The Improbability of Love

You are quite eclectic and your work has ranged from documentary films, to banking, to philanthropy, to biography, and now to a novel. Why do you think you have many different facets?

I have that kind of restless, inquisitive mind. It’s almost like a steam engine, I need to put in different logs to keep going. I love doing different projects and pushing myself in different fields. I have been very lucky through my family to get involved in philanthropy and in banking and farming, and through my own personal interests in different kinds of storytelling. I see documentary film making and writing biographies and novels and pieces of journalism as a part of storytelling, which is another passion of mine. I grew up with beautiful works of art, having been dragged around art museums from a very early age, and paintings are a different side of telling stories.

Jean-Antoine-Watteau. Pierrot, formerly known as Gilles. The Louvre.

Jean-Antoine-Watteau. Pierrot, formerly known as Gilles. © The Louvre.

I read that you felt very lonely in Paris, and then you encountered Watteau. Would you tell me about that experience?

I was 16, living in Paris, lonely, I had no friends, I couldn’t and still can’t speak a word of French, and I had a holiday job in the Louvre. The only perk of that job was that I was allowed to walk through the gallery. I came face to face with this painting by Watteau of “Gilles”, this lonely clown and people having a party behind him. I met this lovely melancholic clown and I thought, this person knows how I am feeling. There was a shock of recognition and empathy across three or four hundred years. I fell in love with the paintings of Watteau at that minute, and I fell in love with art actually, thanks to Watteau, at that minute.

Many years later I saw in Lucien Freud’s studio his painting called “After Watteau”, which I believe is now in the Thyssen collection. Lucien Freud explained to me that Watteau at first glance seems to be ephemeral and light and inconsequential, but, if you look more closely, then behind that first shimmer of damask and frivolity there is something much darker. For example in the “Embarkation for Cythera”, in theory it’s about couples in love going on a voyage, but actually the couple are facing away from each other and the trees in the background are dying and instead of beautiful birds there are menacing rooks and crows. So it could be seen as a voyage to love or a voyage from love. This is why I am very interested by Watteau. He is a painter of contradictions.

Are you a woman of contradictions?

(she laughs). I am a little bit.


What kind of experience was it to write a novel and enter the literary world when you are already so busy?

It’s very exposing. Writing fiction is like taking your clothes off and standing in the middle of Oxford Circus and saying look at me when you don’t particularly want to!

You wrote a successful biography of your aunt, called The Baroness. Then you decided to turn to fiction. Why?

I had always had a dream of writing a novel, one day. I was getting older, and then older still, and I woke up one morning and I literally thought, ‘Today. Why not?’ I had some ideas tucked away from 20 years earlier, the idea really was about a picture that talked. On this day I took all these notes out of an old shoe box, the talking painting, an alcoholic mother, the story of a missing painting, these very dispirit ideas that I had been thinking about over a long period of time, and I just put them together. It was the most thrilling and exciting and difficult and tormenting project, so far. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend novel writing for those who want a quiet life.

How long did it take?

If you add up from the very first moment that I put down on a piece of paper about a talking picture to the final thing, then 20 years, but the concentrated period of writing was 18 months. I always had a day job, and I would get up very early and write, and write late at night, and I had no holidays except on my own for two years. I was a boring person during that time to my friends and family.

Did the book go well?

It certainly sold very well and it has won prizes. It’s in twelve different languages. I don’t know what the definition of going well is, but that certainly ticked my definitions.

Are you now writing a new one?

Oh yes, I have got the bug now. I am addicted.

What point are you at?

At the foothills, at the very beginning. It’s about families, something we all know about.

Is it also autobiographical?

Absolutely not (she laughs). But no writer can entirely escape from their own autobiography and, if they do it probably doesn’t ring true.


Your family is legendary and multi-talented. From birth you were already defined as a Rothschild. Was it difficult to become you?

Yes, very difficult. I felt overwhelmed by the expectations that the name visited on my shoulders, and I didn’t feel that I measured up in any way to the remarkable men and women in my family. My aunt Emma was an academic and a historian, my father Jacob is a financier amongst other things, my great-aunt Miriam was a brilliant scientist, my grandfather Victor was a scientist. I could go on and on. Everywhere I looked I saw excellence and I didn’t feel I was good, let alone excellent. I didn’t feel that I matched up to them, and I was also a woman and the Rothschild’s is a patriarchal family. Women are not allowed to work in the bank, they are only allowed to work as archivists or bookkeepers. I am the first to work in the family business. Only the women who are the daughters of the Lord Rothschilds are recorded in the family tree. It has changed, finally. Thankfully!

