Last years in Lisbon

During World War II Gulbenkian initially stayed in France but decided in April 1942 to seek refuge in a neutral country. The choice lay between Switzerland and Portugal.

Portrait of Calouste Gulbenkian

Gulbenkian settled on Portugal because of its geographical situation: if necessary he could escape by sea to the United States. He remained until his death; perhaps because of the stable society, the low taxes, and the absence of a prying media. In Lisbon he felt welcome – he wrote later “that he had never felt anywhere else” such hospitality as in Lisbon, a quiet city in a Europe devastated by war.

He lived at the Hotel Aviz, Lisbon, for thirteen years and died in Lisbon on 20 July 1955, aged 86. His will (18 June 1953) left generous legacies to his children and established lifetime pensions for other relatives and retainers. He created an international foundation that would bear his name, inherit the rest of his fortune, and be presided over by his trusted lawyer, Lord Radcliffe. To him he entrusted the mission to act so as to benefit “humanity”. He also wanted his Foundation to reflect what he considered his major achievements: his art collection and his role as a “business architect”, conceiving structures to bring together and unite different nations, groups and interests.

After his death, arduous negotiations with the French and Portuguese governments ensued, to establish the terms under which Gulbenkian’s art collection would be allowed to leave France, as well as the legal basis for the foundation. In 1960, the entire collection was brought to Portugal, where it was exhibited at the Pombal Palace in Oeiras from 1965 to 1969. Fourteen years after the death of this illustrious collector his wish was fulfilled, when the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum opened in Lisbon.

However differences of opinion concerning the weight of the international activities to be carried out by the Foundation, the composition of its Board of Trustees (the Government insisted on a majority of Portuguese members), and the fear of government interference led Lord Radcliffe to resign. Thus José Azeredo Perdigão became the first President of the Foundation.

Presently the Foundation – one of the largest foundations in Europe – is trying to act more internationally, partly to tackle the major issues facing society but also to honour the Founder’s wishes. The Foundation is active in collaborating with other Foundations on international issues.

The definitive biography of Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian is being prepared by historian Dr Jonathan Conlin (University of Southampton) and will be published in time for the 150th anniversary of Calouste Gulbenkian’s birth in 2019.