The last time I wrote about Waddesdon Manor
the wonderful Victorian gardens were wrapped in their winter coat of repentance. This is not entirely an allegorical flight for the statues and garden ornaments are wrapped to protect them from the frost and the house is closed up for maintenance, conservation and a deep clean. The Parterre which is the last original parterre in England is dug out and in spring roundly 58,000 thousand fresh plants are planted according to a computer template in a design which like the labels of the Rothschild’s Chateau Mouton changes each year. So I thought it would be an idea to catch these lovingly tended gardens and plants in the Plant Centre when they are in their full summer glory.
Waddesdon Manor was built (1874-89) by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild to entertain his guests and display his vast collection of 18th-century French decorative arts. The furniture, Savonnerie carpets and Sèvres porcelain rank in importance with those in the Louvre in Paris and the Royal and Wallace Collections in London. There is also a fine collection of portraits by Gainsborough and Reynolds, and works by Dutch and Flemish Masters of the 17th century.
The Victorian gardens are considered one of the finest in Britain and famous for the parterre, seasonal displays, shady walks and views, fountains and statuary. At its heart lies the aviary, stocked with species that were once part of Baron Ferdinand’s collection. The Wine Cellars, modelled on the private cellars at Château Lafite-Rothschild, contain thousands of bottles of Rothschild wines dating back to 1868. It was one of 7 Rothschild mansions surrounding the Vale of Aylesbury, the others being Ascott House (Home of Sir Evelyn de Rothschild), Mentmore Towers (Former home of Lord Roseberry who married into the Rothschild’s and was Prime Minister), Halton House, Aston Clinton House, Tring Manor (Now home to the Walter Rothschild Collection of the Natural History Museum) and Eythrope House which borders Waddesdon and where Jacob (Lord) Rothschild lives.
Looking at this magnificent French-style chateau standing in acres of lush parkland, it is almost inconceivable to visualise the 18th century Rothschild’s living in a Jewish ghetto in the suburbs of Frankfurt. From this unlikely environment a most powerful financial empire spread throughout Europe, and the family name is now synonymous with extraordinary cultured wealth.
Descended from the Austrian branch of the Rothschild family, Baron Ferdinand came to England in 1859 when he was just 20 years old. Following the tragic death of his new young wife during childbirth, he never remarried, but decided to look around for a suitable place to settle in England. Already living in Buckinghamshire, close to several members of his family, Ferdinand bought 3000 acres of land from the Duke of Marlborough in 1874 with the intention of erecting a property to house his growing collection of art treasures. Never intended as a home, Waddesdon Manor was designed as a pleasurable showpiece where specially invited guests could share in Ferdinand’s passion for 18th century French art.
The massive building project took 15 years to complete, but the results were breathtaking both externally and internally. Designed by a French architect, Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleur, the 19th century brick and stone cladding was used to create a stunning Renaissance style chateau, imaginatively fitted out with authentic French interiors. Wood panelling, screens and fireplaces are just some of the ‘second-hand’ materials, salvaged from French palaces and old Parisian houses being demolished, that were used to create the beautiful rooms at Waddesdon Manor.
Having installed his priceless collections in their perfect setting, Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild was now able to entertain selected groups of people who would appreciate the finery on display, and could indulge in the luxury of these surroundings. Regular weekend house parties were given during the 1880s and 90s, when his guests included royalty, politicians, writers and society beauties. In the absence of a long-term companion, Ferdinand’s spinster sister acted as hostess at these frequent gatherings and, on his death, Waddesdon Manor was left to her. Alice’s contributions include several pieces of fine porcelain from the houses of Sevres and Meissen.
Waddesdon has one of the finest Victorian gardens in Britain, renowned for its seasonal displays, colourful shrubs, giant tree ferns, parterre, and restored Pleasure Garden. There is also a Rose Garden and Children’s Garden. The rococo style Aviary houses a splendid collection of exotic birds and the extensive Rothschild wine cellars can be visited. In 2001 a woodland path to the parterre was laid out as the Baron’s Walk; this path features two sandstone statues carved in the 1730s by Jan van Logteren: Venus and Adonis. The statues were formerly in the garden of Aston Clinton (another Rothschild house in Buckinghamshire that was demolished in 1958).
Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild planned his house on essentially a bare hill, known as Lodge Hill. A letter to his uncle dated 2 February 1875 describes how pleased he was with the progress made in the plantations. Early photographs show young trees already in place while the carriage drive was still being laid out and the foundations for the house were barely dug. In the initial layout of the grounds, Ferdinand was aided by the French landscape gardener Elie Lainé, who was ‘bidden to make designs for the terraces, the principle roads and plantations’. Little is known about Lainé who was probably based in Paris. No doubt he was introduced to Ferdinand by the French architect of the house, Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleur.
