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Jacob Rothschild, financier and philanthropist, 1936-2024

Last May, Lord Jacob Rothschild hosted a 100th birthday lunch for former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger at Waddesdon Manor, his 19th-century French château in the Buckinghamshire countryside. Among the illustrious guests were former British prime ministers Tony Blair and John Major; private equity titan Stephen Schwarzman; media barons Rupert Murdoch and Michael Bloomberg; and historians Niall Ferguson and Simon Schama.

The gathering reflected Rothschild’s “astonishing convening power” and the “interesting and diverse” nature of the many he counted as friends, Schwarzman told the Financial Times. “Jacob represented the best and brightest of a generation, and occupied a unique position in finance, culture and philanthropy.” 

The 4th Baron Rothschild, OM, who has died aged 87, was a dynamic investor, collector and philanthropist with an unparalleled network and an effortless charm, who broke away from the family bank NM Rothschild to create his own financial empire.

Born in 1936, he was part of the great European Jewish financial dynasty that began with Mayer Amschel Rothschild in the 1760s and has endured for seven generations. His father Victor, 3rd Baron Rothschild, was a scientist and intelligence officer during the second world war, and later worked at NM Rothschild. Eschewing worldly goods, he sold the contents of his townhouse and country estate in 1936, and joined the Labour party. “Jacob is so brilliant at finance and I so much the reverse that some people think it casts doubt on his legitimacy,” Victor once said.

Rothschild with his wife Serena and their son Nat © Daily Mail/Shutterstock

But it was from his mother, Barbara Hutchinson, that Rothschild was said to have inherited his aesthetic sensibilities. His grandmother was a cousin of Lytton Strachey, a founding member of the Bloomsbury set. When his parents divorced, Rothschild’s mother remarried a Greek painter, Nicolas Ghika, and he grew up surrounded by artists and intellectuals.

Rothschild’s upbringing was privileged but far from straightforward. He suffered from a bout of polio as a child and was bullied at Eton College during the 1950s, when antisemitism was still rife among the English upper classes. He attended Christ Church at the University of Oxford, where his history tutor was Hugh Trevor-Roper, and gained a first. 

In the early 1960s, Rothschild met Serena Mary Dunn at the house of Nancy Astor, the first woman to take a seat in Britain’s parliament. Shortly afterwards, ignoring convention, she wrote to Jacob asking to see him again. The pair had a whirlwind courtship. Jumping into Serena’s Mini at her family home, they drove off in a cloud of dust, only to return a few hours later as husband and wife, having stopped by a registry office.

After Oxford, Rothschild began working at the family bank. But his relationship with his second cousin Evelyn de Rothschild — who had devoted himself to the bank after his own father’s retirement in 1961 — slowly descended into acrimony. 

Inspired by the Mayday deregulation of the US securities industry that began in the mid-1970s, Jacob, the younger of the pair, sought to enlarge the bank by pursuing ambitious deals, notably a touted merger with British merchant bank SG Warburg. This clashed with Evelyn’s more conservative vision. Ultimately Evelyn, a major shareholder, prevailed. In a further blow, Jacob’s father Victor didn’t trust his son’s judgment and sided with his cousin. 

“Jacob had a creative restlessness to him and when that was channelled into a cause, an investment opportunity or philanthropy, it was exhilarating,” says a long-standing colleague. “When it didn’t come to fruition it left him impatient.” 

Kerry Packer, James Goldsmith and Rothschild in 1989, the year they made an audacious yet unsuccessful bid for British American Tobacco © Roger Hutchings/Shutterstock

Jacob struck out on his own in 1980, selling his 11 per cent stake in NM Rothschild for £6.6mn and building RIT Capital Partners, a listed investment trust combining public and private investments that he chaired from 1988 until 2019. Its market capitalisation grew from £80mn in 1980 to about £3bn today, fuelled by strong performance and backed by a loyal shareholder base of more than 15,000 clients. 

Rothschild sided with buccaneers such as Sir James Goldsmith and Kerry Packer, with whom, in 1989, he made an audacious yet unsuccessful bid for British American Tobacco. Two years later he founded J Rothschild Assurance Group — now St James’s Place, the UK’s largest wealth manager — with Sir Mark Weinberg. 

RIT became a vehicle for Rothschild to address his frustrations with the undercapitalisation of the City of London before it was opened up by the Big Bang in 1986. He started to assemble a financial conglomerate, buying stakes in stockbroker Kitcat & Aitken and merchant bank Charterhouse, among others. But he failed to convince the City that the group was a credible international competitor, and ultimately dismantled it.

