Years ago I was fortunate enough to become a friend of one of the most outstanding people I have ever known – Dame Miriam Rothschild. It was she who involved me in the field of contemporary crafts in Israel – a passion for which has endured over the years. But more of this later. First, something about this remarkable woman.
Miriam was born in 1908 at Ashton Wold, Northamptonshire, the family home built by her father Charles Rothschild of the Jewish banking family. He was the son of Nathan Mayer Rothschild who in 1885 became the first Jew to receive a peerage as the 1st Baron Rothschild.
Charles devoted much of his energy to entomology and natural history. He amassed a collection of 260,000 fleas, now housed in London’s Natural History Museum. He was passionate about nature conservation, established the first nature reserve near Ely in 1899, and spent his life managing his estate at Ashton Wold to make it suitable for wildlife, especially butterflies. Miriam told me how he was ahead of his time in his understanding that, whilst preserving endangered species in zoos was fine, more at risk were their natural habitats, without which they could never survive.
As a child Miriam never attended school but was taught at home under the watchful eyes of her parents. She said her father never approved of governesses or exams so she had a blissful childhood. Aged four she played on the family farm and was featured in Country Life magazine as the ‘youngest milkmaid’ in Britain”. She was always fascinated by insects and recalls “My father never treated me as a child but made me believe I was helping him in his work.”
Tragically Charles died aged 46 when Miriam was 15, after which she was guided by her father’s elder brother Walter, a truly English eccentric. He too was a naturalist who gathered the largest collection of specimens ever assembled by one man, including two million butterflies and moths, 200,000 birds eggs, 300,000 bird skins and 4,000 mounted mammals and birds. They were displayed in his zoological museum at Tring, Hertfordshire and opened to the public in 1892.
Miriam remembers seeing his cassowaries, wallabies and 144 Galapagos tortoises roaming freely around the estate. Uncle Walter was also famed for driving a team of six zebras to Buckingham Palace to demonstrate their tameness.
As an active Zionist and close friend of Chaim Weizmann he worked to draft the document for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, the Balfour Declaration, and personally received the letter from Lord Balfour confirming the support of the British Government.
Not surprisingly in view of her background, Miriam became a world authority on fleas. She was the first person to discover their complex jumping mechanism and explained to me how they could jump to heights 50 times their body size, akin to my jumping to the top of the Empire State Building.
Miriam was very proud of being Jewish but denied believing in the creation. However on one occasion she did say that she began to believe it when she discovered that fleas had penises. She spoke on BBC’s ‘Desert Island Discs’ about how beautiful these creatures were and illustrated the cover of her book ‘Atlas of Insect Tissue’ with an image of a flea’s vagina.
The natural world was her main focus but she also pursued many other important activities. Prior to WW2 she worked to persuade the UK Government to admit more Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. She personally welcomed and housed 49 Jewish children. She also cared for wounded British soldiers – one of whom she married – Captain George Lane, a Hungarian Jewish exile who fought with the British Commandos and was decorated as a war hero.
Another important contribution to the war effort were the two years she spent helping to break the Enigma Code with Alan Turing at Bletchley Park. For this she was awarded a Defence Medal.
In her teens Miriam was an excellent sportswoman, following in the footsteps of her mother. She reached international standards at cricket and squash. Aged 18, she began Zoology studies at Chelsea Polytechnic, following which her prolific academic career took off.
In 1982 she received the CBE, commenting “I must be the first person to receive this for examining the backsides of fleas.” In 1985 she was appointed a Fellow of the Royal Society for her contribution to etymology and botany. She became a Dame in 2000 and received honorary doctorates from eight universities including Oxford and Cambridge. During her lifetime she published more than 360 scientific papers and 11 books.
