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 ensuing sale of contents alone fetched three times that sum.

Crowds came to the Mentmore sale previews. The house (which still exists and became a center for yogic flying, before turning, essentially, into an occasional film set—it was a location for Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut) is a spectacular Victorian take on the English sixteenth century, designed by Joseph Paxton, the architect of the Crystal Palace. The contents spilled out onto lawns and into tents. On the periphery, flunkies turned a blind eye as souvenir hunters pocketed sorbet molds and other kitchen paraphernalia. My memory of the interiors and the furniture is of a great gilded blur. One detail, however, remains vivid for me.

In certain of the smaller rooms I came across rough drawings, what appeared to be hasty portrait sketches done from life during the Reign of Terror, framed in pairs to show, for instance, Robespierre in the Assembly and, next to that, Robespierre on the scaffold; Couthon (Robespierre’s bloody associate) in the Assembly and, with it, Couthon “sur la charrette.” It took a moment to realize that the word charrette must mean tumbril: someone had stood beside the guillotine with pen and paper and taken a likeness of once-feared Couthon in his last moments.

Someone had done this. Someone else (Lord Rosebery, it turns out) had collected this kind of grim documentation and, remarkably, had thought it appropriate for display in a palatial domestic setting in which the predominant style of decor and furniture was that of the ancien régime. If these rococo interiors bespoke some kind of fantasy—a desire to revive the glories of the Age of the Louis—it was not a fantasy that overlooked the way the ancien régime came to an end. On the contrary, one was supposed to admire the exquisite style and wit of the age, while at the same time bearing in mind the lessons to be learned from its downfall (whatever they might be taken to be).


The same kind of attention to the Revolution is shown among the collections at Waddesdon, including some sketches of the kind I have described. And when we turn to the volume on French history compiled in 1896 by the founder of Waddesdon, Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, we find that what begins as a pleasant gathering of anecdotes comes alive as the Revolution approaches. The baron detests Louis XV, calling him “perhaps one of the worst rulers and worst men mentioned in history,” who “lived like a satrap and died like a coward.” “Yet,” he goes on,

there is a fascination about the French eighteenth century, the period between 1715 and 1789, which will always endure. It was an age unique in its idiosyncrasies, and was totally dissimilar from any that preceded or followed it. It seems to have suddenly sprung into life, and to have as suddenly expired.

The baron was intensely aware of the paradox that the achievements he so admired, in writing and in the fine and decorative arts, came from a corrupt, decadent, and doomed society. The love of the rococo (a style that had been much detested as frivolous and debased) was something for which the baron held his family responsible:

Whether it is to the credit of my family or not may be a matter of opinion, but the fact remains that they first revived the decoration of the eighteenth century in its purity, reconstructing their rooms out of old material, reproducing them as they had been during the reigns of the Louis, while at the same time adapting them to modern requirements.

“Purity” and the rooms “reproduced as they had been”—one must not expect too much from such language. The exterior of Waddesdon evoked the French Renaissance style, but the interiors were largely reconstructed out of eighteenth-century materials, as a setting for an outstanding collection of furniture of the same period. But the adaptation to “modern requirements” makes these rooms—for all their wealth of boiseries—strikingly unlike an eighteenth-century appartement. Most visibly, the oak paneling has often been stripped of its original paint, and then given gilded highlights, to create a less frivolous rococo effect. But then the orderly relation of one room to the next has been abandoned and forgotten.

One learns this from an excellent recent publication by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, The Salon Doré from the Hôtel de la Trémoille, edited by Martin Chapman. This collection of essays on a splendidly restored room, now in the Museum of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, demonstrates the astonishing amount that can be gathered from the archives about how French aristocratic residences were furnished and used. There was a progression. One entered by a dimly lit vestibule, and the rooms gradually became brighter and warmer as one passed from vestibule to antechamber, to antichambre du dais in ducal homes (a sort of throne or audience room), to what Alexandre Pradère calls the “true reception room, which was the formal bedchamber of the mistress (or master) of the house.”

