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.
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.
After the Duke’s death, it was initially put up for auction, largely unaltered, by the Duke’s son in 1848 but was withdrawn – but not before it had attracted the attention of the Rothschilds.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.
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.
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 Shaw–Nesfield–Webb 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
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.
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
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.
Previous articles in the series on the Rothschild’s houses:
- Rothschild-shire: the wider fate of UK country houses mirrored in a family (1/3)
- Rothschild-shire: the grand and the glorious (2/3)
Visit Ascott House [National Trust]