A&A Professor Esther da Costa Meyer Co-Curates The Sassoons Exhibition at The Jewish Museum

Written by
Kirstin Ohrt
May 25, 2023

The Sassoons exhibition, on view at The Jewish Museum through August 13th, in which intriguing objects tell the story of four generations who migrated across as many countries, evolved partly from a Princeton A&A course co-taught by A&A Professor Emerita Esther da Costa Meyer and recently retired Princeton University Art Museum Curator of Asian Art Cary Liu.

The Origins of the Exhibition

As part of their course “Anxious Metropolis: Shanghai’s Urban Cultures, 1842 to the Present,” da Costa Meyer and Liu traveled with the class to Shanghai; among student participants was civil engineering major Victoria Sassoon ’16, whose father, James Sassoon, spent a day with the group in Shanghai. 

Students and Professor da Costa Meyer laugh with tour guide on a street in Shanghai
Professor da Costa Meyer (second from left) and Victoria Sassoon (fourth from left) during a class trip to Shanghai in 2014 (Photo courtesy of Esther da Costa Meyer)

“I first began working on the architecture of the Sassoons in Shanghai in 2014, when I had the good fortune of team-teaching a seminar on the city’s urban history with my friend Cary Liu who was immensely knowledgeable about the topic,” said da Costa Meyer.  “Victoria Sassoon was in our class, and when we took the students to Shanghai over fall break, her father, Lord Sassoon, spent a day with us, and facilitated our visit to a famous landmark, the former Sassoon House on the waterfront.” The building, one of the first skyscrapers in the Eastern Hemisphere, was built by Victor Sassoon in 1929 and is now the Peace Hotel on Shanghai’s famous riverfront Bund.

“The exhibition was particularly exciting to me due to my relationship with Esther as my Professor whilst as an undergrad at Princeton." —Victoria Sassoon

For Liu, this special access to the Sassoon House was unforgettable.  Having visited the site in 1984 when false walls concealed the Art Deco interior, Liu was thrilled to see some of the splendor revived. “Returning to the Peace Hotel after twenty years was a revelation,” he said. “It was a journey back in time...the blast of propaganda slogans was replaced by jazz music and the glare of fluorescent lights eclipsed by the elegance of Lalique lamp fixtures.” 

Group poses in lobby of the Peace Hotel
Professor da Costa Meyer (second from left) and Cary Liu (far right) with students from their co-taught course “Anxious Metropolis: Shanghai’s Urban Cultures, 1842 to the Present” during a tour of the Fairmont Peace Hotel in 2014 (Photo courtesy of Victoria Sassoon) 

Once The Jewish Museum accepted the idea of this exhibition, da Costa Meyer and Claudia Nahson, the Morris & Eva Feld Senior Curator at The Jewish Museum, began in earnest in 2018 with an email to Victoria, asking for contact information for her father—the first thread in an extensive web connecting family members and new owners of Sassoon-infused objects.

“The exhibition was particularly exciting to me due to my relationship with Esther as my Professor whilst as an undergrad at Princeton,” said Victoria Sassoon. “I was extremely fortunate to go on a class trip with Esther to Shanghai to study the city's architecture. Esther is the most captivating professor and storyteller, and it was incredibly special that during the semester I was able to uncover some of the Sassoon legacy in Shanghai. Esther ultimately took this research infinitely further and it was such a privilege to be able to visit the exhibition during its opening week.”

Tracing a Complicated Family History

Painting of David Sassoon

Attributed to William Melville. Portrait of David Sassoon. Oil on canvas; 41 ½ × 33 in. (105.4 × 83.8 cm). Private Collection 

“The Sassoons were modern in their ability to adapt and acculturate throughout their cosmopolitan trajectory from Iraq to India, China, and finally Britain. As we discovered, they lived with contradictions: persecution and diaspora, but also complicity with colonialism; devout religion and generous philanthropy but also traffic in opium." —A&A Professor Emerita Esther da Costa Meyer 

Da Costa Meyer and co-curator Nahson had a complex story to tell, one that is as nuanced as it is riveting. A prominent Baghdadi-Jewish family, the Sassoons were uprooted from their ancestral home in the 1830s due to religious persecution.  The family’s patriarch, David Sassoon, re-established the family in Mumbai, initially as a merchant of spices, fabrics, and jewels before embarking on what became an empire of the opium trade.  He soon expanded his business to China and England, deploying his eight sons to oversee new branches in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and London. 