Beyond this focal public bedchamber lay the private rooms that held the most splendid pieces of furniture—the commodes and desks and so forth—which only the intimates of the household would ever get to see. The valets slept in the simply furnished antechamber, where their bedding rolls were stored behind screens. (Thus anyone entering the house had to pass through the valets’ sleeping quarters.) There was, for much of the period, no such thing as a dining table, but rather a supply of pine boards and oak trestles that could be set up at a moment’s notice to accommodate the number of guests there happened to be.

Of all the furnishings, the most expensive by far were the mirrors. In the salon de compagnie there were sofas and armchairs set against the wall, known as sièges meublants: they were almost never sat on. By contrast, the lighter sièges courants, or running chairs, set out in an oval or a circle for general conversation, could be easily rearranged for card games or backgammon. The hostess of the salon sat nearest the fire. Where the visitors sat in relation to her was a matter of the most exquisite social calibration. The San Francisco catalog quotes the Baron de Frénilly:

A young man’s entry into society thus required thorough study, constituting the final course of education, after philosophy and the humanities. It was no meager skill to enter with grace and assurance a salon where thirty men and women were seated in a circle around the fire, to move into the circle while nimbly greeting all those around, to make one’s way to the mistress of the house, and to withdraw honorably, managing without awkwardness a dress coat, lace, a coiffure of thirty-six curls powdered like snow, a hat under one arm, a sword whose point touched one heel, and finally, an enormous muff…. I took a month of lessons from the celebrated Petit, at twelve francs a session, for this part of my education.

If the salon in San Francisco looks to our eyes splendid but slightly underfurnished, with its mirrors, chairs, and consoles, that is because we have become used to museum displays in the form of period rooms stuffed with the museum’s star possessions. Or, in grand houses like Waddesdon, trophy antique furniture displayed to best effect beside comfortable contemporary sofas and chairs, and surfaces crammed with family mementos and plants and flowers and so forth.


What one loses is any sense of the provisional nature of the eighteenth-century interior: the valets waiting alertly to shift the chairs and bring out the gaming tables from behind screens, or counting the heads of the likely dinner guests before putting up the dinner trestles, or waiting for the last guests to leave before bringing out their bedrolls from the chests in the entrance hall. In the salon itself, there was no eating or drinking. In the public rooms there were no personal family possessions or mementoes. None of this is self-evident. Much of it can be gleaned from the researches of Bruno Pons, the extraordinary scholar and medical doctor who wrote the catalog on the Waddesdon architecture, and whose researches laid the “trail of breadcrumbs” that led to the discoveries in the San Francisco catalog.


Trustees of the British Museum/British Museum, London

A casket, part of the Waddesdon Bequest, with enameled plaques showing eight of the twelve Sibyls made for the French court by an unidentified enameler, Paris, circa 1535

In the nineteenth century, servants became fewer and furniture put on weight—it was not intended that it should be shifted around during the course of the day. It sat, unmoved, year after year. After World War II, when the interior of Waddesdon was being returned to its former use, after years of war work, Dorothy de Rothschild found it curiously difficult to remember where the furniture had been in 1939. “I remember my joy,” she writes,

when I suddenly realised that the carpets still bore the slight marks of flattened pile made by the legs of tables and cupboards which had stood on them before 1939. No longer was replacement a question of “fish and find out”; one had only to search for those slight indentations on the carpet, retrieve the piece of furniture which corresponded to them and lower it gently into place.

This tells us more than it appears to. Waddesdon as a country house was always well run, but it was not “curated” like a museum. Nor had the collections been the subject of scrutiny. As Dorothy de Rothschild frankly puts it:

In the hey-day of our time at Waddesdon…any interest in works of art seems to be a rarity among our guests. Occasionally some of them conscientiously toured the pictures but more often it was the view out of the window which caught their eye: china, furniture and carpets were never objects of interest.