In his ‘Red Book’ (1897), Ferdinand, feeling the need to explain his choice of a foreign landscape gardener, relates how he first asked ‘Mr Thomas’ for his assistance. As Brent Elliott has pointed out in his guidebook to the gardens at Waddesdon, this is most likely Mr William Broderick Thomas, a well-known landscape gardener who was working for the Prince of Wales at Sandringham at the time. Thomas declined however, ‘for reasons he did not deign to indulge’, but probably because of his commitment to other projects. Unfortunately, no designs by Elie Lainé for the layout of the grounds at Waddesdon appear to have survived. His involvement went beyond the mere supply of designs though, as he stayed on site, supervising with Mr George Alexander, an engineer from London, the laying out of the roads. Early account books show payments to Lainé in February of 1876, 1877 and 1878 (Bellaigue). During this period Lainé and Destailleur were also working together at Vaux-le-Vicomte in France. A later design by Destailleur for the lowest terrace at Waddesdon Manor shows indeed some similarities with his work at Vaux-le-Vicomte (Pons). This design was not carried out. In his ‘Red Book’ Ferdinand made it clear, that although Lainé was involved with ‘the chief outlines of the park’, he himself was responsible for much of the ornamental plantings: ‘the pleasure grounds and gardens were laid out by my bailiff [George Sims] and gardener [Arthur Bradshaw] according to my notions and under my superintendence’.
As his father had done at Schillersdorf, and as his relative and friend Lord Rosebery (who was married to Ferdinand’s cousin, Hannah) did at Mentmore, Ferdinand transplanted large trees, using Percheron mares. ‘My trees came – some of them – from Wooburn [sic] Abbey…and some from Claydon House – Sir Harry Verney’s place. Some from Halton; some from Drayton Beauchamp – wherever I could get them. Yes, they turned out as we wished…with the exception of the oak. The oaks have given trouble; but the chestnuts have done remarkably well’. (The Woman at Home)
In the early 1920s a Rothschild from the French arm of the family inherited the splendid manor house, and he established a stud farm at Waddesdon Manor, as well as introducing additional 18th century works of art. Ironically, the only time that this ostentatious mansion has had permanent residents was during the Second World War, when 100 child evacuees stayed with their nannies and nurses.
Although the present Lord Rothschild is actively involved in the continuing restoration and day-to-day management of the estate, Waddesdon Manor was bequeathed to the National Trust several decades earlier. With the family collections being enlarged all the time by new acquisitions, and the gardens being continually transformed by experimental planting schemes, the estate is just a never-ending spectacle of colour and opulence.
You name it, Waddesdon had it and everybody visited from Queen Victoria down. Waddesdon and its estate was no family seat built over the centuries but a modern building masquerading as a 16th Century Chateau built in a short space of time to the best quality standards with no expense spared. So it had its own powerhouse, gas works, dairy, railway station and railway line, lift, central heating.
Waddesdon has one of the finest Victorian gardens in Britain, famous for its Parterre, seasonal displays, colourful shrubs, mature trees, statues and carpet bedding. At its heart lies the Aviary, stocked with species that were once part of Baron Ferdinand’s collection and other birds that are depicted on Waddesdon’s famous Sèvres porcelain collection.
One of the most unusual features of the garden is the Aviary. Completed in 1889 by an unknown architect, it was built for Baron Ferdinand as a reminder of one he had grown up with in his childhood home, the Villa Gruneburg outside Frankfurt. It is made of cast-iron in the style of a rococo trelliswork pavilion, such as those erected at Versailles and Chantilly in the early eighteenth-century.
The Aviary houses a specialised collection of softbill birds (fruit and insect eating species) and a few of the rarer pigeons, doves and partridges. At Waddesdon Manor the aviary aims to foster an appreciation of the species it works with and to serve as a centre of biological study, environmental education, and conservation activities. Wherever possible the aviary endeavours to make sure that there is real conservation value in the work that is done here. In addition to the captive breeding programmes Waddesdon Manor aviary also supports conservation initiatives in the wild.
No mansion was complete without an extensive range of glasshouses and Waddesdon was no exception. In 1882 a contract was signed between Ferdinand and George William Watkins Berry for ‘the erection of glass houses & other work at Lodge Hill’. From 1885 onwards there are also huge payments to the firm of glasshouse suppliers, R. Halliday & Co, from Middleton near Manchester. Earlier payments (1883-1885), similarly huge, are listed under the name of ‘Holliday’ but this is almost certainly a misspelling of Halliday, as actual designs for the glasshouse range by Halliday date from 1884 and possibly earlier. The 2nd edition OS map of 1898 gives some idea of the glasshouse range, which included a large palm house. Situated between the stables and the dairy, on the lower slope to the north east of the manor, the glasshouse complex, known as ‘Top Glass’, adjoined a layout of formal flowerbeds. It survived until the 1970s when it became structurally unsound and was pulled down.
Today the remnants of the greenhouses and raised beds are the Waddesdon Plant Centre which as well as tending the gardens of the house and the wonderful parterre are run as a garden centre specialising in English Roses and excellent perennial plants and garden furniture as well as seasonal bedding. It is not the cheapest option but the quality is good and the advice from the knowledgeable staff always reliable.