“The Sassoons were modern in their ability to adapt and acculturate throughout their cosmopolitan trajectory from Iraq to India, China, and finally Britain,” said da Costa Meyer. “As we discovered, they lived with contradictions: persecution and diaspora, but also complicity with colonialism; devout religion and generous philanthropy but also traffic in opium. Known for their architectural patronage, the Sassoons left hundreds of residential and commercial buildings but also synagogues, schools, libraries, cultural institutions, hospitals, and working-class housing.”  A&A Professor Basile Baudez felt the exhibition succeeded in balancing these contradictions: “I thought that the exhibition did a fantastic job retracing the multicultural and cosmopolitan story of this family without shying away from their deep implication in what was one of the most violent enterprises of the European colonial projects in Asia,” he said.

"Behind every work of art there is a human story—and this is the quintessential human story.” —Claudia Nahson, Morris & Eva Feld Senior Curator at the Jewish Museum

Portrait painting of Rachel Sassoon
Henry Jones Thaddeus, Rachel Sassoon Beer, 1887. Formerly in the Siegfried Sassoon collection

Nahson identified the difficult issues woven through the exhibition to have underscored the human quality of the artwork and objects displayed. “Delving with so many issues as this show delves into, I think it’s a great portal,” she said. “Global trade, opium trade, colonialism— they’re tough issues—discrimination, immigration, displacement—I think a show like this gives people an opportunity to relate,” she continued.  “When I’m working with art, I always look at the connection between the art and the person—the person who used it or created it and commissioned it; behind every work of art there is a human story—and this is the quintessential human story.”

Da Costa Meyer and Nahson invested hours reconstructing the lives of the four generations stemming from the patriarch, David Sassoon, who had eight sons and six daughters.  

Little research had ever been done on the women of the family.  “It was always presented as a heroic male story,” said da Costa Meyer.  The story of the Sassoons had traditionally been seen as cascading down from David Sassoon to Philip Sassoon, member of Parliament and great tastemaker in Britain between the wars, Siegfried Sassoon, a celebrated war poet during World War One, and Victor Sassoon the swashbuckling playboy of the Eastern world—most often overlooking the noteworthy women of the family.

“One of our most exciting discoveries was the extraordinary role of the Sassoon women as major collectors, connoisseurs, journalists, and philanthropists." —A&A Professor Emerita Esther da Costa Meyer 

Six portraits in gold frames fill a wall

A parade of portraits by John Singer Sargent line a gallery wall (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

“One of our most exciting discoveries was the extraordinary role of the Sassoon women as major collectors, connoisseurs, journalists, and philanthropists,” said da Costa Meyer.  Rachel Sassoon Beer, for example, was the first woman to publish two major newspapers in England. In 1898, at the height of the Dreyfus Affair, she interviewed Ferdinand Esterhazy, the French officer and spy for Germany whose memorandum containing military intelligence was blamed on the Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus. “Rachel Beer was also a major art connoisseur, whose extensive collection included major works by Corot, Courbet, Constable, and Rubens,” added da Costa Meyer.

The Objects

Illuminated manuscript in glass case

Sassoon Haggadah, Spain or Southern France, c. 1320. Ink, tempera, and gold and silver leaf on parchment; 8 5/16 × 6 ½ in. Purchased by the State of Israel through an anonymous donor. Formerly in the David Solomon Sassoon Collection (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

By the time the exhibition opened on March 3, 2023, da Costa Meyer and Nahson had spent nearly five years gathering over 120 works including Judaica, illuminated manuscripts, paintings, decorative arts, Chinese ivories, porcelain, and scrolls—truly a panoply of exquisite objects tracing the family’s migration around the world.