The house had three successive owners, all of them great-grandchildren of the founder of the dynasty, Mayer Amschel Rothschild. At the relatively early death of Baron Ferdinand in 1898, Waddesdon passed to his sister, always refered to as Miss Alice, and she in turn bequeathed it to her cousin James, of the Paris branch of the family. No Rothschild children ever grew up there. The house was designed for weekend entertaining of a political kind. It was a Liberal home. Two causes are particularly associated with it—Zionism and the prevention of Irish Home Rule. All three owners contributed significantly to its collections, but in the case of James this was through inheritance rather than his own interests as a collector—his passion was for horseracing.

One can easily see that the good people who in the 1950s recommended Waddesdon (though hideous) for its collections can have had only the most general idea of what the house contained. Nor was it to be expected that the documents preserved at Waddesdon would be of great help—and this for a characteristic reason. Miss Alice asserted that Baron Ferdinand had wished all receipts destroyed, exhibiting thereby the family tradition of amenable discretion: owners who had been forced by financial embarrassment to part with masterpieces (and who might perhaps have commissioned copies of the treasures in question, to cover up the sale) ought to find that their secrets were safe with the Rothschilds.

Of course Miss Alice, who had dedicated her life to her brother Ferdinand’s well-being (setting up house next door to him in London, building a “pavilion” at Eythrope, next door to Waddesdon, where, however, medical advice assured her that she must never spend the night—leaving her no option but to take up residence in Waddesdon itself), might well have had other reasons for culling the archive. Her brother had lost his wife in childbirth, been stricken with grief and never remarried, but he seems also to have been in love with his cousin, Archibald Philip Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery, the owner of Mentmore. Here is the baron writing to Rosebery in 1884:

You are endowed with such powers of fascination that I have given myself up to your affection—you honoured me last year. This year your heart seems to be toward me like a barren desert. Do not forsake me. You have the whole world before you, I but an empty future. Be warmer towards me, kinder, be as you were…I love you. Do not spurn me.

One way or another, it would not have been obvious in the 1950s that Waddesdon would become so popular with the public (it is one of the National Trust’s most visited sites) or that its catalogs would turn into such an extraordinary scholarly monument. The series began under the editorship of Anthony Blunt (later exposed as a Soviet spy), and the authors were well chosen. But where you might expect the collections of paintings and sculpture to prove the star performers in the ensemble (as they are at, say, the Frick), at Waddesdon the mix is different. Given a house in the French Renaissance style, with eighteenth-century French interiors, it would seem natural to find French paintings on the walls. There are indeed French paintings, but there are as many English portraits (notably works by Gainsborough and Reynolds), reflecting the rather conventional taste in painting of Waddesdon’s founder. The catalogs of paintings (1967) and sculpture (1970), by Ellis Waterhouse and Terence Hodgkinson respectively, are well enough done, according to the expectations of the time.

When you turn, on the other hand, to Bruno Pons’s volume on architecture and paneling (1996), it is a case of expectations overfulfilled. Pons in his short life (1954–1995) was a doctor (an expert in kidney diseases), a historian of medicine, and an art historian. In order to understand which French houses the paneling came from, Pons needed to establish a detailed narrative of the building of Waddesdon itself. He needed this, in the first place, simply in order to work out what paneling had been on the market at the time of the construction of each room. There was, however, no archive at Waddesdon, and it seemed at first as if there would be no documentation at all.

The key, as it turned out, lay in the papers of Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleur, Waddesdon’s architect. Understanding Destailleur involved the study of buildings designed by him, long since destroyed.

But this was not the only task that Pons set himself. He needed to know the history of the dispersal and reuse of paneling, tracing it back into the ancien régime. This may sound like a dry subject. What’s dry is the state of not knowing where these beautiful interiors come from, and therefore treating them simply as generic Louis XV or XVI boiseries. The subject comes alive when we can learn the full specific history of each interior, and the transformations and transfers to which it has been subjected. (The salon in San Francisco has been installed eight times in the 230 years of its history, changing shape and meaning each time.) It comes alive with a multitude of details.

