Jewish Country Houses

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‘Jewish Country Houses – Objects, Networks, People’ is a 4-year research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council which aims 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. 

Project Summary

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.

Project Aims
  1. 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.
  2. To challenge the nationally framed paradigms of continuity and rootedness that underpin country house studies in the UK and elsewhere in continental Europe by highlighting the parallels and connections between ‘Jewish’ country houses across Europe, and by developing a conception of the country house grounded not in national characteristics but in pan-European relationships.
  3. To go beyond the conceptual framework that shapes existing work on Jewish elites, which focuses on their integration in the nation state and in specific urban centres, by illuminating, through a focus on their country houses, the international culture and networks of the “Jewish aristocracy” and the ways this intersected with national and imperial political, social and cultural contexts.
  4. To establish what, if anything was distinctive - and by extension Jewish - about these properties, the tastes of their owners and the networks of dealers, decorators and designers who embellished them.
  5. To bring new perspectives to bear on established disciplines such as the history of collecting, and modern Jewish history through significant publications and targeted conference activity. This will focus on the Jewish country house as an expression of familial, financial and intellectual relationships and as a repository for art collections, as well as on the equally neglected social and philanthropic role played by Jewish elites in the countryside.
  6. To transform practice in the heritage sector by developing an intellectual framework and practical resources to enable heritage professionals working in Jewish country house museums in the UK and continental Europe, often with little knowledge of Jewish history, to better engage the ‘Jewishness’ of their properties, their often contested history, and their heritage dissonance.
  7. To enhance public awareness and understanding of the ‘Jewish’ dimensions of individual country houses (especially those open to the public), while remaining sensitive to contemporary concerns about antisemitism, to the continued relevance of Holocaust memory, and to the fact that many Jewish country house owners chose to downplay – or even reject – being Jewish, perhaps particularly in their country lives. Heritage theory suggests that reclaiming marginalised and submerged narratives enhances social cohesion by reducing ignorance about minority religious and ethnic groups and raising awareness of the diversity both of national heritage, and of European culture more generally. This project will contribute to the process whereby missing, rejected or ‘alienated’ minority perspectives are entering the heritage canon, and become part of everyone’s heritage.
  8. To foster relevant pan-European relationships in the heritage sector with a view to enhancing and enriching curatorial understanding and interpretation of individual properties both in the UK and in continental Europe, because Jewish country houses cannot be interpreted or understood without reference to this broader European context.
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