You are an intellectual by nature. Does the fact that you are a Rothschild make you feel different?

The place that I feel really at home is in my family, and actually that’s where I draw my strength. I don’t worry too much if I don’t feel at home in the other worlds because I always come back to my family, which is my refuge and my source of strength. As long as I have that to come back to I don’t mind feeling out of place elsewhere.

Waddesden Manor, c Susan Adams

Waddesdon Manor © Susan Adams

Are you ambitious?

I could have done nothing, but I felt it would be a much bigger disgrace not to do something than to try and do something and fail at it if you are lucky enough, which I was, to be born with so many advantages. Not everything I have done has by any means worked. It’s looking OK at the moment, but I have had long periods of time where every film I made didn’t work, and I wrote a book that was unpublishable. Looking back I now see those things were a learning process, but terribly painful and dispiriting at the time.

Why have you now ventured into the family business? It doesn’t seem to have been part of your training.

It isn’t my first training. I sit in a non-executive role and, if I have any strengths in business, it’s as a sounding board, coming up with ideas and making connections between people. I work much more on strategy, not on the minutiae of making trades. I don’t trade. We have very talented people here who work on trades. I do it for many reasons, one is because our family’s wealth is tied up in those businesses, so it’s important to take responsibility and be involved. You can’t just sit back and let other people do it, you have to try to understand and contribute.

c Susan Adams

Waddesdon Manor © Susan Adams

What about your siblings?

My brother Nat is very much doing his own thing, he lives in America and has his own businesses, so he’s not involved here with our family businesses. I have a sister who is a very distinguished gardener and another sister, one of whose daughters rides for England in show jumping and the other daughter is a professional three-day eventer, so her life is taken up very much with horses.  There is a whole new generation coming, and so I just have to hang on until the next generation gets here! At the moment my father is very involved, and my most important role is to try and learn from him and support him.

How did you become the Chairman of the Board of the National Gallery, which your father Jacob had been as well?

I had been a trustee for 8 years and I was elected as the next Chair. Jacob was the Chair, and I have followed in his footsteps. I see it as lucky that I have an éminence grise who was doing the same thing and who I can learn from. He’s my secret weapon. We’ve always had a very close relationship. I don’t know if it’s the male female dynamic, but we don’t fight and what we manage to do is to work out a modus operandi so that we get on very well. I listen to him, that’s for sure.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio The Taking of Christ, 1602 Oil on canvas 133.5 x 169.5 cm On indefinite loan to the National Gallery of Ireland from the Jesuit Community, Leeson St., Dublin who acknowledge the kind generosity of the late Dr Marie Lea-Wilson Photo © The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. The Taking of Christ, 1602. Oil on canvas. 133.5 x 169.5 cm
On indefinite loan to the National Gallery of Ireland from the Jesuit Community, Leeson St., Dublin who acknowledge the kind generosity of the late Dr Marie Lea-Wilson. Photo © The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

How do you organise your schedule?

I have very good teams of people around me in each of those areas that I work in, apart from novel writing. I am standing on the shoulders of giants, and getting the credit which is not really fair. I wake early, two of my three daughters still live at home, and two dogs. I try to get up at 6am before they do because it’s quiet and everyone else gets up at 7, so I have an hour at first – in an ideal world. On Monday and Tuesday I am at the National Gallery most of the day, Wednesdays and Thursdays I tend to be here in the family HQ where the holding company is run from. On Fridays I am at Waddesdon Manor, which is owned by the National Trust but that we as a family run for the National Trust. On weekends I write and stay at Waddesdon.

You seem to have a very well organised life. What do of work do you do for the National Gallery?

I work quite closely with the Director Gabriele Finaldi on things like strategy. At the moment one of our major issues is saving a painting by Pontormo for the nation. It was owned by an Irish Earl and he sold it to an American collector and we want to keep it in England, so we have to raise £31 million to keep it here for the British people. Then there are always staff issues, contracts and staffing levels. We have a new exhibition of Caravaggio paintings, “Beyond Caravaggio”, and lots of donors and the Press have to be looked after. We have to raise a minimum of £14 million a year just to keep the building open, so I do a lot of fundraising.

with Gabriele Finaldi and HRH the Prince of Wales. c. The National Gallery

HRH the Prince of WalesHannah with Hannah Rothschild and Gabriele Finaldi. © The National Gallery.

Is fundraising in Britain as much part of the culture as it is in America?

