Rothschild-shire: the lost, the ‘cottage’, and the home (3/3)

Having seen the glories of the prodigiously grand Mentmore Towers and Waddesdon Manor in the previous article on ‘Rothschild-shire’, that part of Buckinghamshire which became the domain of the Rothschild family from the 1850s, this final one looks at the remaining three: the lost Aston Clinton House, the ‘cottage’, Ascott House, and the family home, Eythrope.

Aston Clinton House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Lost Heritage) - Click for more images
Aston Clinton House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Lost Heritage) – Click for more images

One of the tragedies of the history of the UK’s country houses has been the wholesale destruction of so many, mainly between 1930-1960.  Often, as a family fell on financial hard times, the house contents would be sold, followed later by the building itself, in the hope they could retain the estate.  Although, wealth was clearly not an issue for the Rothschilds, one of their houses, Aston Clinton House, has since been demolished – though, admittedly, long after they had left.

Possibly one of the (relatively) smaller of the Rothschild’s houses, Aston Clinton House was also unusual in that it grew from a smaller one, through a series of additions, to be a substantial home, rather than being a new build.  The original house was built sometime between 1770-1789 for General Gerard Lake, who laboured under the geographically diverse title of 1st Viscount of Delhi and Laswary and of Aston Clinton in the County of Buckingham. Never a grand seat, it was built in the style of a small hunting lodge, and passed through the Lake family until 1838 when the house and the accompanying 1,055-acres were sold for £23,426 to the 2nd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, who saw the productive estate as a good investment.

Aston Clinton House Bucks, just before demolition (Image: Lost Heritage)
Aston Clinton House Bucks, just before demolition (Image: Lost Heritage)

After the Duke’s death, it was initially put up for auction, largely unaltered, by the Duke’s son in 1848 but was withdrawn – but not before it had attracted the attention of the Rothschilds. Though “It is not like a fancy place”, it was bought for £26,000 as more of an investment but Sir Anthony Rothschild and his family moved in in 1853. Lady de Rothschild immediately took against the ‘small’ size and so Sir Anthony commissioned G.H. Stokes (Sir Joseph Paxton’s son-in-law, and who had previously worked at Mentmore) to significantly enlarge it, with works completed by the early 1860s.  The architect George Devey, who was to build his career around the Rothschilds, undertook more work between 1864-1877, on both the house and estate.

The house and estate passed through the family until it was sold in 1923, having served in WWI as the HQ for the Commanding Officer of the Twenty-First Division, then based at the nearby Halton estate (c.f. Halton House in part 1). Sold for just £15,000, it became a school – where Evelyn Waugh started his teaching career – before serving as a corporate HQ, then as a hotel in various guises before being bought by Buckinghamshire County Council and demolished c.1960. A training centre was built in its place, with only a few buildings remaining as a reminder of grander days.

Outcome: commercial use, demolished as surplus to requirements.

Ascott House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Peter J Dean via flickr)
Ascott House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Peter J Dean via flickr)

George Devey was to play an important role in the Rothschilds’ architectural plans, as were the family central to his own success.  One of his most successful designs was for Ascott House, for Leopold de Rothschild, for whom he extended a small house dating from 1606 to create a rambling, many-gabled ‘cottage’ (though one with 30 bedrooms) as a more rural retreat than Leopold’s other seat at Gunnersbury Park (see Part 1). Although initially used just for hunting and recreation (with an emphasis on the outdoors as the house was built without a library, though one was later added), Leopold quickly realised that he needed more space for entertaining and so, in 1874, started a program of extensions which would continue until c.1888 with Devey, but also beyond, into the 1930s.

Ascott House, main door (Image: Peter J Dean via flickr)
Ascott House, main door (Image: Peter J Dean via flickr)

Devey was an unusual Victorian architect in that he never exhibited his work or allowed his designs to be published, so secure was he in a bubble of aristocratic and wealthy clients who kept him constantly employed.  Mark Girouard regarded the houses Devey designed as the most interesting outside of the ShawNesfieldWebb circle, especially as he was regarded as having successfully developed a way of incorporating vernacular styles into his work.  He particularly favoured the idea of making houses look as though they had developed over time – and ideally that they be covered in ivy. Mary Gladstone (daughter of the Prime Minister) visiting in 1880, approvingly described Ascott as ‘a palace-like cottage, the most luxurious and lovely I ever saw‘. The flip-side to the accretive approach is that some of the layouts for his houses seem to stretch for long distances; at Goldings, Hertfordshire, it covered approximately 350ft from end-to-end (the house is now flats with sprawling, unimaginative development in the immediate grounds).

Ascott was inherited by Anthony Gustav de Rothschild from his mother in 1937 (Leopold having died in 1917) and he and his wife made further additions, including converting the billiard room into a library.  Although Anthony was very much involved with the family business he was also a renowned collector and the house is a treasure trove of fine paintings (including works by Gainsborough, Romney, Reynolds and Cuyp), 18th-century English furniture, books and over 400 pieces of Chinese ceramics. The house, gardens, and a small part of estate were donated by Anthony to the National Trust in 1947.  Much of the collection and the surrounding 3,200-acre estate is still owned by the family, and Sir Anthony’s son, Sir Evelyn de Rothschild still lives in part of the house, keeping the connection to the original creator alive.