The story is told, for instance, of a ten-year-old child playing with his dog, near the site of the old Château de Bellevue in Meudon, Madame de Pompadour’s house, where she had entertained Louis XV. The child crawls into the dog’s kennel and, looking up, sees that the roof of the kennel is made of planks of beautifully carved wood, showing scenes of children playing games. Moved at the sight of a relic of Madame de Pompadour (the château had been destroyed in 1823), the child, without saying anything to anyone, removes the planks from the kennel and keeps them. They are now in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.

Balzac, as he comes across in the standard biography, seems like a crazy and credulous habitué of the flea markets. But Balzac seen in the setting of this history, in which nineteenth-century taste rediscovers the rococo, appears ahead of his time. In the 1840s, just before his death, he was restoring and refurbishing an eighteenth-century folly known as the Charterhouse of Beaujon, and filling it with boiseries and antiques to such stunning effect that he became embarrassed, and went to some lengths to persuade one visitor that none of the treasures they were looking at belonged to him. No sooner had Balzac installed his wife in this extraordinary building than he began to die. His widow remained there while the interiors fell into decay. Eventually the place was bought up and pulled down by Baroness Salamon de Rothschild.

Pons’s volume, entitled Architecture and Panelling: The James A. de Rothschild Collection at Waddesdon Manor, contains material for three books. Pierre Verlet, who was given the task of cataloging the Savonnerie carpets, realized that what was required was a full history of carpet manufacture at the Savonnerie, for which none of the documentary material had yet been published. The Savonnerie (a former soap factory near Paris) gave its name to a royal enterprise, begun under Henri IV, to create luxurious carpets in imitation of those being imported from the East.

Once again, the subject may not sound so enticing. It takes its color from the enormous ambitions of those involved, not least the succession of kings who took a direct interest in the design, production, and disposal of the ensuing carpets. The list of recipients of carpets as royal gifts sounds like the cast list of some baroque ballet: the Prince of Tuscany, the King of Siam, the Pasha of Tripoli, Prince Ibrahim of Egypt, the Grand Vizier of Constantinople, the Crown Princess of Prussia. The list goes on and on.

When Louis XIV’s finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, set in motion a secret plan to weave a series of carpets for the Long Gallery of the Louvre, he began by making inquiries in Marseille, to find out from merchants familiar with Smyrna, Aleppo, and Alexandria any information concerning methods of carpet manufacture in Cairo. He needed to know how to make the widest and longest carpets possible. The answer turned out to be: cut down huge trees. Huge carpets required huge looms. It would take ninety-three carpets to cover the 440 meters of the Long Gallery—and this in an age when for most people the experience of actually standing on any carpet at all would have been quite unfamiliar.

What became of these carpets after the French Revolution, and where they are now, are questions to which Verlet provides comprehensive answers. He traces as many as he can (three of them fetched up in Waddesdon) and remained convinced (he died in 1987) that the rest would turn up. To that end, he provided a fold-out diagram of the way the carpets were laid out, from the old Louvre to the Tuileries, and how they were designed, leaving blanks for the twenty-odd carpets he had failed to locate. He hoped, charmingly, that the reader would behave like a stamp collector and fill in the missing carpets as they turned up. He seems, like Pons, to have been a wonderful scholar and a wizard in the archives. The dispersal of the Long Gallery carpets, which began in Year Five of the Revolution, affects him as if it had happened yesterday.

When each new volume appears, it is as if the unpacking of Waddesdon has reached a new phase, and we come a little closer to an understanding of what the original bequest (with the subsequent additional gifts) amounted to. That this has taken decades is a good indication of the wealth and complexity of material involved. And it reminds one again of what was so regrettable about the sale of the contents of Mentmore: the speed with which they were disposed of. Who could have known, who could have formed a sound judgment about what was at issue? Notoriously, in that sale, there was a misattributed and unrecognized Fragonard hanging in plain view, which the National Gallery later had to buy. Who knew, in 1957 when James de Rothschild died, what Waddesdon contained? It had been inhabited for much less than a century, and it has taken half a century to assess.


