A special relationship: The Rockefellers and Great Britain
As the exhibition of property from The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller opens in London (21 February to 8 March), we look back over a relationship that began in the 19th century and encompassed a deep passion for British culture
In the late summer of 1932, after completing high school, David Rockefeller and two friends set out on a bicycle trip around the British Isles. The holiday was a graduation present from his father, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who had undertaken a similar trip to England when he was the same age.
It was David’s first visit to Britain, and he used the time to travel from Cornwall in the south-west to the Highlands of Scotland, covering many hundreds of miles in the process. On arriving in London the 17-year-old answered a telephone call at his hotel from the Marchioness of Crewe, who had just returned from New York, where she and her husband had taken part in the dedication of the British Empire Building in Rockefeller Center, led by David’s parents.
John D. Rockefeller, Jr. delivers a speech at the laying of the cornerstone of the British Empire Building at Rockefeller Center in July 1932. Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images
The British Empire Building is one of four prominent structures at Rockefeller Center facing Fifth Avenue, and was conceived to promote the interests and attributes of the leading European nations. ‘These buildings, embodying that architectural beauty and dignity for which we are striving, will be symbols in stone and steel of the common interests, mutual understanding and goodwill of three great world powers,’ wrote David’s father, the architect of the grand project to build Rockefeller Center.
The Marchioness was calling to say that the Duke of York — who later became King George VI — was giving a dinner dance at St. James’s Palace that evening. ‘I was invited to attend with her,’ recalled David, who would remark on the ‘great courtesy’ with which he was received by the Duke and Duchess of York, who, he said, made ‘a real effort to make me feel comfortable’.
The British Empire Building, centre, with the RCA Building (tower) in the background. To the left of the British Empire Building is the French Building (La Maison Française). Photographed 26 January 1934. Photo: MCNY/Samuel H. Gottscho/Getty Images
By attending the dinner dance, David Rockefeller was following in the footsteps of his grandfather, John D. Rockefeller, Sr., who in 1887 had watched Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebrations with his family from the balcony of their London hotel.
Thirty years later, Standard Oil, the company John D. Rockefeller, Sr., founded, would provide a quarter of all Allied oil needs during the First World War. At a victory banquet in London on 18 November 1918, Lord Curzon was moved to declare: ‘The Allied cause had floated to victory upon a wave of oil.’
‘The Rockefellers loved British history and had a deep respect for the country and its traditions,’ says David Linley, Honorary Chairman, Christie’s EMERI. Indeed, the young David Rockefeller grew up surrounded by English culture, in the form of the fine examples of furniture, porcelain and silver in the family home on 10 West 54th Street in New York.
‘The variety of both fine and decorative art objects in [the house] left a very lasting impression on me and undoubtedly contributed to my own ongoing fascination with many different forms of cultural expression,’ he wrote many years later. His particular interest in English furniture and decoration would develop still further on a trip to London in 1936 with his parents.
David studied under prodigious British thinkers such as future Nobel Prize-winner Friedrich von Hayek, and experienced London’s ascendant pre-war social scene
The financial support given by ‘Junior’ to the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia led to acquisitions of authentic English interior items from the period for the newly reconstructed Governor’s Palace. Records kept by Williamsburg’s governors and stored in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University gave detailed descriptions of precisely how the palace had been furnished originally, making it possible to find pieces of 18th-century furniture and porcelain very similar to those which had been used in Colonial times.
‘The Williamsburg staff had assembled in London a large selection of furniture and porcelain from which my parents could choose,’ David wrote in Memoirs. ‘This process, in which I participated, took the better part of a week and gave me a unique lesson in the decorative arts of 18th-century England. Indeed, this experience… contributed importantly to what has become a lifelong interest in the decorative arts — especially examples from the 18th century, when, I believe, they achieved a pinnacle of beauty and sophistication both in England and on the Continent.’
A year later, in 1937, David returned to London to attend graduate courses at the London School of Economics, which had benefited from the support of the Rockefeller Foundation, of which David’s father, Junior, was then chairman.
The Rockefeller Foundation had made a significant impact on the educational landscape of England beyond the LSE. Its Division of Medical Education gave $2 million to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to improve medical education and to advance world health. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Foundation supported research into physico-chemical technology and molecular biology, establishing the groundwork for Crick and Watson’s discovery of DNA’s double helix structure. In 1934, it funded the expansion of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, although construction was temporarily halted during the Second World War when the library became the nerve centre of the British Navy’s operations.
