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:

Cash in the attic: Chatsworth House sale

Chatsworth House, Derbyshire (Image: Rob Rendell/Wikipedia)
Chatsworth House, Derbyshire (Image: Rob Rendell/Wikipedia)

Usually during times of economic hardship all areas of life suffer as disposable income is held rather than spent.  However, paradoxically the art market is currently on something of a high which has produced record prices at recent auctions.  For the country house owner faced with ever higher bills there has rarely been a better time to re-evaluate collections and contents and see if they too can raise some much needed funds or, as in the case of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, to make space.

The Dukes of Devonshire have always enjoyed a privileged position as one of the UK’s premier aristocratic families.  Their fortune was set with the four advantageous marriages of Bess of Hardwick (b. 1527 – d. 1608) following the early deaths of her rich husbands. OF particular note was her second husband, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, who in 1811 had inherited not only the title but eight major houses and estates including Chatsworth, Hardwick Hall (now National Trust), Devonshire House in London (demolished 1924), Chiswick House (now English Heritage), Lismore Castle (still owned by the Devonshires) and Bolton Abbey (owned by Devonshire family trust), Burlington House (now the Royal Academy of Arts), and Londesborough Hall in Yorkshire (demolished in 1819), totalling some 200,000 acres.  Chatsworth was considered her principal seat and has been for the Devonshire family ever since.  This meant that when earlier economically austere times led to the selling of other family properties such as Chiswick House and Devonshire House in London the contents of these houses were largely packed up and brought back to Chatsworth.

The current, 12th, Duke has now decided to follow the recently well-trodden path of the asset-rich aristocracy and clear out some of the accumulated contents of the storage areas and raise some welcome capital which will be ploughed back into the running of the estate.  The 20,000 items include a rare William Kent mantelpiece which is expected to go for around £300,000.  Recently up to £100m of art has been sold including an earlier sale by the Duke of Devonshire for £10m of a bronze statue, Ugolino Imprisoned with his Sons and Grandsons (around 1549), by Leonardo’s nephew Pierino da Vincia, a record-breaking Turner watercolour, Modern Rome—Campo Vaccino, from the Earl of Rosebury which made £29.7m, a 1.3-metre long, 81kg wine cooler from the Marquis of Lothian, a variety of works including a Rubens from Earl Spencer, and other sales by the Earl of Wemyss and March, the Earl of Jersey, and Lord Northbrook.

Whilst the current situation continues with rising costs not being met by investment income or from the revenue from opening up houses and estates it’s likely that we will continue to see a steady trickle of art flowing from the galleries of our stately homes into the private collections of the billionaires currently willing to pay record-breaking prices for the finest works.  Although this is in some respects regrettable, as long as the money is spent on the restoration and maintenance of our wonderful country houses then there is little cause for concern.  However, once the attics are empty or all the ‘non-core’ pictures have been sold then we may need to be worried as to what will be sold next. The worst outcome would be to have houses without estates or that we have a fine collection of stately homes in which visitor’s footsteps merely echo around empty state rooms.

More about the Chatsworth sale: ‘Chatsworth’s ‘lost’ treasures up for sale‘ [BBC News]

More about recent art sales: ‘Who is behind the great stately home art sell-off‘ [The Art Newspaper]