Wonders of Waddesdon

Wonders of Waddesdon

Waddesdon Manor is a French 16th-Century-style chateau in the heart of the English countryside...

Wonders of Waddesdon

A  year before his death in 1898 – lonely, childless and rich beyond the dreams of avarice – Baron Ferdinand Rothschild published a private account of his magnificent house in Buckinghamshire, Waddesdon Manor, and the extraordinary collection of works he had accumulated there.

Pondering an uncertain future, Ferdinand fretted that Waddesdon would likely share the fate of most great houses whose owners have no descendants and fall into decay, that the terraces would ‘crumble to dust’, its great works of art would be dispersed to Europe and America, ‘and the melancholy cry of the night-jar (would) sound from the deserted towers’.

Ferdinand was one of the great collectors of the age. The rooms at Waddesdon were stocked with Louis XV and XVI furniture, Sèvres porcelain and 18th-century English portraits. But his greatest passion was for what he called his ‘Renaissance museum’, an unrivalled collection of precious baroque and Renaissance objects including gold and enamelled reliquaries and caskets, cups carved from rock crystal and amber, rare 17th-century miniatures, and exquisite objects fashioned in the most intricate detail from ostrich eggs and shells.

Determined that this collection should remain intact, Ferdinand bequeathed 265 objects to the British Museum in London, where they have been on display ever since under the name of the Waddesdon Bequest. This month sees the opening of a new purpose-built gallery on the ground floor of the museum to house the collection.

Funded by the Rothschild Foundation, under the direction of Lord (Jacob)
Rothschild – the 4th Baron Rothschild, head of the British branch of the dynasty – and his daughter Hannah, the new gallery will provide an unparalleled opportunity to view one of the most extraordinary private collections of artworks ever assembled in Britain. Valued at about £400,000 at the time of the bequest, today the collection is priceless.
A French chateau Keen to make his place in British society, in 1874, with an inheritance from his father, Ferdinand purchased the Waddesdon estate from the Duke of Marlborough for £200,000 and set about building a great house for himself. Built at a cost of £1.5 million (about £124 million in today’s money), Waddesdon Manor is an anomaly – a French 16th-century-style chateau in the heart of the English countryside. Waddesdon was not built as a home, but as a ‘country cottage’, for weekend entertaining – Ferdinand’s home was on Piccadilly, and Waddesdon would be closed  for six months of the year.

Waddesdon Manor was just one of a number of great houses built or owned by the Rothschild family in the Vale of Aylesbury in the 19th century, including Tring Park, Aston Clinton House and Mentmore Towers – which led to the area being nicknamed ‘Rothschildshire’.

All have since been turned to other uses. But Ferdinand’s fears about the future of Waddesdon were unfounded. Following his death, the manor passed into the hands of Alice, and in turn to her nephew James de Rothschild. In 1957, the house was bequeathed to the National Trust by James, but it is managed (in a unique arrangement) on behalf of the Trust by the Rothschild Foundation, a charitable body chaired by Lord Rothschild, who took over this role from his cousin Dorothy, James’s widow, in 1988.

Waddesdon is a virtual time capsule of French baroque and rococo furniture, textiles and porcelain. There are Savonnerie carpets, originally commissioned for Louis XIV for his palace at the Louvre; Riesener cabinets, bureaux and desks (there are 11 at Waddesdon, more than are to be found at the Palace of Versailles); along with an extensive collection of fine 18th-century English paintings by Reynolds, Gainsborough and Romney.

Ferdinand modelled his Renaissance museum on the Kunstkammern – or ‘cabinets of curiosities’ – that had been assembled by the princes and noblemen of Renaissance Europe, such as Augustus the Strong, who in the 18th Century built lavish palaces in Dresden, Warsaw and Meissen, and attracted artists from all over Europe to his court.

Some of the items in Ferdinand’s collection had passed through various noble – and ignoble – hands over the centuries, acquiring a rich patina of provenance. The Cellini Bell, encrusted with a bestiary of tiny lizards, grasshoppers and flies cast from life in silver by the 16th-century Nuremberg goldsmith Wenzel Jamnitzer, had been acquired from the collection of the British connoisseur Horace Walpole, who described it as ‘the uniquest thing in the world’.

Perhaps the most beautiful, and valuable, piece of all is the Holy Thorn Reliquary, an exquisite pendant fashioned in gold and studded with pearls and rubies, which is said to contain a thorn taken from the Crown of Thorns worn by Christ on the day of His crucifixion. The reliquary was made in Paris in about 1400 as a private devotional object for Jean, Duc de Berry.

By the mid-16th Century it had entered the ecclesiastical treasury of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in Vienna, where it remained until around 1860 when it was sent to a restorer, Salomon Weininger, for repair. Weininger made a copy of the pendant and returned this to the treasury; the original found its way on to the market before being acquired by Anselm de Rothschild in about 1873. Weininger, an accomplished and prolific forger, died in prison in 1879.

In his will, Ferdinand stipulated that all the objects should be displayed together, ‘separate and apart from the other contents of the Museum’, under the name the Waddesdon Bequest. Since then, the bequest has been moved between several rooms in the museum, but the new dedicated gallery places it in a prominent ground-floor location, where the collection can, for the first time, be displayed in its full glory.

The gallery is among the first in the museum to be Wi-Fi enabled, allowing visitors to follow links to explore the history of the collection and each piece in depth. Digital tablets will afford them the opportunity to examine in 3D the exquisite craftsmanship of the objects in fine detail – the collection of 16th-century German boxwood ‘prayer nuts’, for example:

circular boxes, about the size of a tennis ball, containing intricately carved devotional scenes such as the Passion of Christ and the Life of the Virgin.True to the family tradition, Lord Rothschild is a connoisseur of the arts; but unlike Ferdinand, who showed no interest in the art of his day, Lord Rothschild is a keen champion of contemporary work.

The Windmill Hill complex, which opened on the site of a former dairy farm on the Waddesdon estate in 2011 to house the archives of the estate and the Rothschild family, features an extensive collective of work by contemporary artists such as Richard Long, Angus Fairhurst and Michael Craig-Martin. Visitors to the house itself are greeted by the surreal spectacle of two giant candlesticks fashioned from wine bottles by the Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos.

Lord Rothschild believes this installation, called Lafite, particularly echoes Ferdinand’s egalitarian intentions with the Waddesdon Bequest. “With that kind of work of art we are saying, this is no longer a private property, here’s something rather spectacular made out of very ordinary pieces, wine bottles. It just so happens that these particular wine bottles were full of Château Lafite, which was of course a luxury. So there’s a mixture of luxury with ordinary things.”

“It’s extraordinary to think that the house was built to entertain just a few people so that Ferdinand could secure a place in British society,” Hannah says. “So, it’s gone from being a place where perhaps 100 members of the British establishment would come, to one where we now have 4,00,000 people a year. And I get a real kick out of that.”