RIT’s structure allowed it the flexibility and firepower to continue to invest wherever Rothschild saw opportunities. In doing so it gave retail investors exposure to deals they wouldn’t normally get access to. Rothschild was early to spot the potential of venture capital and was a day-one investor in Sequoia Capital, Benchmark Capital, biotechnology specialist Baker Brothers Advisors and Hillhouse Investment’s Asia-Pacific private equity fund. RIT seeded hedge fund Lansdowne Partners, asset manager GAM and Getty Images, and invested in Julian Robertson’s Tiger Management.

“Jacob was truly a Renaissance man,” says Howard Marks, co-founder of $189bn investment powerhouse Oaktree Capital Management and a longtime friend. “He had a very active mind and great curiosity. He was a very good investor, open to diverse and little-known markets.”

Rothschild was also a prominent patron of the arts. Waddesdon Manor — built in the 1880s by Ferdinand de Rothschild — proved to be a great creative outlet for him. He inherited the estate in 1988 from Dorothy “Dolly” de Rothschild, and financed and oversaw it for the National Trust. There he entertained everyone from King Charles III and Queen Camilla to the Clintons, Warren Buffett, Madonna, James Dyson and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“He was a Rothschild and he talked like someone from the upper class yet he was humble and easy to talk to,” Tony Blair told the FT.  

At Waddesdon, the tremendous breadth of his collection was on show: including works by Alberto Giacometti, Lucian Freud, Guercino, Bridget Riley and David Hockney. These were juxtaposed with contemporary pieces and avant-garde commissions, such as a 12-metre wedding cake made of 25,000 handcrafted ceramic tiles.

Rothschild was named chair of the trustees of the National Gallery in 1985. There he was responsible for the appointment of its renowned director Neil McGregor, in 1987, who later went on to head the British Museum. Together, they oversaw the opening of the Sainsbury Wing and a complete rehang. “They were a pretty spectacular double act,” recalls Gabriele Finaldi, the current director.

When Rothschild took over, the gallery was reeling from the fallout of the then Prince of Wales’s denouncement of a proposed extension, which he described as a “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”. Rothschild successfully navigated through the impasse. The original plan was replaced by a postmodern design by Robert Venturi and he persuaded the Sainsbury family to foot the bill. 

“After the debacle of the National Gallery extension in the mid-1980s, Jacob guaranteed the sure-footedness . . . that the Sainsbury brothers were looking for,” says Finaldi. “He had an ability to inspire confidence and bring people with him.”

Later, as chair of the National Heritage Memorial Fund (1992-1998), Rothschild oversaw grants totalling £1.2bn. Other philanthropic achievements included restoring Somerset House, one of London’s neoclassical jewels, and establishing it as a centre for the visual arts. He also ensured the future of the Courtauld Institute of Art, with its unrivalled collection. Through RIT, he took a 96-year lease on Spencer House in St James’s and led a £16mn renovation, painstakingly returning it to its 18th-century glory.

Rothschild was also active in Israel, serving as chair of Yad Hanadiv, the family’s Israel-based philanthropic foundation, from 1989 to 2018. It provided funding for the construction of the Knesset, the Supreme Court and the new National Library building, completed last year. “Jacob was a passionate supporter of Israel but always a supporter of justice for Palestine and took a lot of care over what could be done to produce peace,” says Blair.

Jacob is survived by four children and eight grandchildren. Serena Rothschild died of cancer in 2019. According to friends, a great sadness for the couple was the periods in which their relationship with their only son, Nat, was strained. 

Rothschild’s eldest daughter Hannah has emerged as his heir apparent. She is director of RIT, chair of Yad Hanadiv and has followed in his footsteps as trustee and then chair of the National Gallery. Following her father’s death she has assumed the role of chair of the Rothschild Foundation.

Rothschild was buried in a small private funeral at the Willesden Jewish Cemetery. The service was conducted by the Chief Rabbi, Sir Ephraim Mirvis, in line with Jewish tradition.

Over the past decade or so, Rothschild somewhat reconciled with his cousin Evelyn, who died in 2022. Last year, when the family took its investment bank, Rothschild & Co, private, he and Hannah took part in the deal as minority shareholders, reuniting with their French cousin David de Rothschild’s side of the dynasty. “Reuniting two branches of the family after a generation was significant,” says Robert Leitão, managing partner of Rothschild & Co.

Rothschild bridged the most famous name in finance with an intellectual curiosity that lasted until the very end. According to Blair, “At one level Jacob could appear very grand . . . but he was interested in people, he was interested in anyone and everyone.”

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