family had to maintain its identity in the midst of constant change.”

Esther da Costa Meyer

Attributed to William Melville, Portrait of David Sassoon (b. Baghdad 1792-died Pune, India, 1864), mid-nineteenth century, oil on canvas, 41.5 x 33 in. (105.4 x 83.8 cm), private collection. In the background are the hill of Malabar and Back Bay in Mumbai.

Esther da Costa Meyer, did David Sassoon disperse his children geographically, as did Mayer Amschel Rothschild, the ancestor of the Rothschild family?

Yes. David Sassoon had two wives – his first wife died very young – and he had eight sons and six daughters. Sons, grandsons and great-grandsons all served in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Mumbai/Bombay,  occasionally Baghdad and later in England. Most remarkably, within a generation David Sassoon’s eldest son and heir was knighted and received at the British court while the Sassoons entertained the royal family at their luxurious Brighton home and at Tulchan, their Scottish hunting lodge.

Which Sassoons were these?

Sassoon David was the first to arrive, followed by his brothers Reuben, Albert, and Arthur. They entertained the royal family in a grand manner. Arthur branched off from family custom; his wife Louise Perugia was the first outsider, coming from a very cultured family in Trieste. She was a great hostess and a brilliant woman; King Edward VII and his wife were very fond of her and her husband, and often stayed with them. They also married into the De Gunzburg family of Russia and the French Rothschilds. Aline de Rothschild, daughter of Baron Gustave de Rothschild, married Edward Sassoon, a grandson of David Sassoon and son of his heir Albert.

When did they arrive in Britain?

The Sassoons arrived in Britain in 1858 when David Sassoon, a brilliant businessman,  sent his third son to Britain to establish a beachhead for the family business. When they came to Britain,  they were very conscious of their position as a pre-eminent family in Baghdad and Bombay, and to acquire the kind of cultural capital that the British aristocracy had, they began to buy storied estates like Ashley Park and Pope’s Manor. But cultural capital cannot be bought. The Sassoons earned it by becoming not only great collectors but great connoisseurs and renowned scholars in several fields.

Women were prominent in the Sassoon family, and the exceptionally talented journalist Rachel Sassoon Beer was editor and owner of both The Sunday Times and The Observer. She followed the Dreyfus Affair, a major issue in Europe at the time, and interviewed Major Esterhazy and obtained his confession.

Rachel Sassoon is one of our heroes, one of the people who inspired us to work on the Sassoon women. The Dreyfus Affair was world history, and this woman had the courage to interview Esterhazy and publish his confession. She was also a composer, and, together with her husband, a collector of works by Constable and Rubens, among others, and owned 15 paintings by Corot.

Sir Philip Sassoon collected artists such as Gainsborough and was also a friend of the famous painter Sargent.

John Singer Sargent was a great friend of Aline de Rothschild Sassoon;  her children, Philip and Sybil, who were born in Paris at the home of their maternal grandfather the Baron de Rothschild, maintained this great friendship. Philip was an important collector of Sargent’s work, and Sargent considered Sybil to be one of the great beauties of the age. Many of the Sargent portraits are still in private hands.  David Rocksavage, now Lord Cholmondeley, was one of the major lenders to our exhibition. He owns a great many of them, beautifully displayed in his palatial country house, Houghton Hall.

During the First World War Philip Sassoon was Field Marshal Haig’s secretary and he arranged for several artists, including Sargent, to paint trench warfare. The Sassoons were great patriots. David Sassoon had fourteen grandsons and great-grandsons who served for the British in the war, including the poet Siegfried Sassoon.

“Before David Sassoon died in 1864 he began to endow schools, a hospital, an old people’s home, a reformatory, and a library.”

Esther da Costa Meyer, did the Sassoons remain attached to their Jewish heritage?

Yes, David Solomon Sassoon, who was a scholar of Hebrew, amassed one of the most important collections of Judaica that the world has ever seen. To give an idea of the breadth of their collection of Hebrew manuscripts and Judaica, Claudia Nahson, who is a great specialist in manuscripts, curated a remarkable selection spanning some 700 years and ranging from Iraq, Iran, Syria, India, and Yemen to Spain, Catalonia, France, and Germany.

Is the Judaica collection you assembled for the exhibition still in the family?

No, the grandchildren began to sell the collection and many extraordinary objects and manuscripts are scattered in top museums and private collections around the world.  The family still has important holdings in Israel.

The Sassoons seem to have retained their cultural identity, despite their close association with, for example, the British Raj in India?

When David Sassoon arrived in Bombay, he had lost his homeland and was part of a stateless minority. He had to be in league with the British,  but he remained proudly and defiantly Jewish throughout his life. The two photographs we have of him, a lithograph, a portrait, and the statues of David Sassoon, show him in Baghdadi Jewish dress with a turban. He never gave in. Although he spoke Hebrew, Arabic, Persian (the language of business) and Turkish – he was born an Ottoman subject – and mastered Hindustani, he never learned English. He signed documents in Hebrew and remained a person who wanted to be respected as a Jew. As the leader of the Baghdadi Jewish community, he built two synagogues in Bombay and Pune. Before David Sassoon died in 1864 he began to endow schools, a hospital, an old people’s home, a reformatory, and a library.

Did David Sassoon, the originator of this great family fortune, want somehow to avenge the fact that he was forced to leave his own country and find a new life?