The Royal Horticultural Society awarded her a medal for her wild flower meadows, a gold medal for 80 varieties of gooseberries, and in 1991 she received their highest accolade – the Victoria Medal of Honour. Because of her extensive knowledge of wild flowers, Prince Charles planted his Highgrove Estate with seeds that she cultivated and Lady Bird Johnson consulted her about the programme to beautify American roadsides. On Desert Island Discs her chosen luxury was a bag of wild flower seeds – named ‘Farmer’s Nightmare’, so called for being full of what countrymen would regard as weeds.
In addition to all this she married and raised six children.
I myself met Miriam in 1989. As Director of the British Israel Arts Foundation, I was working to promote cultural links between the two countries. Miriam called to ask if I could arrange a trip to Israel for the UK’s leading authority on Art Therapy – Edward Adamson. I visited her at the museum she set up at Ashton Wold housing 6,000 artworks by hospital inmates. It was a revelation to learn of Edward’s seminal work, transforming, through art, the lives of so many patients. In 1991 I brought him to Israel for a lecture tour combined with an exhibition in Kfar Saba of the British patients’ work.
Miriam then asked if I would join her to sit on the committee in Jerusalem of the Alix de Rothschild Craft Foundation. Alix had always had a great passion for crafts and tools. She and Miriam were cousins and great friends and when Alix died in 1982 David de Rothschild, her son, established a foundation in his mother’s name. Miriam and I attended meetings at their centre in the Old City of Jerusalem. On another occasion she invited me to the opening of the Supreme Court Building in Jerusalem in 1992 , funded by the Rothschilds. It was a splendid and memorable occasion.
Supreme Court building, JerusalemIn 1997 Miriam suggested I set up a charity to work with the Alix de Rothschild Foundation to help artists by arranging exhibitions, exchange visits and awarding prizes. And so the UK Designer Crafts Foundation was born. Over the years more than seventy UK artists have visited Israel to give lectures and workshops. Enduring links have been created between artists of both countries. This continues today.
For some reason I kept all the letters that Miriam sent me over the years. Re-reading them I can hear so clearly her voice and her ready laugh – she had a great sense of humour and was hugely enthusiastic and supportive. In one letter she wrote “Dear Ruth, I am very impressed with your ruthless activity – but think I need to create a new adjective for it!”
Ashton Wold I visited Miriam several times at Ashton Wold. Her house was covered with a profusion of ivy, wisteria, clematis and roses. The gardens were bursting with wild flowers, trees and shrubs. “My garden has come to symbolise the new sympathy with wildlife” she said. This was when I learned that there are no such thing as weeds – they are simply flowers growing where they choose rather than being given designated plots by us.
On arrival I was always greeted by Miriam’s coterie of miniature Shetland sheepdogs that followed her everywhere. Every room in the house was piled high with books, papers and paintings collected over many years – including an enlargement of a flea, by the artist Graham Sutherland which hung in her toilet.
Over lunch Miriam regaled me with stories – American airmen were billeted there during WW2, one being Clark Gable whom, she said, was very handsome but quite humourless. She however combined wit with erudition and displayed warmth and a passion for life. She was an unapologetic humanitarian, fighting cause after cause, including homosexual rights, free milk for schoolchildren, better treatment for laboratory animals. She was also credited with inventing seat belts. During WW2 an airfield was erected on her land – she met the pilots, noticed their seat belts and wondered if these could be applied to cars. She produced one to test, the rest is history.
Miriam could always be identified by her singular dress style, loose fitting clothes, in mauve, blue and lilac with matching headscarf. These she designed to eliminate ‘the need to make unnecessary choices’. She would often be seen walking through the village with a tame fox in tow and wearing her customary white wellington boots. These she adopted after abandoning leather shoes, having seen the cruelty to farmed animals. Asked if she always wore them, she replied, “Well I wore them on a visit to Buckingham Palace”.
I remember clearly my last visit. Miriam was about 95 and whilst talking of our work in Israel, she said “It is very nice for me to think that when I ‘ll be up there with the birds you will be down here looking after things”. I have never forgotten this and sometimes, when I may feel like giving it up, I remember her and realise that there is absolutely no way I can possibly break my promise to this very unique and inspiring person.
In memory of a special friend.