Jewish Country Houses – Objects, Networks, People is a 4-year research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council commencing in October 2019. The project is a collaboration between the Universities of Oxford, Durham and Cardiff, the National Trust, Waddesdon Manor and Strawberry Hill House (all UK), and European partners including the Centre des Monuments Nationaux (France), individual partner properties, and the European Association for the Preservation and Promotion of Jewish Culture and Heritage (AEPJ). The project has been incubated over four years with the generous support of TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities).
As a pan-European study of 'Jewish' country houses this is a pioneering research endeavour. We aim to establish 'Jewish' country houses - properties that were owned, built or renewed by Jews - as a focus for research, a site of European memory and a significant aspect of European Jewish heritage and material culture.
The central place of the country house in our national heritage landscape speaks to its importance in the construction of nationhood, a phenomenon with parallels in other European countries. Work on Jewish elites too has operated within a nation-state framework, elaborating paradigms that emphasize national distinctiveness. This project will be the first to illuminate the cosmopolitan world of the 'Jewish aristocracy', its relationships, its architecture and its things, showing how this international network reshaped 'Jewish' and 'European' culture and society.
'Jewish' country houses and their owners have escaped systematic study because they do not fit established conceptual frameworks in country house studies or in modern Jewish history. Yet 'Jewish' country houses - often clustered within easy reach of capital cities or near exclusive seaside and spa resorts - were ubiquitous across Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century. Far from seeking to establish a fixed typology of 'Jewish' country houses, we will explore the many variants that proliferated across Europe from the second half of the nineteenth century, and the social, political, cultural and familiar relationships that underpinned them.
Individually and collectively, these houses represent the summit and terminus of the growth in Jewish private wealth and Jewish artistic expertise in this era. The project will investigate this phenomenon through two complementary research strands: socio-cultural (focusing on collecting) and socio-political (focusing on philanthropy). Our focus on the social and political role of Jewish elites in the countryside works against the grain of existing work on Jewish elites which has an urban, bourgeois focus. It promises to reshape the way we think about assimilation, acculturation, integration and difference. We also break fresh methodological ground by uniting into a single analytical framework all the actors involved in the creation, maintenance and decoration of the Jewish country house, creating a bridge between social history, architectural history, the material and intellectual histories of collecting, and the history of the art market.
The project is organised around two major strands: politics/philanthropy and collecting/material culture. Each will feature workshops and conferences with significant heritage sector participation. Where possible they will be organised with relevant partners: the National Trust (co-sponsor of all collecting strand events), the Victoria & Albert Museum (UK), the Musée Camondo (France), Villa Montesca (Italy), and Villa Stiassni (Czech Republic). An emerging collaboration with the National Gallery (UK) aims to bring both strands together through a focus on cultural philanthropy.