The Rothschild Taste

Books drawn on for this essay

The Rothschilds at Waddesdon Manor

by Mrs. James de Rothschild
Vendome, 175 pp. (1979)

Personal Characteristics from French History

by Ferdinand Rothschild
London: Macmillan, 269 pp. (1896)

The Salon Doré from the Hôtel de la Trémoille

edited by Martin Chapman
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 123 pp., $29.25

Paintings: The James A. de Rothschild Collection at Waddesdon Manor

by Ellis Waterhouse
Fribourg: Office du Livre, 334 pp. (1967)

Sculpture: The James A. de Rothschild Collection at Waddesdon Manor

by Terence Hodgkinson
Fribourg: Office du Livre, 308 pp. (1970)

Architecture and Panelling: The James A. de Rothschild Bequest at Waddesdon Manor

by Bruno Pons
London: Philip Wilson, 704 pp., £163.00

The Savonnerie: The James A. de Rothschild Collection at Waddesdon Manor

by Pierre Verlet
Fribourg: Office du Livre, 535 pp. (1982)

Sacred Stitches: Ecclesiastical Textiles in the Rothschild Collection at Waddesdon Manor

by Rachel Boak
Rothschild Foundation, 80 pp., $25.00 (paper)

Drawings for Architecture Design and Ornament: The James A. de Rothschild Bequest at Waddesdon Manor

by Alastair Laing and others
Aylesbury: Alice Trust, two volumes, 1,263 pp., £250.00

Theatres of Life: Drawings from the Rothschild Collection at Waddesdon Manor

by Juliet Carey
Alice Trust/Paul Holberton, 200 pp., $50.00 (paper)

A Rothschild Renaissance: Treasures from the Waddesdon Bequest

by Dora Thornton
London: British Museum Press, 351 pp., £30.00
Waddesdon Manor, UK/Historic England/Bridgeman Images
Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, built for Ferdinand de Rothschild in 1874–1889 and bequeathed to the British National Trust along with all its art and objects by James A. de Rothschild in 1957

When, after World War II, James A. de Rothschild offered his Buckinghamshire house, Waddesdon Manor, together with its principal contents and a suitable endowment, to Britain’s National Trust, the consensus among those involved in making the decision to accept or not was that the house itself was hideous. Hideous! What mattered were the contents. Waddesdon (built in the early 1880s) surprises, and still has the capacity to offend, British taste, by appearing like a Loire château set down in the English home counties—or to put it more precisely, by appearing like a nineteenth-century take on the châteaux of the Loire, borrowing here a little from Chambord, there from Blois and Maintenon and the since-demolished, fabulously turreted Château de Mouchy.

The British have long nursed a strong affection for the Loire châteaux—as long as they know their place, as long as they remain in France. The moment they bumptiously hop across the Channel, or, worse, the moment French historicizing architecture starts its transatlantic career—in Newport, say, or on Fifth Avenue—we have been inclined to throw our heads back and exclaim “Hideous! Ridiculous! Tasteless!” and (the clincher) “nouveau riche!”

This is the history of taste, after all, and when taste has made up its mind there’s no arguing with it. Waddesdon was hideous in 1957, and those who believed it should be saved by the National Trust had to concede its hideousness before arguing for the merits of its contents. But there too lay a danger: among them were rooms decorated with French carved wooden paneling (boiseries) from the eighteenth century, and a large collection of French furniture from the same period (that is, the period of the Louis). It is conventional today to regard this sort of work as the apogee of refinement. But that is, again, a matter of the history of taste. It was not always or everywhere the case. And James de Rothschild’s widow, Dorothy, tells us that one influential member of the National Trust, Lord Esher, declared at the time quite plainly: “I hate French furniture.”

Waddesdon survived, then, by the skin of its teeth. It was not yet, quite, the last great example of the Rothschild taste (the goût Rothschild)—there was the large house called Ascott (also donated to the National Trust) and there was still the country house called Mentmore nearby, stuffed to the gills with fine furniture, works of art, and treasures. Following the death of its owner, the Earl of Rosebery, in 1974 (his father had married a Rothschild), Mentmore and its contents were offered to the nation for around two million pounds sterling. The offer was refused. Sotheby’s was called in and the…

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