Travel about six miles out of Aylesbury on the A41 and on a hilltop on the left a strange mirage comes into view, a huge 16th Century French Renaissance-style château with flags flying magically on a hilltop to the left. As you come into the picturesque village of Waddesdon some clues to the ownership of this apparition become apparent. The local hotel is called the “Five Arrows” and it and many of the buildings in the village sport a “5 Arrows”, the coat of arms of the fabled Rothschild family. The Rothschild banking dynasty was immensely powerful in 19th century Europe. From roots in the Jewish ghetto in Frankfurt, Mayer Amschel’s five sons set up a banking network in the then five major financial centres of Europe – London, Frankfurt, Paris, Naples and Vienna. The Five Arrows, as they became known, created vast wealth and established themselves at the very peak of European society. There is a further clue in the colour of the woodwork on most of the buildings which are painted in a dull dark red. The name “Rothschild” means “red shield” for this was the form and colour of the street signs in the Jewish Ghetto in Frankfurt, elsewhere the street signs were blue shields. So this colour, now known as Rothschild Red, is not a design statement but a reminder of their origins in the ghetto and that being Jewish, they were not considered “blue bloods.”
Waddesdon Manor was built (1874-89) by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild to display his outstanding collection of art treasures and to entertain the fashionable world. On a hilltop overlooking the Aylesbury Vale, it is the last remaining complete example of ‘le goût Rothschild’. The House combines the highest quality French furniture, textiles and decorative arts from the 18th century with magnificent English portraits and Dutch Old Master paintings. Fascinated by the history and culture of France, he commissioned a French architect, Gabriel Hippolyte Destailleur, to build him a Renaissance-style chateau, based on those in the Loire Valley, and employed a French garden designer, Elie Lainé to lay out the grounds. Like other members of his family he wanted a retreat outside London and chose Buckinghamshire because several of his cousins already had houses there (it was known as “Rothschildshire” in the late 19th century).
The Manor was only used for weekends in the summer months, for Ferdinand’s famous house parties, and was the last word in luxury with electric lights, lifts and under-floor heating. Single or unaccompanied male friends stayed in the Bachelors’ Wing, complete with Billiard and Smoking Rooms. Couples stayed in one of the 9 suites in the Main house.
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.
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.
In 1891 Waddesdon had an indoor staff of 24, with a further 24 coming in to work and at least 66 gardeners. The stable is a fine building in its own right being modelled (to a smaller scale) on the Tullieres Palace in Paris, maybe a slightly unwise tribute to the “touts les Louis” whose furnishings and artwork Baron Ferdinand admired so much. At the end of the 19th century, Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild commissioned a local firm of architects to create a Dairy to house his prize-winning herd of cattle. In its day it had wonderfully pampered cows providing, milk, cream, butter, whey and cheese to the house.
The story is told of the Duke who came to stay and wrote a snorting letter to a friend on how the Roths were getting above themselves showing off their excessive amount of new money.
A butler appeared in the bedroom in the morning.
B. “Tea, your Grace”
B. “Would it be Assam, Darjeeling, Gunpowder, Earl Grey, Orange Pekoe or Ceylon your Grace?”
B. “Milk, your Grace?”
B. “Would it be Hereford, Friesian, Shorthorn or Jersey, your Grace?”
This vignette is a reminder that the Rothschild’s were the plutocrats of their day with huge cash piles at their disposal while the traditional aristocracy by contrast were asset rich but cash poor. For 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.
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)
You name it, Waddesdon had it and everybody visited from Queen Victoria down. 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.
After Ferdinand’s death in 1898, the pace of entertaining slackened, but his sister and heir, Miss Alice, maintained the house, collection and grounds to impeccable standards. James and Dorothy de Rothschild, who inherited in 1922, did not add to the collection until the death of James’ father Baron Edmond, at which point a third of the Barons collection arrived, including over 2000 18th century drawings. James’ main interest was horse racing and he built the stud at Waddesdon. The war years brought a different emphasis to the Manor, and following James’ death in 1957, it was bequeathed to the National Trust and opened to the public, with Dorothy in charge of management.