Trustees of the British Museum/British Museum, London

A pendant of a nereid with her child, part of the Waddesdon Bequest; German or Italian, the figures possibly late sixteenth century, reset in the nineteenth century

Nor is it clear that the process is at an end. Two small exhibition catalogs (not in the main catalog series) suggest as much. One, called Sacred Stitches by Rachel Boak (2013), looks at ecclesiastical textiles in the collection, and informs us that there are thousands more textiles in storage, in addition to the carpets already referred to, tapestries, and all the original curtains and trimmings made for the house.

Then there are the drawings. The admirable two volumes of Drawings for Architecture Design and Ornament, by Alastair Laing and others (2006), confine themselves to ornamental and architectural designs, which came to the house by inheritance from Baron Edmund de Rothschild in Paris. This kind of work is not always highly regarded, but since the strength of Waddesdon is in the decorative arts, it could not be more appropriate. Here we see how the language of the rococo is created, how rooms were decorated and furniture first conceived. But this is by no means the only kind of drawing to be found at Waddesdon, as Juliet Carey’s Theatres of Life (2007) demonstrated. Among the surprises (to me): Charles-Nicolas Cochin’s designs for a manual of artillery, showing with virtuosic effect “the effect of bombs falling on a town” and “the detonation of a mine blowing a battery of cannon sky-high.”

I mentioned earlier the curious mismatch whereby the exterior architecture of Waddesdon evoked the French Renaissance, while the interiors were largely eighteenth-century in style. The contrast would have seemed less marked in the days of Baron Ferdinand, because there was one room, the New Smoking Room, where Renaissance and earlier objects were displayed in the manner of a courtly treasure house or Schatzkammer. The treasures in question included early goldsmiths’ work, rare glass, enamels, astonishing carvings in boxwood, rock crystal work, and jewelry. When the baron died the contents of this room were bequeathed to the British Museum, to be set against death duties, and to be displayed together as the Waddesdon Bequest.

The museum did well to agree to the latter stipulation, recognizing that it would be impossible to put together such a treasure again. The goût Rothschild, when it came to such objects and to illuminated manuscripts, overlaps with what is known as the Pierpont Morgan taste. Only the richest collector could think of bringing together works in these fields, where fakery was rife, and where sometimes even the fakes (especially the “Renaissance jewelry”) rose to a remarkable level. The Waddesdon Bequest has just been reinstalled at the British Museum, and there is a fine new publication to go with it, by Dora Thornton. In this, Thornton suggests that Henry James had Waddesdon and its founder in mind for his novel The Spoils of Poynton. Baron Ferdinand becomes Mrs. Gereth:

What Mrs Gereth had achieved was indeed an exquisite work; and in such an art of the treasure-hunter in selection and comparison refined to that point, there was an element of creation, or personality…. It was written in great syllables of colour and form, the tongues of other countries, and the hands of rare artists. It was all France and Italy, with their ages composed to rest. For England you looked out of old windows—it was England that was the wide embrace. While outside, on the low terraces, she contradicted gardeners and refined on nature, Mrs Gereth left her guest to finger fondly the brasses that Louis Quinze might have thumbed, to sit with Venetian velvets just held in a loving palm, to hang over enamels and pass and repass before cabinets.

My own feeling about the Rothschilds is that they score highest when you can tell that they see the point of being Rothschilds. They see the point, in a way that, let’s say, the Windsors don’t always see the point of being Windsors, or the Marlboroughs Marlboroughs. They like to do things well, but they prefer to do them really really well. When Baron Ferdinand was landscaping the new park around Waddesdon, the lanes of Buckinghamshire were clogged with teams of six Percheron horses (imported from Normandy), dragging mature trees to be planted around the house. He was moved to go to this trouble because the Duke of Marlborough, before selling him Waddesdon Manor, had felled all the timber on the estate. Moving mature trees is not always such a good idea, as the baron soon found out. But it sounds like a dogged gesture against the scorched-earth tactics of the duke.