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.


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.


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

Listed building descriptions:

6 thoughts on “Rothschild-shire: the grand and the glorious (2/3)

  1. James Canning July 16, 2013 / 00:01

    Great piece. I regret not attending the dispersal sale at Mentmore.

  2. adriantinniswood July 16, 2013 / 19:07

    I toured Mentmore when it belonged to the Maharishi Foundation. It was a strange experience. We were shown a film of people flying unaided. Honest…

  3. Philip Arlington July 20, 2013 / 05:51

    I have looked at the Mentmore hotel conversion planning application in detail, and in my opinion it is as sensitive as can reasonably be hoped for. The main house doesn’t actually have terribly many bedrooms, so there isn’t the slightest chance of it being viable as a hotel without an additional wing, but the proposed addition is mostly at ground floor level and below as the house is on a hill.

    The country house hotel market is a shambles at the moment, and it is unlikely to recover for many years. Very few new ones are likely to be created, and those that are will need to have very favourable financial projections. If planning authorities pile up the demands, projects just won’t happen.

    If you’re waiting for the perfect priviate owner to come along, you may be in for a very long wait. The sort of people who buy these houses nowadays aren’t going to be interested in one with a pair of golf courses in the grounds, so they would have to buy those also, which would cost many millions, and make all the employees redundant, which is hardly desirable. Then they would either have to spend millions removing the golf courses and re-landscaping, or hundreds of thousands a year maintaining them for the use of themselves and their guests. Then there is the restoration of the house to pay for, and the addition of modern facilities. Of course the house wouldn’t be open to the public.

    Restoring Mentmore for private occupation might not make financial sense even if the house itself cost a pound. Frankly, I can’t imagine any owner for whom Mentmore would be the best possible choice of house. Sometimes a hotel conversion is the best remaining option.

    • Matthew Beckett - The Country Seat July 21, 2013 / 23:01

      Hi Philip – thank you for such a detailed and well-reasoned response.

      I do agree that sometimes the hotel option is the most appropriate – Heythrop Park or Bramshill are unlikely to be returned to private residential use. However, as Mentmore has been a home for the last few years, it is still feasible for it to remain as such. For certain owners, land is less of an issue (see the Wentworth estate in Surrey with £20+m homes in 3 to 5-acres) so perhaps they would be happy as long as they could ensure privacy. Another option might be to fund moving just the holes nearest the house? Expensive, yes – but possible. Indeed, although unpopular, buying the golf club and closing it may be considered an option to create the right home.

      As you say though, the economics have to work but for a billionaire who favoured creating a trophy home, anything can be possible. It is unlikely though, so a hotel would be an appropriate solution but it must respect the exceptional nature of the house and not turn it into an architectural bauble to be paraded on the brochure whilst large accommodation blocks spring up in the grounds.

      Thank you again for your interest


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