Waddesdon Manor is a country house in the village of Waddesdon, in Buckinghamshire, England. It is located in the Aylesbury Vale, 6.6 miles (10.6 km) west of Aylesbury. The house was built in the Neo-Renaissance style of a French château between 1874 and 1889 for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild (1839–1898) as a weekend residence for grand entertaining.
The last member of the Rothschild family to own Waddesdon was James de Rothschild (1878-1957). He bequeathed the house and its contents to the National Trust. It is now administered by a Rothschild charitable trust that is overseen by Jacob Rothschild, 4th Baron Rothschild. It is one of the National Trust's most visited properties, with around 335,000 visitors annually.
Prior to the construction of Waddesdon Manor, no house existed on the site. Ferdinand de Rothschild wanted a house in the style of the great Renaissance châteaux of the Loire Valley. The Baron, a member of the Viennese branch of the Rothschild banking dynasty, chose as his architect Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleur. Destailleur was already experienced in working in this style, having overseen the restoration of many châteaux in that region, in particular that of the Château de Mouchy.
Through Destailleur's vision, Waddesdon embodied an eclectic style based on the châteaux so admired by his patron, Baron Ferdinand. The towers at Waddesdon were based on those of the Château de Maintenon, and the twin staircase towers, on the north facade, were inspired by the staircase tower at the Château de Chambord. However, following the theme of unparalleled luxury at Waddesdon, the windows of the towers at Waddesdon were glazed, unlike those of the staircase at Chambord. They are also far more ornate.
The structural design of Waddesdon, however, was not all retrospective. Hidden from view were the most modern innovations of the late 19th century including a steel frame, which took the strain of walls on the upper floors, which consequently permitted the layout of these floors to differ completely from the lower floors. The house also had hot and cold running water in its bathrooms, central heating, and an electric bell system to summon the numerous servants. The building contractor was Edward Conder & Son.
Once his château was complete, Baron Ferdinand installed his extensive collections of French 18th-century boiseries, Savonnerie carpets, tapestries, furniture, Sèvres ceramics, and books, as well as English and Dutch paintings and Renaissance treasures. Works were acquired for their exquisite quality and fine provenance. One of the highlights of the collection is the extraordinary musical automaton elephant, dating from 1774 and made by the French clockmaker H Martinet. Of the ten surviving examples of the Sèvres pot-pourri vase in the shape of a ship from the 1760s, three are at Waddesdon, including one with a very rare scene of a battle connected to the Seven Years' War.
In the 1890s, Baron Ferdinand focused on the Renaissance collection for his small museum in the New Smoking Room. This collection was bequeathed to the British Museum and is now known as the Waddesdon Bequest..The interior of Waddesdon Manor was photographed in 1897 for Baron Ferdinand's privately published The Red Book.
Subsequent owners added noted collections of arms and armour, maiolica, medieval manuscripts, prints and drawings.
Extensive landscaping of the hill was carried out, including leveling the top. The gardens and landscape park were laid out by the French landscape architect Elie Lainé. An attempt was made to transplant full-grown trees by chloroforming their roots, to limit the shock. While this novel idea was unsuccessful, many very large trees were successfully transplanted. The gardens were enhanced with statuary, pavilions and an aviary. The Proserpina fountain was brought to the Manor at the end of the 19th century from the Palace of the Dukes of Parma in northern Italy: the Ducal Palace of Colorno. The gardens are listed Grade I on the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens.
Baron Ferdinand played host to many important guests including the future Edward VII. The grounds and house were such a wonder of their day that, in 1890, Queen Victoria invited herself to view them. The Queen was, however, more impressed by the electric lighting in the house than the wonders of the park. Fascinated by the invention she had not seen before, she is reported to have spent ten minutes switching a newly electrified 18th-century chandelier on and off.
When Baron Ferdinand died in 1898, the house passed to his sister Alice de Rothschild, who further developed the collections. Following Alice de Rothschild's death in 1922, the property and collections passed to her great-nephew James A. "Jimmy" de Rothschild of the French branch of the family, who further enriched it with objects from the collections of his late father Baron Edmond James de Rothschild of Paris. James hosted a Liberal Party rally at Waddesdon in 1928, where David Lloyd George addressed the crowd. During World War II, children under the age of five were evacuated from London and lived at Waddesdon Manor.
When James de Rothschild died in 1957, he bequeathed Waddesdon Manor, 200 acres (0.81 km2) of grounds and its contents to the National Trust, to be preserved for posterity. A nearby ancillary property, The Pavilion at Eythrope, became the home of James de Rothschild's widow, Dorothy de Rothschild, usually known as "Mrs James". She took a very keen interest in Waddesdon for the remainder of her long life. Eythrope and the rest of the Waddesdon estate were bequeathed to the 4th Lord Rothschild.
Jacob Rothschild, 4th Baron Rothschild, has been a major benefactor of Waddesdon Manor through The Alice Trust, a registered charity headed by the Rothschild family. In an unprecedented arrangement, he was given authority by the National Trust in 1993 to run Waddesdon Manor as a semi-independent operation. Since 2011, the family charity handling Waddesdon’s management has been the Rothschild Foundation.
The Manor underwent a major restoration from 1990 to 1997, and the visitor attractions were enhanced. In 2003, in a burglary committed by the Johnson Gang, approximately 100 priceless gold snuff boxes and other items were stolen from the collection prompting the installation of new security measures. In 2012, it was announced that Waddesdon Manor would be one of the sites for Jubilee Woodlands, designated by the Woodland Trust to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee.
New works of art continue to be acquired to complement the existing collections at Waddesdon, such as Le Faiseur de Châteaux de Cartes by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, added in 2007. Contemporary works have also been sited near the Manor and on the wider estate including by Richard Long, Sarah Lucas and Angus Fairhurst.Commissions to contemporary architects have also occurred. Windmill Hill Archive (2011) was designed by Stephen Marshall. Flint House (2015) was designed by Skene Catling de la Peña. It won RIBA House of the Year in 2015. In April 2015, artist Joana Vasconcelos installed two sculptures entitled Lafite in front of the Manor.
Since 2012, when Christie's chose the Manor to exhibit sculptures by leading contemporary artists, the Manor has gone on to host other major exhibitions, including the Lod Mosaic. Waddesdon was one venue celebrating the work of Henry Moore in 2015. Bruce Munro has also exhibited several works at the Manor.
Lord Rothschild: My manor from heaven
In a rare interview, Lord Rothschild talks about the priceless collections at Waddesdon and why the HS2 transport link won't derail his ambitions.
Clive Aslet By Clive Aslet7:00AM GMT 17 Jan 2012
I interrupt Lord Rothschild in the middle of a decision. It’s not about finance or philanthropy, though these are subjects that occupy other parts of his mind. A friend has offered him the loan of two 8ft-tall columns of green semi-precious stone and he is wondering where they would show to best effect. We could only be at Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, where people have been worrying about such arcane and delicious matters since it was begun by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild in 1874.
Waddesdon has been in the news recently for an unwelcome reason: HS2, the high-speed rail network, is planned to come slicing through the Vale of Aylesbury about two miles from its front door. Two miles is not far in the case of an estate the size of Waddesdon. It will also make a “great noise”, shattering the tranquillity of a place whose special magic attracts 350,000 visitors a year.
“I have particular feelings as a neighbour to the railway,” says Lord Rothschild with polished understatement. “But more generally, the economic case has not been well made. You hear different opinions. Infrastructure ought to be integrated in the UK.” If a new airport were to be built east of London, for example, Britain’s rail needs would change radically. “We’re talking about very large sums of money and the impact on some of the most beautiful countryside in Britain, which are very big things.”