Over the years, as their businesses grew, the Sassoons brought in hundreds of other Jewish Baghdadis to work for them. David Sassoon wanted to raise the profile of the Baghdadi Jews, and he did this through his charitable institutions, which were not only for his community but for the Indians as a whole. The hospital he built in Pune was open to all castes and classes, which was unusual. Some of the buildings David Sassoon left have recently been restored by India’s great restorer, Abha Narain Lambah, including the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue in the centre of Mumbai, an absolutely exquisite work. This restoration was paid for by an Indian conglomerate, the JSW Foundation, which shows that the people of Mumbai have embraced this synagogue as part of their heritage.  This year they re-opened the David Sassoon Library in Mumbai, also restored by Abha Narain Lambah, and underwritten by the same foundation.

And what about in China?

After David died, one of the sons, Elias David Sassoon, split from the family business and set up his own extremely successful firm. His grandson Victor Sassoon established his own beachhead in Shanghai where he became a major figure in the hospitality industry, building magnificent Art Deco hotels and residences. All the great Art Deco buildings left by Victor Sassoon have been restored by the Chinese, who clearly recognise their urban and architectural importance.

Who actually constructed all these buildings?

In Bombay the architects were largely British, but the engineer of the David Sassoon Library was a famous Indian Parsi, Muncherji Cowasji Murzban. The Parsis were very close to the Baghdadi Jews,  (David and his elder sons spoke Persian, as did the Parsis). In Shanghai, Victor Sassoon had very important British architects, but he occasionally used Jewish refugees as engineers and architects whenever he could. He also had a large number of Chinese contractors and worked very closely with them. We would now think of them as engineers and some, as landscape architects.

Esther da Costa Meyer

Passover Haggadah, Kolkota, 1868, ink, gouache, and shell gold on paper. 19.4 cm x 12.7 cm, Collection of Jane and Stuart Weitzman, formerly in the David Solomon Sassoon Collection (no. 363).

Esther da Costa Meyer

A view of The Sassoons Exhibition at the Jewish Musuem, New York City, showing in particular a figure of the Daoist immortal Li Tieguai, China, Republican period, twentieth century, ivory, 48.5 cm high, London, British Museum, Sir Victor Sassoon Chinese Ivories Trust.

Esther da Costa Meyer

John Singer Sargent, Sybil, Countess of Rocksavage, 1922, oil on canvas, 161.3 x 89.8 cm, Norfolk, UK, Houghton Hall Collection.

Esther da Costa Meyer

Glyn Warren Philpot, Head of Billy, 1912-13, oil on canvas, 50.8 x 40.6cm, private collection, formerly in the Philip Sassoon Collection.

Esther da Costa Meyer

Thomas Gainsborough, The Artist with His Wife and Daughter, c. 1748, oil on canvas, 92.1 x 70.5 cm, London, National Gallery, acquired under the acceptance-in-lieu scheme at the wish of Sybil, Marchioness of Cholmondeley, in memory of her brother, Sir Philip Sassoon, 1994, formerly in the Philip Sassoon Collection.

Esther da Costa Meyer
An example of an English country garden

“We saw a family that had left its mark in the history of two world wars and made signal contributions to culture.”

Esther da Costa Meyer, did the Sassoons build in England?

In England they didn’t build so much because when they arrived they had to acquire residences that reflected their high status very quickly. Philip Sassoon, the great tastemaker, did build a magnificent villa called Port Lympne, which played an important political role when he was secretary to Lloyd George, the Prime Minister. It was to this villa that the French President and other high dignitaries came to discuss German reparations after the First World War. His cousin, Mozelle Sassoon, built a beautiful modernist International Style building in London for the working class, and Philip Sassoon himself built a working-class estate in Folkestone, his constituency. So the Sassoons built less in England, but they gave their money to institutions that needed their help, to museums, many charities, and innumerable hospitals.

What happened to the family during the Second World War?

Victor Sassoon was in Shanghai when the first Jews arrived in 1936, fleeing the Nazis; and Victor and other Baghdadi Jews like the Kadoories, the Ezras, the Abrahams and many others set up a fund and began to create the conditions to receive some 20,000 Jews fleeing the Nazis. The biggest donor of all was Victor Sassoon. He was one of the richest men in the world at the time, but he left China in 1948 after the Communist takeover and lost his properties there and much of his wealth. Overall the Sassoons played a major role during the Second World War: they were all part of the war effort back in London and the Sassoons who remained in Bombay and Kolkata/Calcutta helped to support the 2,000 Jewish refugees who ended up in India. The Sassoons are on record as having done everything they could to help their co-religionists during the Second World War.

What happened between the two branches of the family and are they still at odds?

The son who split off, Elias David, eventually became the more successful businessman, but by the third generation there was virtually no friction among the family members. Almost all the Sassoons ended up in Britain. One branch, the descendants of Flora Sassoon, and her son David Solomon Sassoon, ended up in Israel and now we have Sassoons in the USA, as well.  Joseph Sassoon, a professor at Georgetown University and descendant of another branch of the family, wrote a book about the Sassoons called The Global Merchants.

Are the Sassoons still a powerful business family?

No, but lately, there has been a lot of talk of the “rise and fall” of the Sassoons. Claudia and I did not see that. I think it was the fact that several members of the fourth generation were not directly involved in business, which allowed them to become major connoisseurs and scholars. We saw a family that had left its mark in the history of two world wars and made signal contributions to culture.

Is the Sassoon family story an ongoing passion of yours?

Both Claudia and I are still very interested in continuing to work on this project. We’ve worked on it for five years and it’s very hard to give up. I would love to see the exhibition travel and come to England or elsewhere in Europe.

That would be great. Hopefully it can be arranged.