Exhibit | May 9, 2023

Illuminated Manuscripts Feature in Story of The Sassoons

The Jewish Museum

Sassoon Haggadah, Spain or southern France, c. 1320. Ink, tempera, and gold and silver leaf on parchment; 8 5/16 × 6 ½ in. (21 × 16.5 cm). Purchased by the State of Israel through an anonymous donor, London, L-B75.0583; 181/041 Formerly in the David Solomon Sassoon Collection

New York's The Jewish Museum's latest exhibition is The Sassoons, revealing the fascinating story of a remarkable Jewish family, highlighting their pioneering role in trade, art collecting, architectural patronage, and civic engagement from the early 19th century through World War II. It follows four generations from Iraq to India, China, and England, featuring a rich selection of works collected by family members over time.

Over 120 works - paintings, Chinese art, illuminated manuscripts, and Judaica - amassed by Sassoon family members and borrowed from numerous private and public collections are on view. Among the highlights are Hebrew manuscripts from as early as the 12th century, many lavishly decorated, and Siegfried Sassoon's journals and anti-war statement.

The Sassoons explores themes such as discrimination, diaspora, colonialism, global trade, and war that not only shaped the history of the family but continue to define our world today.

The exhibition narrative begins in the early 1830s when David Sassoon, the patriarch of the family, was forced to leave his native Baghdad due to the increasing persecution of the city’s Jewish population. Establishing himself in Mumbai (then Bombay) and initially involved in the cotton trade, his vision led the family from Iraq to India, China, and finally England where his descendants gradually settled over the decades. His activities soon grew to include the opium trade, which had escalated after the collapse of the East India Company in mid-19th century, ending its monopoly and allowing private companies to engage in this profitable enterprise. He aligned with and benefitted from British colonial interests soon extending his business to China and England by deploying his sons to oversee new branches in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and London.

Esther scroll of Reuben Sassoon Baghdad, mid-19th century
The Jewish Museum

Esther scroll of Reuben Sassoon Baghdad, mid-19th century. Paint on parchment with silver handle; scroll, 4 1/8 in. (10.5 cm); with handle 7 7/8 in. (20 cm) Weitzman Family Collection Formerly in the Sassoon Family Collection

Passover Haggadah, Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), India, 1868
The Jewish Museum

Passover Haggadah, Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), India, 1868. Ink, gouache, and shell gold on paper 7 5/8 x 5 in. (19.4 × 12.7 cm) Weitzman family Collection Formerly in the David Solomon Sassoon Collection

David Sassoon with Persian inscriptions inspired by Sufi poetry Baghdad, 1850
The Jewish Museum

David Sassoon with Persian inscriptions inspired by Sufi poetry Baghdad, 1850. Ink and paint on paper; 9 x 7 in. (22.9 x 17.8 cm). Private collection

After Qian Xuan (Chinese, 1239–1301) Pear Blossoms, c. 1280 China, Yuan dynasty (1271–1368)
The Jewish Museum

After Qian Xuan (Chinese, 1239–1301) Pear Blossoms, c. 1280 China, Yuan dynasty (1271–1368). Ink and color on paper handscroll 12 5/8 in x 34 ft. 9 1/8 in. (32.1 x 1059.5 cm) Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Purchase, The Dillon Fund Gift, 1977 (1977.79) Formerly in the Percival David Collection

Although less known, the Sassoon women were discerning collectors. The exhibition pays special attention to these unsung patrons of art. Rachel Sassoon Beer became the first woman in Britain to edit two newspapers, The Sunday Times and The Observer, and played a crucial role reporting on the Dreyfus affair in Britain. Her painting collection, sold at auction in 1927, listed, among other great works, one drawing and 15 paintings by Corot, a Constable, and a Peter Paul Rubens. Of a younger generation, Hannah Gubbay, a Sassoon on her mother’s side, was a major collector of 18th century art, furniture, and porcelain, as was her cousin, Mozelle Sassoon.

The exhibition also highlights the distinguished properties of the Sassoons in the United Kingdom. A Member of Parliament for the Conservative Party, Sir Philip Sassoon made active use of his three great residences, Park Lane (now destroyed) and Trent Park in London, and Port Lympne in Kent. Surrounded by landscaped gardens (in the case of Trent Park and Port Lympne) and filled with priceless works of art, all three were used by the government for high-profile cabinet meetings and receptions of foreign dignitaries and celebrities. Paintings of Port Lympne by Sir Winston Churchill, a frequent visitor, are featured.

The last section of the exhibition focuses on the service of a younger generation of Sassoons in the First World War. Sir Victor Sassoon served in the Royal Flying Corps, barely surviving an airplane crash that left him permanently disabled. Sir Philip Sassoon, private secretary to Field Marshal Douglas Haig, recruited his artist friends including John Singer Sargent to cover the war, and several of these works are on display. A very different war is experienced through the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon. Though a brave and much decorated soldier, his graphic and shocking portrayal of the trenches and fierce criticism of the establishment were emblematic of a generation scarred by war’s brutality. Some of the journals he wrote and illustrated during battle, including his famous anti-war statement, are on view.

During the Second World War, some 18,000 Jewish refugees arrived in Shanghai fleeing Nazi Europe. They were able to survive the war thanks to the money raised by members of the Baghdadi Jewish community who resided in the city at the time. Prominent among them was Sir Victor Sassoon who donated considerable funds and placed several buildings at the disposal of the International Committee for European Immigrants.

The Sassoons runs through August 13, 2023