14 June 2024

The philanthropist who
helped conserve
Hebraica and Judaica in
Lincoln College, Oxford

The library of Lincoln College, Oxford, has a remarkable collection of Hebraica and Judaica (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Patrick Comerford

I was discussing All Saints’ Church in Oxford in a posting earlier this week, and how the former parish church on the High Street in central Oxford was transformed into the library of Lincoln College in 1975.

The upper reading room, with its elegant plastered ceiling, is known as the Cohen Room and its name acknowledges the generosity of John S Cohen Foundation, for many years identified with Dr David Cohen, an alumnus of Lincoln College.

Lincoln College has a relatively small collection of Hebraica and Judaica, with just over 400 works in Hebrew and Aramaic, with related works in Latin and Greek. Yet, the collection is remarkable, both for its range and depth and for the insight it gives us into the study of Hebrew in the 16th and 17th centuries, in Oxford and throughout Europe.

The collection comes largely from the private libraries of two Rectors of Lincoln College, Richard Kilby (1560-1620) and Thomas Marshall (1621-1685).

Richard Kilby was the Regius Professor of Hebrew in Oxford and one of the translators of the King James Bible. His library was rare even in its own time, with important editions of the Bible, biblical commentaries, and dictionaries of Hebrew and Arabic.

Thomas Marshall was one of the most important philologists of the 17th century. His library, with books in Arabic, Aramaic, Coptic, Syriac and Malay, as well as Latin, Greek and Hebrew, reflects the breadth of his scholarship and intellectual interests.

Thanks to a generous donation from the John S Cohen Foundation, the Lincoln Hebraica collection has been catalogued onto the Oxford online catalogue SOLO and is fully available to researchers.

The John S Cohen Foundation is particularly active in supporting the arts, higher education, conservation and the environment, making grants of over £500,000 a year.

The John S Cohen Foundation was set up in 1965 by Dr David Cohen and his family. David Cohen, who died in 2019, was one of Britain’s most active cultural philanthropists, and founded the Cohen Family Trust in 1980 with his then wife, Veronica. A former GP, he served on the boards of several arts institutions, including the Royal Ballet Schools, the Royal Opera House, the National Theatre Development Council and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Trust. He was a graduate and an honorary fellow of of Lincoln College Oxford.

David Cohen was born in Kensington on 6 January 1930, and grew up in Cricklewood. In an interview with the Journal of Medical Biography in 1996, he recalled that his parents were members of the United Synagogue and his early memories were of the Warm Lane Synagogue.

In an interview with the Jewish Chronicle in 2010, he spoke about his motivation for his involvement in arts funding. ‘I love all the arts. I couldn’t imagine a life without music for instance,’ he said. ‘One of my early ambitions as a schoolboy was to be an architect. In fact, when I was about nine or 10, I wanted to go to art school. My parents were not impressed. They felt I should get a good education first.’

When he went to Oxford after national service, ‘I felt a need to know more about my own cultural background,’ he told Harold Maxwell of the Journal of Medical Biography. ‘As a Jew, I was ignorant about my own tradition but, fortunately, at Oxford there was a very good school of Oriental Studies and one of the things the school included was Hebrew.’

He read Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic and Syriac for his degree (BA 1954, MA 1957). He then received a Fulbright Fellowship to study mediaeval Jewish philosophy at Brandeis in University in Massachusetts.

His father, John S Cohen, was a valuer and surveyor, and at 25 David Cohen became an estate agent. But at the age of 30 he decided to study medicine and qualified as a doctor from Westminster Hospital.

His lengthy engagement with philanthropy began in 1965, after returning from a travelling fellowship in tropical medicine in Uganda. That year, with his father, John S Cohen, he and his mother and brother set up the John S Cohen Foundation. The foundation facilitated generous donations to Jewish causes, in particular to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

David Cohen, also gave his name to the David Cohen Prize, worth £40,000 every second year and made in recognition of the entire body of work of a UK or Irish writer. Recipients of the prize include: VS Naipaul, Harold Pinter, Muriel Spark, William Trevor, Doris Lessing, Beryl Bainbridge and Thom Gunn (joint winners), Michael Holroyd, Derek Mahon, Seamus Heaney, Julian Barnes, Hilary Mantel, Tony Harrison, Tom Stoppard, Edna O’Brien, Colm Tóibín and John Burnside.

David Cohen married Veronica Salmon in 1962. They were the parents of two daughters and they divorced in 2002. He married the prominent arts administrator Jillian Barker in 2003. He died at home on 4 August 2019, aged 89.

May his memory be a blessing זיכרונו לברכה

Shabbat Shalom שַׁבָּת שָׁלוֹם

David Cohen (1930-2019) … one of Britain’s most active cultural philanthropists (Photograph: Jewish Chronicle)

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