On the night before he left for London to begin his studies, David met Peggy McGrath, the gregarious daughter of notable Wall Street lawyer Sims McGrath and his wife, Neva van Zandt Smith. Their paths had previously crossed on the busy social circuit of dinner dances, debutante balls, and charity functions, with David later noting, ‘I knew there was something different and compelling about her’.
David felt moved to write a letter to Peggy as soon as he reached Britain and to his surprise, she responded immediately. ‘From this modest start,’ he recalled, ‘was born a relationship that meant everything to me for the next six decades.’
During his stay in London, David studied under prodigious British thinkers such as future Nobel Prize-winner Friedrich von Hayek, and experienced the city’s ascendant pre-war social scene, invigorated by the appearance of the newly-appointed American ambassador Joseph Kennedy. From attending the dinner dance of debutante Kathleen Kennedy, where David first met John F. Kennedy, to being declared one of the city’s most eligible bachelors by the Evening Standard, the year was a whirlwind of academic study and high society.
After finishing his studies at LSE, David enrolled in the doctoral programme at the University of Chicago, an institution founded a half century earlier by ‘Senior’. ‘My mentors were truth-seekers,’ he wrote, ‘who believed that economics could shed light on an important aspect of human behaviour and... help improve society.’
David received his doctorate in 1940, which proved to be a particularly momentous year: beyond the culmination of his academic career, he married the woman who, for more than half a century, stood as a true partner in family, philanthropy, and art.
Peggy and David Rockefeller shared a love of the decorative arts and in their early years together they began buying ‘simple but genuine’ 18th-century English antiques, which at that time were relatively inexpensive. The pieces gave them ‘much pleasure’, David wrote, as well as proving to be a wise investment. ‘While potential appreciation in value never has been a dominant factor in our collecting,’ he noted, ‘emphasis on quality has been. We have learned, happily, that the two often go hand-in-hand.’
‘Peggy and David’s collection of antique furniture reflects their love of Britain,’ Linley says. ‘The collection shows their real appreciation for craft and their desire to have these pieces become everyday objects in their lives. The pair of George II mahogany library armchairs attributed to Wright and Elwick [above] are not only fantastically carved — you want to roll your hand over the wood — but they are beautifully proportioned and look delicious to sit in,’ says Linley. ‘They represent the peak of the skills of Georgian designers, cabinet-makers and upholsterers.’
Early on in their marriage, the couple acquired three new residences in the space of less than two years, which left them with what David described as a ‘furnishing problem of a magnitude far greater than anything we had had to deal with in the past’.
Shortly after the war, they had been introduced to Cecil Turner, the English dealer who was a founder and chairman of the executive committee of the Antique Dealers’ Fair. Turner headed an antique furniture establishment known as Stuart and Turner, with headquarters in Newbury, outside London, and visited the United States once a year with large numbers of photographs of English furniture for prospective customers. The dealer, David recalled, ‘helped us enormously in acquiring furniture for our new homes’.
Peggy and David bought many pieces from Cecil Turner and, in the process, learned a lot about what to look for in selecting authentic, good-quality English furniture
David described Turner as ‘a man of complete integrity with a vast knowledge of English furniture, and his taste corresponded very much with our own.’ This translated as ‘relatively simple furniture fashioned of fine-quality wood and with a good patina’. For more than a decade, Peggy and David bought many pieces from Turner and, in the process, learned a lot about what to look for in selecting authentic, good-quality English furniture.
In 1948, for example, Turner encouraged the Rockefellers to buy a walnut, oak and pine bureau bookcase that had belonged to former Prime Minister David Lloyd George (1863-1945). ‘It was quite a bit more expensive than other pieces we had acquired at that time,’ said David, ‘but Mr. Turner urged us to buy it, pointing out that it was an exceptionally fine bookcase, as well as having an interesting provenance.’ The bookcase would occupy a long-standing position of prominence in the couple’s living room at 146 East 65th Street.