Outcome: owned by the National Trust, family still partially in residence

Eythrope, Buckinghamshire (Image: John S. Pipkin via flickr)
Eythrope, Buckinghamshire (Image: John S. Pipkin via flickr)

And so to Eythrope, in Waddesdon, a house strangely  built without bedrooms as it was primarily intended as the daytime retreat for Alice de Rothschild, sister of  Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, with whom she came to live.  Alice was independently wealthy (having inherited a large estate in Germany), strong-willed, and opinionated – all useful qualities, but less so to her brother, who was very similar. To reduce familial friction, Ferdinand suggested she build somewhere to while away the days and Eythrope was the solution. Alice bought the estate for £180,000 in 1875, and chose to build her ‘Pavilion’, as it was called, in a curve in the river.  As Alice had suffered from rheumatic fever, the damp of the river might have been dangerous had she been tempted to spend too long there so the design included no bedrooms. Problem solved.

The original house on the site had been built in the 1500s and was eventually inherited by Philip Stanhope, 3rd Earl of Chesterfield (d. 1726), but had been demolished in 1810—11 by Philip Stanhope, 5th Earl of Chesterfield.

Eythrope, Bucks - garden front (Image: crazybiker via flickr)
Eythrope, Bucks – garden front (Image: crazybiker via flickr)

As if to emphasise that this was Alice’s project, she chose not to use Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleur, who was then working for her brother at Waddesdon. Instead, the new house at Eythrope was another commission for George Devey who had worked at various Rothschild houses including Mentmore, Ascott, Aston Clinton, and Tring Park – but Eythorpe is his most complete work for the family.  In rejecting her brother’s grandiose French style (though not totally as there are flashes of the French Renaissance), Alice opted for what Pevsner described as a ‘free neo-Tudor style’ creating a delightful rambling house framed by the river. Passed down from Alice de Rothschild (who inherited and also became the forthright guardian of Waddesdon after the death of her brother), it was inherited, along with Waddesdon, in 1922 by Dorothy and James A. de Rothschild, who added a large wing with bedrooms and bathrooms. After James’ death in 1957, and having given Waddesdon Manor to the National Trust, Dorothy moved to Eythrope and lived there for forty years.  On her death, the house and estate were inherited by her husband’s great nephew, Jacob Rothschild, 4th Baron Rothschild, whose home it remains today.

Outcome: the only house built by the Rothschilds and still wholly owned, and lived in, by them

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Although slightly off the usual ‘patch’, the Exbury estate, Hampshire, was another house where a Rothschild, Lionel Nathan de Rothschild, could give full rein to a passion; this time it was plants, specifically, rhododendrons and azaleas.  With a passion from an early age, the garden was always going to be spectacular, but Exbury House is also impressive and perhaps to be included in a future article.

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Previous articles in the series on the Rothschild’s houses:

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Fascinating ‘Lunch with the FT’ with Lord Rothschild at Eythrope

Visit Ascott House [National Trust]

Rothschild-shire: the grand and the glorious (2/3)

Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire (Image: National Trust)
Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire (Image: National Trust)

The Rothschilds were social, as well as financial, titans.  In the first part of this now three-part article on the country houses of the Rothschilds, we saw the family establish their firm in England and later elevating their social standing through their estates at Gunnersbury Park, Tring Park and the opulent Halton Hall. Part two covers the two greatest houses created by the Rothschilds; Waddesdon Manor and Mentmore Towers.

One supposedly defining characteristic of the Rothschild’s UK country houses is their preference for the Neo-Renaissance ‘French chateau’-style – but this is more due to the fame of one house.  In Europe, the family often (though not exclusively) built in a style that could be recognised as the dominant one for a particular country, but in the UK they opted for alternatives – or a policy of ‘Anything-but-Gothic’.  One theory is that the other styles lacked the Christian associations which Pugin had so firmly nailed to Gothic – but perhaps they were just being more European in their tastes.  However, they did develop a remarkably similar interior style; a rich, luxurious environment featuring heavy fabrics with fine art and furniture, which became known as ‘Goût Rothschild‘, and which heavily influenced the newly wealthy American plutocrats.

One of the greatest expressions of this combination of French exterior and lavish interior was found in the creation of the remarkable Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire. Perhaps the most famous of the Rothschilds’ houses and also one of the grandest of the houses of the family in the UK.  Built between 1874-1883 for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild (1839–1898) it was designed by Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleur, who also designed the Imperial Mausoleum of Emperor Napoleon III in Farnborough in 1883, and had previously designed a townhouse for Albert de Rothschild in Vienna.

