Lord Jacob Rothschild: one of Britain’s leading financiers and philanthropists of the arts – obituary

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There was probably no greater financier in the last half-century. Known simply as Jacob by every player in the City of London, the death of Lord (Jacob) Rothschild marks the end of a legendary era of deals and the passing of a consummate dealmaker.

He was also one of the most prominent philanthropists and champions of the arts, chairing the National Gallery and ensuring its growth and preservation. The British Museum even has his name carved in stone on a frieze in gratitude for him bringing money and connections to enhance it.

The British peer, who has died aged 87, started his career in 1963 in the family bank, NM Rothschild & Sons, before later co-founding St James’s Place in 1980, which became a FTSE 100 company and one of the biggest wealth managers in Britain.

Alongside that he was chair of RIT Capital until 2019, one of the largest investment trusts quoted on the London Stock Exchange, and for a time, the deputy chair of BskyB Television.

“He had the charm of a prince, the financial acumen of a Byzantine banker and the ambition of a king,” said a friend. “It was a potent mix which he worked not only to his personal benefit but also allied it to the country’s.”

‘He had the charm of a prince, the financial acumen of a Byzantine banker and the ambition of a king’, said a friend (PA)
‘He had the charm of a prince, the financial acumen of a Byzantine banker and the ambition of a king’, said a friend (PA)

His ambition and dazzling success in the City was matched by his passion for the cultural heritage of Britain. As well as the National Gallery, he led the National Lottery Heritage Fund, and was a vital component in the restoration of Somerset House, in London.

However, his greatest philanthropic achievement was Waddesdon Manor and the Waddesdon estate in Buckinghamshire, having taken over the management on behalf of the National Trust from his cousin Dorothy de Rothschild in 1988.

He led an extraordinary renaissance of the property, with new tours events and commissioned events leading to an increase of visitor numbers to over 300,000 annually.

As a young man, Lord Rothschild was educated at Eton College and went on to study history at Christ Church college, Oxford, but despite being part of the famous Rothschild dynasty he was determined to forge his own path in life.

Ambitious and ruthless in business, he used £90m inherited from a cousin to move away from the family bank, NM Rothschild & Sons, after falling out with his cousin Sir Evelyn de Rothschild.

He founded RIT in 1988 and quickly became known as a prodigious dealmaker, with a desire to take over other businesses including prestigious art galleries such as Colnaghi.

This extended to British American Tobacco, which he tried to help Sir James Goldsmith buy and “unbundle” in a £13.5bn deal in which he and Australian tycoon Kerry Packer honed their tactic for bold asset-buying and stripping.

Lord Rothschild has died at the age of 87, his family have announced (PA)
Lord Rothschild has died at the age of 87, his family have announced (PA)

His incisive business brain and appetite for business deals would lead many to claim he was the most financially astute of all Rothschilds, certainly the one with the most influence.

In his personal life he married Serena, his wife of more than 50 years, on 20 October 1961. She died in 2019 and the couple had four children - Hannah, Beth, Emily and Nat - and many grandchildren.

Lord Rothschild’s tricky relationship with his father, Victor, mirrored the difficulties he had with his son, Nat, who inherited his title.

He was much closer to daughter Hannah who, like him, was appointed chair of the National Gallery and a trustee of the Tate Gallery. She will also succeed her father as chair of the Rothschild Foundation, a charity he founded.

The donations given by the Rothschild Foundation have been in the hundreds of millions of pounds both domestically and abroad to support a variety of causes in the arts, culture, and environment.

One of the major projects the foundation undertook was to help build the new National Library of Israel, adjacent to the Knesset in Jerusalem, which opened in 2022.

Despite his success, Lord Rothschild was low-key, displaying a quiet, humble demeanour. However, his reputation meant media tycoons like Rupert Murdoch and global political leaders would often turn to him for advice.

In royal circles he was highly thought of and made an OM, a member of the Order of Merit, usually reserved for just 24 genius living writers, scientists, and artists.

Lord Rothschild and daughter Hannah (Shutterstock)
Lord Rothschild and daughter Hannah (Shutterstock)

He knew them all and the Queen was keen to award him membership of the highest honour available. He was also a member of the council for the Duchy of Cornwall for the then Prince of Wales.

“Jacob could get most things done,” said one arts chief. “He knew who and he knew how and he was laser-focused. All with a legendary soft almost whispered charm.”

This “whispered charm” convinced renowned artists including Lucian Freud and David Hockney to let him sit for portraits or get his hands on the lease of Spencer House, the vast mansion in Mayfair which he restored and allowed to be used as the most dramatic entertainment space in London.

In a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, the Rothschild Foundation and Waddesdon Manor said they were “deeply saddened to announce the death of Lord Rothschild, businessman, entrepreneur, philanthropist and cultural leader”.

“He will be greatly missed by his family, his colleagues and his many friends,” they added.

The foundation added: “Jacob Rothschild was an extraordinary person and his loss will be felt by many.

“The family is committed to continuing his legacy and the foundation which he loved and endowed.”