No, we are not nearly as good as America, partly because the American people have the idea of philanthropy built into their DNA. There are exceptions, but on the whole Americans are much more generous. They see that maintaining these great public institutions is very important as part of their society and the wellbeing of their country. In Europe people don’t generally see it as being that urgent; there are only a few very enlightened and generous individuals and foundations. It’s more difficult here.

Would you like to modernise the National Gallery?

The collection is from 1300 to 1900 and then after 1900 you go a little way up the road to the Tate and the story is taken over. For us to suddenly start majorly investing in the 20th Century in terms of art would be very difficult and we couldn’t afford it. What we can do is to modernise it in other ways. For example we will make online much more vibrant and exciting, so you can be sitting in Paris or Timbuktu and you can access the collection at the click of a mouse. We could make a new extension with many more modern aspects, including a better education center and exhibition center, but that’s a longer term project. The essence of the National Gallery that has been there for 200 years is unbelievable excellence, which has to be celebrated and nurtured. The National Gallery is about the absolute distillation of excellence in European art between 1300 and 1900.

View of the National Library of Israel, Herzog de Meuron

View of the National Library of Israel, Herzog & de Meuron

What about your father’s involvement in the Jewish world and Israel? Do you follow him there as well?

My children tease me and say that I am the most Jewish person they have ever met. I am involved in Israel, I am a Trustee of our family Foundation there called Yad Hanadiv, which was set up in the 1890s so it’s been going for a long time and built the Knesset. The heirs of cousin Dorothy de Rothschild … my aunt Emma, my cousins James and Beatrice Rosenberg, and my father and I are on the Board, a quota of Rothschilds, and then there are some other people. I go once or twice a year to Israel and I am pretty involved in the building of the new National Library. Herzog & de Meuron of Basel are the architects, and it’s an absolutely fantastic building. We give away quite considerable grants to education, to science, to technology, to culture, and I think we are one of the largest Foundations in Israel.

Your philanthropic work is very much part of the Rothschild tradition. How come?

Different reasons. It is part of the Jewish tradition and culture, which is that it is incumbent on Jews to give away a minimum of 10% of their income every year. Ideally you should give more. One of the reasons the family has survived over so many generations is because of its philanthropic activity. It brings us closer together as a family and reminds us of how lucky we are. A healthy society to live in is one where there is good philanthropy. I really believe that. You have to make society fairer for everybody, for everybody to enjoy living in it. There is no point in having lots and lots of money and wealth if the society you live in is completely broken, otherwise you end up living in a gated community, and in abject misery frankly.

Since when did the Rothschilds collect art? Was it from the beginning?

At the beginning the family energy was to make money to escape from the Ghetto in Frankfurt where they came from. The original family were confined to a very small street called Jews’ Lane, about 100 feet long and 10 feet wide, and in it lived thousands and thousands of Jews, and so they were desperate to escape that life and realised money was the way to escape. The first generation, when they had made money, realised that business was not just done in a boardroom but in society, so they used art in the first instance to belong. They used art as a passport to society exactly as contemporary Russian oligarchs and Chinese heiresses do. Art is a wonderful passport and elixir, and has turned out to be a great investment, but that wasn’t always the case.

The Pontormo painting which is the subject of the £31 million fund raiser by the National Gallery.

The Pontormo painting which is the subject of the £31 million fund raiser by the National Gallery.

Did they always have good taste in art?

The first pictures of the five brothers at the end of the 19th Century were very conventional portraits, where the brothers wore cravats and velvet frock coats and tried to look like the aristocracy of middle Europe. As they became more sophisticated they commissioned better portraits. For instance the beautiful portrait of Betty de Rothschild by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and later the portrait of Marie de Rothschild by Balthus. Jacob commissioned Lucien Freud to paint his portrait. Eric was drawn by Andy Warhol, Beatrice was sculptured by Giacometti. My father and I have both sat for David Hockney, we have a double portrait done about ten years ago. I want to put on an exhibition of Rothschild portraits at Waddesdon.

Do you consider yourself successful?

Success is always a mirage, the next thing, not the present. I always think that success is something that happens in the future. I don’t feel particularly successful now, but I do feel more confident.

Are you a passionate person?

Yes very. Passion is at the root of everything.

Is the need to make money still in your blood?

I am not very interested in making money. Money is not a particular priority. It gives you a certain amount of freedom for which I am very grateful, but it’s not my motivation behind anything that I do.

What motivates you?

I just want to make the most of every opportunity and really want to live life to its full. I don’t believe in an afterlife – we have got what we have now and we have to make the most of it.

Enjoy this interview? Share it with your friends.


October 2016