A pair of George III lacquered-brass mounted harewood, holly, amaranth and tulipwood marquetry commodes, attributed to Mayhew and Ince, circa 1775. 35 in (89 cm) high, 38¾ in (98.5 cm) wide, 19 ¾ in (50 cm) deep. Estimate: $60,000-100,000. This lot is offered in The Collection of David and Peggy Rockefeller: English & European Furniture, Ceramics & Decorations, Part II on 10 May at Christie’s in New York
The couple also inherited pieces from family members: the pair of commodes shown above were in Abby Aldrich Rockefeller’s sitting room on the second floor at Kykuit. ‘The ormolu decoration and the elaborateness of their design suggest that they could as well have been made in France as in England,’ wrote David in the family's catalogue of the collection. They were placed in the small hall outside the library at Hudson Pines.
The late George III desk shown below had been part of the early Kykuit furnishings purchased by David’s parents. ‘It was in the drawing room, on the right of the main entrance as one entered the house,’ he explained. Acquired in 1963, when there was a partial distribution of some of the furnishings from Kykuit, the table was subsequently used in the morning room of the ground floor at 65th Street in New York.
Peggy and David also bought a number of very fine pieces from Stephen J. Jussel, president of Arthur S. Vernay, and Jack Treleaven of Needham’s Antiques. ‘We first met Mr. Jussel through my parents, who had dealt for many years with Vernay, a well-known English firm,’ David explained. ‘Mr. Treleaven at Needham’s also had beautiful pieces of fine quality, both furniture and porcelain, and we bought many wonderful things from him... We feel that we were fortunate in having had as advisors and friends three men of such outstanding quality as Messrs. Turner, Jussel, and Treleaven. The things we bought from them have stood the test of time.’
‘Peggy and David placed their trust in advisors with great scholarship and integrity. But they also made their own studies, devoting time to every object they purchased,’ David Linley points out.
A set of ten George III mahogany dining chairs, circa 1760, comprising two armchairs and eight side chairs, each with foliate-carved and ribbon cresting, over a pierced splat, on blind fret-carved legs, upholstered in close-nailed brown leather, most with inventory label inscribed d.r. 53.1945. Estimate: $50,000-100,000. This lot is offered in The Collection of David and Peggy Rockefeller: English & European Furniture, Ceramics & Decorations, Part I on 9 May at Christie’s in New York
Shown in the dining room at 146 East 65th Street, chairs from the set of ten George III mahogany dining chairs, circa 1760. Estimate: $50,000-100,000. This lot is offered in the Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller in Spring 2018 at Christie’s in New York
The chairs shown above were purchased by David’s parents for their dining room at 740 Park Avenue. In 1971, when the furnishings from the house were being distributed, Peggy and David asked Stephen Jussel, the son of Stephen J. Jussel, to appraise the items in the apartment before making his recommendations. ‘He pointed out in particular this set of dining-room chairs,’ David remembered, ‘which he thought were quite outstanding.’ Peggy and David were able to acquire the chairs when lots were drawn, and they, too, went on to serve them well in the dining room of their 65th Street home.
In the fields of porcelain and silver, the couple dealt in London with J. Rochelle Thomas, Delomosne and Son, and Walter H. Willson, who specialised in English silver.
Of course, the Rockefellers’ relationship with Britain extended far deeper than an appreciation of the finest examples of English furniture and decorative arts. In 1945, The Rockefeller Foundation established the Atlantic Awards to assist promising British writers who found themselves ‘dislocated and exhausted’ after the war. Through the Royal Society in London, the Foundation also funded a programme of purchasing books and scholarly journals for distribution to war-ravaged libraries.
‘I love the beautiful, intimate countryside,’ David wrote, ‘and the great cathedrals, castles and stately houses of England’
Four years later, the Foundation launched a 12-year programme designed to promote research leading to ‘increased understanding of one culture by members of another’. Universities in Great Britain were among those to receive grants.
David Rockefeller would visit London 37 times during his long and distinguished career with Chase. It was under his guidance in the 1970s that the bank greatly expanded its role in merchant banking in the English capital. In 1979, when Margaret Thatcher paid her first visit to Washington as British Prime Minister, she gave a speech to leading bankers and business people from all over the United States at a dinner that was organised by David.
The deep bond that David had with Britain dated back to his first visit in 1932. ‘I love the beautiful, intimate countryside,’ he wrote, ‘and [exposure to] some of the great cathedrals, castles and stately houses of England.’ It was an experience that left him with ‘a lasting affection for the United Kingdom’, one that undoubtedly drew him back countless times.