Aerial view of Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire (Image: Waddesdon)
Aerial view of Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire (Image: Waddesdon)

As Pevsner said in his entry on Waddesdon Manor, ‘Baron Ferdinand certainly got as much as anyone could have demanded‘. This was to be a building at the top end of country house construction – the 2,700-acres cost £240,000, with another £55,000 for levelling off the top of the hill for the site and creating access roads, and £87,000 for the completion of the shell, for a total of £382,000 (equivalent to £161m in 2012 using an average earnings comparison) – and this was before the fitting out of the sumptuous interiors. Finally, it was filled with his spectacular collection of paintings, objet d’art, tapestries, and furniture.

Tower Room, Waddesdon Manor (Image: Waddesdon)
Tower Room, Waddesdon Manor (Image: Waddesdon)

The exterior of the house is a grand composition of various elements from châteaux such as BloisMaintenon, and Chambord, married with elements of Louis XIII and some older Louis XII details, as though the house had grown over time.  Yet, as befits such a house, it was rife with modern details; at its core, a steel frame which allowed the room layouts to vary by floor, multiple bathrooms with hot and cold running water, and electrification, including a chandelier which Queen Victoria reputedly spent 10-minutes simply turning off and on, having never seen such a thing before.

The house was the luxurious setting of a social high-life and remained in the Rothschild family until 1957 when James Armand de Rothschild, who had inherited it in 1922, bequeathed the house, 165-acres, and the splendid collections to the National Trust – along with the largest endowment they had received to ensure it remained perpetually well-maintained, with family involvement through the management committee.

Outcome: owned by National Trust, with family involvement

Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire (Image: wikipedia)
Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire (Image: wikipedia)

Waddeson Manor today is what Mentmore Towers also was – and, sadly, could so easily have been but for the blinkered lack of vision of a former government. Mentmore was the first of the great Rothschild palaces in Buckinghamshire, built between 1852-1854, and was designed by Joseph Paxton and his son-in-law, G.H. Stokes, for Baron Mayer Amschel de Rothschild. It was remarkable for not only its size but also the detail and thought that went into it, setting a benchmark for the family and a clear demonstration of their wealth.  It was also a statement to the rest of the Rothschild family about the success of the UK branch – so much so that when his Paris-based cousin, Baron James de Rothschild, saw it he engaged Paxton himself with the instruction “Build me a Mentmore, but twice the size“.  The result was the Château de Ferrières, just outside Paris, which caused Wilhelm I, the Emperor of Germany, on seeing it to exclaim that “No Kings could afford this! It could only belong to a Rothschild“.

Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire (Image: john edward michael1 via flickr) Click to see large version
Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire (Image: john edward michael1 via flickr) Click to see large version

Architecturally, the house is distinctive for being one of the few to successfully imitate the scale and style of Wollaton Hall, Robert Smythson‘s masterpiece built in Nottinghamshire in the 1580s.    Deliberately drawing inspiration from a classic of Elizabethan architecture, this was a political message about ‘fitting in’.  However, the scale and exceptional quality of the work also made this a large and conspicuous statement of their financial standing.  Mentmore is even built of the same Ancaster stone as Wollaton and copies the arrangement of the square corner towers and ornate stonework.  However, it is missing the grand central tower of Wollaton; though there is a top-lit central hall around which the rooms are organised.  One other amusing criticism raised was that it might have been somewhat imprudent to have sited the housemaids’ room just at the foot of the mens’ stairs…

Great Hall, Mentmore Towers (Image: A. D. White Architectural Photographs, Cornell University Library via flickr)
Great Hall, Mentmore Towers (Image: A. D. White Architectural Photographs, Cornell University Library via flickr)

The tragedy of Mentmore is that it could have become one of the treasure houses of Europe.  It had survived virtually unchanged, including with its spectacular collections, which were said to be the best in private hands outside of royalty, up until the death of the 6th Earl of Rosebery (he inherited from his father, who had married Baron Mayer’s only child, his daughter Hannah).  Offered to the nation in lieu of £2m in inheritance taxes, the government of James Callaghan rejected the offer, demanding cash.  After three years of discussions, and a campaign by individuals and organisations, the collections were sold, raising over £6m, with various national institutions spending around £2m in total to secure just a few choice items.

The house was then sold to the Marharishi Foundation, who it’s generally accepted, kept it well-maintained.  It was then sold in 1999 to property developer Simon Halabi who had grand and unsympathetic plans for a luxury hotel.  The financial crisis thankfully saw the end of those, however, the house is now regarded as ‘at risk‘ without an immediate restoration in sight – though with the possibility that it might be for sale.

Outcome: collection sold, future of house unclear, ‘at risk’

These two houses represent the high-point of the architectural and artistic endeavours of the Rothschilds, easily matching in scale and grandeur the houses their relations were also creating across Europe.  Mentmore is a spectacular house in itself, even if it’s denied its collection, but Waddesdon encapsulates not only the personal enjoyment the family gained from creating these palaces, but also the philanthropic aspect which means that we can all now marvel at the ‘Goût Rothschild’ experience.

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Dear Readers, you’ll perhaps have noticed that I’ve now decided to split this topic into three parts as it appears I was being a little ambitious trying to get them all into two – the final instalment will follow shortly.

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Part One: ‘Rothschild-shire: the wider fate of UK country houses mirrored in a family (1/3)

Listed building descriptions: