This family does not court publicity, preferring to operate through a network of connections behind the scenes.
By Clive Aslet
In a rare interview, Lord Rothschild talks about the priceless collections at Waddesdon and why the HS2 transport link won’t derail his ambitions.
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.