Obituary: Alfred Rubens

Click to follow
EVEN AS a boy, Alfred Rubens was an avid collector. In the 1920s, he started to collect prints and drawings of Jewish interest and eventually built up a collection of world importance. When, in 1932, the Jewish Museum was founded in London by Rubens's friend Wilfred S. Samuel, he invited Rubens to join the museum's committee as its expert on prints and drawings. Rubens outlived all other members of that original committee.

The museum started with a major purchase of antique ceremonial objects at Christie's and built up a fine collection, illustrating both the ceremonies of Judaism and the social history of the Jewish community in Britain. Exhibits included silver, textiles and furniture from London's former 18th-century synagogues.

In 1935, Rubens published his first book, Anglo-Jewish Portraits, at his own expense. This was followed by two very different books, both called A Jewish Iconography, the first published in 1954 and the second in 1981, and by his A History of Jewish Costume (1967). He wrote six papers for the Jewish Historical Society of England and was elected its President in 1956 and 1957. The quality of his historical research was recognised by his election as a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 1957 and of the Society of Antiquaries the same year.

In 1958, after the death of Wilfred Samuel, Rubens accepted the chairmanship of the Jewish Museum, and managed it for 25 years, retiring in 1983. He did many things to improve the museum which, when he became chairman, was located in one large room at Woburn House, Tavistock Square. He gave it showcases, miniatures, paintings and prints. He commissioned the writing and publication of its illustrated catalogue and of its guidebook. He engaged its first professionally trained part-time Curator, Carole Mendleson. And when, in 1980, the Treasurers of the Jewish Memorial Council withdrew the museum's funding, he paid the museum's annual deficit out of his own resources for some five years.

Alfred Rubens was born in 1903 and brought up in Highbury, north London. His father was an estate agent and small-scale property developer in the City and Alfred, his youngest son, was educated at the City of London School. In 1918, his father died unexpectedly. One older brother was in the Army in France and another was about to be called up, so Alfred, then aged 14, had to leave school without matriculating, to help his mother run the family business. He managed to pass the matriculation exam by private study and followed this up by qualifying as a Chartered Surveyor. He read widely but, to his regret, never had the opportunity of going to university.

After the First World War he joined his older brother, Harry, as a partner in the firm of H., I. and A. Rubens, Chartered Surveyors. They floated the Property and Reversionary Investment Corporation Ltd to develop commercial property, in which, in the course of time, they both made their fortunes.

Alfred Rubens's final service to the Jewish Museum was to persuade Raymond Burton, the former chairman of the Burton Group, that the museum's educational work deserved his interest and support. Burton's patronage enabled the museum to relocate its superb collection in 1994 to new premises in Albert Street, in Camden Town, where its superb collection has been officially designated as of national importance. Instead of one room in an office block, this small independent museum now has its own listed building with separate galleries for history, temporary exhibitions and ceremonial art, the last being named the Alfred Rubens Gallery. Rubens fitted out a purpose- designed print room at the museum and deposited his great collection of prints and drawings there.

Alfred Rubens was an exceptional man. He was a great enthusiast for his hobbies, with a fund of original ideas but, unlike many enthusiasts, was calm and unflappable. He was a man of taste and a scholar, with a gift for friendship. He died, full of years and honour, just short of his 95th birthday.

Edgar Samuel

Alfred Rubens, collector and historian: born London 30 July 1903; Chairman, Jewish Museum 1958-83; married 1931 Frances de Pinna Weil (one daughter); died London 1 June 1998.