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German Jews, English Gentry: The Messel Family and the Cultural Expression of a Changing Identity

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John Hilary

The conspicuous set of German-Jewish financiers who made their homes in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain brought with them a rich cultural inheritance that reflected the historical journey of German Jewry towards emancipation. As they established themselves in their new environment, they faced the challenge of being at one and the same time German, Jewish, British and English, and the crisis of having to choose between allegiances in the dark days of the First World War.


This lecture explores the diverse ways in which the artistic Messel family chose to express the different facets of their identity as it evolved through the generations. Drawing comparisons with other high-profile German-Jewish migrants to Britain during the same period, it examines the successes and failures of their strategies to assimilate into their host society.

John Hilary is an honorary professor at the University of Nottingham and author of From Refugees to Royalty: The Remarkable Story of the Messel Family of Nymans (Peter Owen, 2021). An affiliate of the Jewish Country Houses project run out of the University of Oxford, he co-edited a special issue of the Journal of the History of Collections in 2022 on the theme of ‘Bildung beyond borders: German-Jewish collectors outside Germany, c.1870–1940’.

This lecture was held at the German Historical Institute London and on Zoom.