Da Costa Meyer has become intimately familiar with each resplendent object in the exhibition, recounting the vibrant stories and intriguing associations woven around them.

“For this family of Jewish immigrants, art collecting played a crucial role as a source of cultural capital that strengthened their social standing." – A&A Professor Emerita Esther da Costa Meyer 

Gallery of paintings

“For this family of Jewish immigrants,” said da Costa Meyer, “art collecting played a crucial role as a source of cultural capital that strengthened their social standing.” At the same time, various members of the family became distinguished connoisseurs, scholars, and noted experts in European painting, decorative arts, Chinese ivories and handscrolls, Hebrew manuscripts and Judaica, as well as developing close personal ties to such artists as John Singer Sergeant and Glyn Philpot.”

The database da Costa Meyer and Nahson have built of the family’s collection amounts to hundreds of objects, many of which are now in private hands.  Tracking them down was no easy task.  “We went through catalogues and catalogues and catalogues,” said da Costa Meyer, and Nahson wrote many a letter to Sotheby’s or Christie’s to initiate contact with owners.

Chinese handscroll in muted beige and white colors depicting white blossoms

After Qian Xuan. Pear Blossoms, c. 1280. China, Yuan dynasty (1271–1368). Ink and color on paper handscroll. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Purchase, The Dillon Fund Gift, 1977 (1977.79). Formerly in the Percival David Collection

Ultimately, numerous private and public collections lent works to the exhibition including His Majesty King Charles III, the British Museum, the National Gallery of London, the National Trust of Britain, the Tate, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the British Library, the Houghton Hall Collection, the Cambridge University Library, the Fitzwilliam Museum, the National Gallery of Ireland, the Israel Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Yale Center for British Art.

The galleries displaying this special exhibition serve as stages showcasing casts of characters in the form of exquisite portraits and rare objects, ranging in type and origin from David Sassoon’s desk seal and his correspondence with opium traders, to his daughter-in-law’s collection of Jewish ceremonial art, or his great grandson’s Chinese hand scrolls ranging from the 8th to the 14th century. “Esther and Claudia worked tirelessly to communicate many stories and observations through the objects and bring to life so much of my family history, lots of which was brand new research,” said Victoria Sassoon. 

“The Jewish ceremonial art on show is extremely beautiful and intricate and communicates the family’s commitment to their faith and community.”  —Victoria Sassoon

Silver cylinders holding Torah scrolls
Torah and haftarah scrolls in silver cases commissioned by Flora Sassoon, Iraq and China, 1888–93 (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

“The Jewish ceremonial art on show is extremely beautiful and intricate and communicates the family's commitment to their faith and community,” said Victoria Sassoon. This facet of the exhibition stood out for Baudez, as well, “One of the most fascinating objects of the show was for me the monumental silver Torah cases commissioned in Bombay by Flora Sassoon and made by Chinese silversmiths.”  These two elaborate silver cylinders that hold Torah and haftara scrolls beautifully encapsulate the family’s trajectory; commissioned by Flora Sassoon in the late nineteenth century, the scrolls were written in Baghdad, the cases made in China, and the finished pieces traveled with the family first to Mumbai and later to London. They are part of an astounding collection of Judaica which also includes ceremonial art from Iraq and Hebrew manuscripts, one dating to the 12th century. This cultural breadth is emblematic of the cosmopolitanism that characterized all members of the family, rooted in the great polyglot, multicultural tradition of the Baghdadi Jews, as da Costa put it.

Thanks to several members of the Sassoon family who became important collectors, art makes up a large portion of the exhibition. Philip Sassoon, who became a member of parliament, collected paintings by Thomas Gainsborough as well as John Singer Sargent, who was a close family friend.

Sargent took a particular interest in Philip Sassoon’s sister, Sybil, featured in several portraits included in the exhibition along with those of other family members. Said Victoria Sassoon, “I particularly enjoyed seeing the Sargent portraits of various family members all together and learning about the artist's friendship with Philip Sassoon.” There are also several paintings of Philip Sassoon’s homes, including two by family friend Sir Winston Churchill, depicting Philip’s estate in Kent, Port Lympne.

Ornate red snuffbox with painting of a woman and pearls

Snuffbox presented to Queen Mary by Mozelle Sassoon, Christmas 1934. Paris, c. 1762–68. Lent by His Majesty King Charles III. Photo Credit: Royal Collection Trust/© His Majesty King Charles III 2023

Hannah Gubbay, a Sassoon on both her father’s and her mother’s side, and her cousin Mozelle Sassoon were also major collectors of art, furniture, and porcelain.  A rare Chinese famille verte mantelpiece garniture on display from Gubbay’s collection is said to be the best example of its type.

Other representations of the family’s impressive Chinese objects include examples of the 500 ivory carvings from Victor Sassoon’s collection that he donated to the British Museum, and of the 1500 pieces of Chinese porcelain that belonged to Percival David, gifted to the same institution.  Even more impressive were Percival David’s Chinese hand scrolls which are now housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Another delightful vignette and accompanying anecdote involving Hannah Gubbay is the collection of snuffboxes presented to Queen Mary by the family, on loan from King Charles.  The Queen and Gubbay were great friends with overlapping tastes—so much so, that Gubbay had to hide her favorite items when the Queen came for tea for fear of the Queen absconding with them. 

The War Years

Sketchbook with pen drawing of a soldier

Sketchbook belonging to Siegfried Sassoon (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

The exhibition concludes with a gallery dedicated to the younger generation of the Sassoons’ experiences of World War I. Fourteen grandsons and great-grandsons of David Sassoon fought in World War I.  Among them, most famously, was war hero and poet Siegfried Sassoon, whose diaries and sketches are on display.  

Philip Sassoon recruited several artists, among them his friend John Singer Sargent, to capture scenes from the front; a few are on exhibit, including Sargent’s painting of the ruined cathedral of Arras shown next to Winston Churchill’s copy of it.  

Louise and Sybil Sassoon also supported the war effort.  Among other efforts, Sybil Sassoon ordered miniature Qur’ans to be distributed among Muslim troops serving with the Allied Forces. During World War II, Victor Sassoon was instrumental in helping support 20,000 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazism who found refuge in Shanghai, and the family members in Mumbai and Kolkata did their best to help the 2,000 that managed to arrive in India.

Two similar paintings of ruins hang side by side
Winston Churchill, The Ruins of Arras Cathedral (after Sargent), ca. 1920–1929 on left, John Singer Sargent, Cathedral of Arras, August 1918, on right (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Preserving the Legacy

The Sassoons exhibition catalog by Esther da Costa Meyer and Claudia J. Nahson which received funding from A&A's Barr Ferree Fund

The exhibition and family story are commemorated in a richly illustrated catalog supported by the Barr Ferree Foundation Fund of the Princeton Department of Art and Archaeology. Liu, who is acknowledged in the opening pages, helped revise the parts of the text having to do with Chinese art.

In a March 2, 2023 conversation between co-curators da Costa Meyer and Nahson with Lord Sassoon, Lord Cholmondley, and Edwina Sassoon, Lord Sassoon remarked “It’s so wonderful that you’ve brought it all together in the way that you have. We’re incredibly grateful. What you’ve done is really breaking new ground and establishes in a way that’s marvelous for us this artistic legacy... .Which I hope people will enjoy seeing.” The full conversation is accessible on YouTube.

Professor da Costa Meyer and Claudia Nahson arm in arm

Co-curators Professor da Costa Meyer and Claudia Nahson (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

"It’s so wonderful that you’ve brought it all together in the way that you have. We’re incredibly grateful. What you’ve done is really breaking new ground and establishes in a way that’s marvelous for us this artistic legacy." —Lord Sassoon