Now, the Manor is run by a family charitable trust chaired by the present Lord Rothschild. The Collection continues to grow, new features and displays are added to both House and Gardens and there is a varied programme of events and activities. The Rothschild’s donated over 12 million pounds to the restoration of the house and this money shows because nowhere in England will you see a house in finer condition or with more splendid and opulent contents. The contents overpower for Ferdinand Rothschild was addicted to the opulence of the French Decorative style and the artworks, furnishings, Sevres china, tapestries, clocks and much else dazzles the eye.
This is a small part of the Waddesdon Collection, more can also be seen in the “Waddesdon Room (Room 46) at the British Museum. There is ample evidence also of the family’s support for Zionism. When the British Foreign Secretary made “The Balfour Declaration” ,it was made in a letter dated November 2nd. 1917, from Arthur James Balfour to Lord Rothschild (Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild), a leader of the British Jewish community, for transmission to the Zionist Federation, a private Zionist organization. The original document is kept at the British Library and there is a copy at Waddesdon along with a model of the Israeli Supreme Court, the building was donated by the Rothschild family.
See; The Dead Zoo at Tring
Waddesdon is frequently used as a movie location by directors who take advantage of over 7 miles of quiet roads and lanes only used by estate and farm traffic, unusual estate buildings and stunning views over the Vale of Aylesbury. Scenes from Daniel Deronda, An Ideal Husband, Cambridge Spies and the Bollywood movie Kabhi Khushi Khabie Gham were filmed at Waddesdon Manor. The Wine Cellars, modelled on the private cellars at Château Lafite-Rothschild, contain thousands of bottles of Rothschild wine dating back to the 19th century. Seen “Hyde Park” in “An Ideal Husband” you were actually seen the driveway at Waddesdon, seen Helen Mirren as “The Queen” walk with Tony Blair into the gardens at “Buckingham Palace”, it actually was the Parterre at Waddesdon. This in itself is the last parterre which is still planted each year as it would have been in Victorian times with 58,000 new plants each year. The design changes each year a bit like a Chateau Mouton label and the planting scheme is done on a computer, such is the complexity.
Indeed Jacob Rothschild’s interest range far beyond those of most financier’s and Waddesdon has been a regular venue for visiting heads of state including Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Margaret Thatcher received French President François Mitterrand there at a summit in 1990. He hosted the European Economic Round Table conference in 2002, attended by such figures as James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, Nicky Oppenheimer, Warren Buffett and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
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.
Among the species that bred successfully in 2005 were the Pekin Robin, Silver-Eared Mesia, Grosbeak Starling, Snowy-Crowned Robin Chat and Bearded Barbet. In addition the White Bellied Go-Away bird and Sumatran White Crested Laughing Thrush are thought to be the first breedings in the UK. New arrivals in the aviary include White Crested and Fischer’s Touraco from Africa, Yellow Throated Laughing Thrush from China (critically endangered), Chestnut Backed Thrush from Indonesia, White Collared Yuhina from China and Fairy Bluebird from South East Asia.
Situated at the Dairy the Water Garden was rediscovered in 1989, approximately one hundred years after its making, having been abandoned and fallen into disrepair during the last war. Designed as a series of small lakes interconnected by rock arches, waterfalls, cascades, bridges and paths, the structure of the garden remains the same today, with much of the original planting still surviving; as can be seen in the huge plants of Philadelphus and many broadleaf trees. This collection has been enriched with Ferns, Hellebores and many wild looking herbaceous plants including Gunnera (Giant Rhubarb) and Clematis (C.Cirrhosa, Balaerica and C. Armandii). Behind the Dairy a collection of water fowl can be seen populating the beautiful lake.
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.
Waddesdon Manor, Dairy and Estate are in the village of Waddesdon located on the A41 between Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire and Bicester in Oxfordshire. It is 45 miles from London, 20 from Oxford and 70 from Birmingham, and easily accessible by road with the M40 only ten miles away. Aylesbury, Oxford and Birmingham provide frequent train services to London and other destinations.
It is worth visiting all year round and has won many awards including Museum of the Year. Whilst a National Trust property it derives its splendour and uniqueness from the generosity of the Rothschild family and the personal interest of Jacob Rothschild in ensuring it is maintained and presented as the finest example of a Victorian House and garden with incomparable contents.
By telephone 10am-4pm, Mon-Fri:
Sat Nav Postcode: HP18 0JH