From Lord Rothschild, that comment is something; he is used to dealing with big things. One of them is Waddesdon. Built in the style of a French chateau, it was not intended to shelter a spreading family, since Baron Ferdinand’s wife and baby both died during the birth, nor to entertain great Victorian shooting parties; the place was conceived as a showcase for the collections, acquiring which provided the mainspring of Baron Ferdinand’s life. They are fabulous, opulent, well-chosen, gilded – a cardinal statement of a taste so associated with this one international family, which had 40 great houses across Europe in the 19th century, that it simply went by the name of “the Rothschild taste”.
Luxurious French furniture was combined with the best British 18th-century portraits. Here is the playwright Beaumarchais’s de luxe writing desk. There, a jewel-encrusted miniature of James I. Every marble surface supports a pair of Sèvres parrots or an agate vase. Even the collection of 18th-century buttons is memorable.
In this age of dumbing down, the public is presumed not to appreciate miniature Dresden horsemen, made by court goldsmiths in the 1690s out of ivory and jewels. But Waddesdon is the second-most visited property of the National Trust. Much of the credit for that is down to Lord Rothschild, who has been developing it in conjunction with the Trust. Visitors have been mesmerised by the quality that pervades every aspect – thanks to the demanding eye of a man who, in every aspect of his life, operates at the highest level.
The Rothschilds have always been well connected – Lord Rothschild’s son, Nat, has been the subject of media speculation after entertaining George Osborne and Peter Mandelson on the oligarch Oleg Deripaska’s yacht – but this family does not court publicity, preferring to operate through a network of connections behind the scenes. Indeed, Lord Rothschild rarely gives interviews, even about a subject as close to his heart as Waddesdon.
If you had thought he’d done enough to revitalise an old family possession, you’d be wrong. Although in his mid-seventies, he talks as if he has only just begun. He appears to have analysed the needs of the property, much as he would an investment decision. The strategy is to make it “much wider in its interest”, while not abandoning one whit of rigour as regards connoisseurship. This year, the estate will plant a 40-acre wood in celebration of the Queen’s Jubilee, and Lord Rothschild is excited. The idea is to make it “more than an extraordinary house on the hill with its collections”.
Then comes an exhibition programme, beginning this spring with the most ambitious yet held at the house, on Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin’s painting The House of Cards. There are four versions of this painting: at the National Gallery in London, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Louvre and Waddesdon – not such a bad club to belong to. There is a family connection with the artist, since Henri de Rothschild collected 19 of his works; alas, his heir installed them for safe keeping during the Second World War in a house in Bath, which was bombed.
The present baron, a former chairman of the National Gallery, has always collected, albeit “schizophrenically”, he says. “My mother was a Bloomsbury figure; a great friend of TS Eliot, Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell. My grandmother, Mary Hutchinson, gave her life to works of art, being an admirer of Matisse and Giaometti, whom I collected as a young man because of her.” Through his father came the love of things traditionally Rothschild. He has kept both aspects of his collecting personality in play.
The estate has developed another new venture. Built on the site of a redundant farm, Windmill Hill, as it is known, is a superb work of architecture, designed by Stephen Marshall, in a glorious open landscape. The purpose is to provide an archive and a conference centre, holding meetings on “subjects of interest to mankind, such as climate change, the environment, the Middle East, investment. Ten years ago I held a conference with Warren Buffet and people were queuing to come. I intend to do more of those, perhaps with the Saïd Business School at Oxford. If delegates feel in need of spiritual refreshment, they need only look through the windows, whether to the natural world or the art works.”
Best of all, perhaps, is something not immediately visible to the visitor. Baron Ferdinand fretted that, since he had no children, Waddesdon would “fall into decay”. But the future of the house has never looked so assured. Windmill Hill is the base for the Rothschild Foundation, in which any or all of Lord Rothschild’s “four children and eight grandchildren may become involved”. With assets in excess of £250 million it will underwrite the family’s standards of excellence in perpetuity.
Clive Aslet is Editor at Large of 'Country Life’