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:

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

The landscape of the UK is one rich in our heritage of country houses.  Each tells a tale of wealth, ambition and family life, yet, although each was built as a home, for many of them this is no longer the case.  These houses can be grouped in many ways – by architect, region, style, size, etc – but there are very few that can be grouped together simply by family ownership.  To acquire one country house is a mark of achievement, yet for an elite group of families, their success allowed them to amass a collection of houses.  The Rothschilds were one such family and so effectively did they colonise an area of Buckinghamshire that it became known as ‘Rothschild-shire’.  In this two-part article, we can look at the fortunes of their houses, and in them, see a snapshot of the fates of country houses across the country. This first part features Gunnersbury Park, Tring Park, Champneys and Halton House.

The Rothschilds are one of the most successful family businesses in the world; financiers to companies, countries and the considerably wealthy.  Having become well-established in Frankfurt, the five sons of Mayer Amschel Rothschild set out for five European cities – London, Paris, Frankfurt, Naples and Vienna – in 1809-10 to expand the firm.  By working closely together they flourished, creating a pan-European network which not only handled money but also information, making them the best informed and giving them a competitive advantage.  Their business achievements naturally made the family exceptionally wealthy and, as was the pattern, their success translated into property, with the family building over 40 houses in the 19th and early 20th centuries across Europe.

Gunnersbury Park (Large Mansion), Middlesex (Image: Magnus Manske / Wikipedia)
Gunnersbury Park (Large Mansion), Middlesex (Image: Magnus Manske / Wikipedia)

In the UK, the Rothschilds waited until 1835 before acquiring their first country house, Gunnersbury Park, Middlesex. The estate had been home to Princess Amelia, daughter of George II, in the first Gunnersbury Park, designed by John Webb but inspired by Palladio’s Villa Badoer.  After Amelia’s death in 1786, the house and estate were eventually bought by a speculator who demolished the house and sold the land in 13 lots. All bar two were bought by Alexander Copeland (10 lots in 1802 and a further 2 in 1806), business partner to the architect Henry Holland, who probably designed it.  Unfortunately, the remaining two lots sold were immediately to the side of the new house and a second mansion was built, leading to the houses being imaginatively labelled the Small Mansion and Large Mansion.  It was the latter which was bought by Nathan Meyer Rothschild, only a year before he died in July 1836.  The house then passed down the Rothschilds until 1925 when Maria, recently widowed wife of Nathan’s grandson, Leopold de Rothschild, decided to sell the house and now 200-acre estate to Ealing and Action Borough Councils for just £130,000, for use as a public park – far less than if sold for development.  Despite some local resistance, the park opened to great acclaim with the Large Mansion now the Gunnersbury Park Museum.

Outcome: municipal ownership; house a museum, estate a public park

Tring Park, Hertfordshire (Image: Tring Park School for the Performing Arts)
Tring Park, Hertfordshire (Image: Tring Park School for the Performing Arts)

Although Gunnersbury Park was a country house, Nathan Mayer Rothschild had also rented Tring Park, Hertfordshire from 1838 as a more rural retreat. When the owners decided to sell, it was purchased with 3,643-acres (14.74 km sq) by Lionel Rothschild,  (b. 1808 – d.1879), Nathan’s eldest son, in May 1872 for £230,000.  He promptly gave it to his son Nathaniel Mayer Rothschild (Baron Rothschild from 1885), as a belated wedding present.  The house is notable as one of the very few designed by Sir Christopher Wren and was built in c.1680 though later remodelled in 1786 by Sir Drummond Smith and again between 1874-78 by Lord Rothschild, who inserted a third story, added a new Smoking Room extension (which replaced the original conservatory and orangery) and generally gave a ‘French’ air to the house, under the plans of the architect George Devey (b.1820 – d.1886).

It was Lord Rothschild’s son, Walter (later 2nd Lord Rothschild), who perhaps made Tring Park notable through his obsession with natural history, and specifically, zoology.  The Rothschilds have often fallen into preferring either ‘arts/sciences’ or ‘business’ and Walter was the former.  Over the course of his life, he amassed one of the greatest natural history collections in the world; a vast array of specimens (including 2.5m butterflies – all mounted) which became the Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum, and which was eventually donated to the British Museum in 1937.  Walter’s inability to manage his finances – mainly through overspending on the museum – meant that although he inherited the title, the house and estate went to his brother, but only after the death of his mother, who Walter continued to live with at Tring until her death in 1935.  Walter died in 1937 and his nephew decided to break up the estate, but kept the house, which was used by the family bank in WWII to store documents.  After the war, Lord Rothschild decided not to live at Tring and so sold it to become a performing arts school.  Though the landscape remains, in 1975 in a particularly crass act of planning vandalism, the A41 Tring Bypass was built straight through the parkland, splitting it in two.

Outcome: house became a school

Champneys, Hertfordshire (Image: Hertfordshire Genealogy)
Champneys, Hertfordshire (Image: Hertfordshire Genealogy)

Another house related to Tring Park, though never a main family seat, was Champneys, in Wigginton, which served as the dower house for the main estate.  This sizeable house had originally been built in 1874 in a French Second Empire style by Arthur Sutton Valpy, before being bought by Walter Rothschild’s parents in 1902.  However, Walter’s mother, Emma Louise von Rothschild (b.1844 – d.1935), realising that her son wouldn’t marry, sold the house in 1925 to Stanley Lief, who created his first ‘Nature Cure Resort’, forming a brand which is still well known for its spas today.

Outcome: house became a health spa

Lionel Rothschild had also bought the Halton estate from Sir George Henry Dashwood in 1853, further extending the Rothschild domain in the Aylesbury Vale.  The first house on the estate was a smaller, Palladian affair which had latterly been little used by the Dashwoods and fell into decay. The remnants of the house were finally demolished in early 1880 after Alfred Charles (b.1842 – d.1918), middle son of Lionel, inherited the 1,400-acre Halton estate in 1879.  Over his lifetime he expanded the estate until it covered around 3,250-acres – but any aspiring landed gent requires a fine house as well as land; and the wealthy, educated Alfred was determined to live up to the family tradition.

Halton House, Buckinghamshire - detail of photo taken in 1921 (Image: Britain from Above / English Heritage)
Halton House, Buckinghamshire – detail of photo taken in 1921 (Image: Britain from Above / English Heritage) Click to see the RAF camp in the background.

A site for the new Halton House was swiftly chosen and work started in 1880.  The architect is not confirmed but Mark Girouard believes it to have been William R. Rogers, the design partner of  the builders, William Cubitt & Co. As was popular with the Rothschilds, Alfred decided that his house would be another in the French chateau-style – though perhaps more rigorously closer to the originals but with his own special additions, including a spectacular winter garden.  The house was completed by July 1883, Alfred having employed a veritable army of labour to ensure swift progress, but the final interior fittings took another year. No expense was spared to ensure visitors impressed by the grand exterior could only be equally dazzled by the interior; every room a lavish statement of his wealth and fine taste, silk wallpaper, embellished by his superb art collection – every detail thought of, even down to the door knobs emblazoned with the Rothschild family crest.

Reaction was mixed to this luxurious new home, exemplified by Algernon West who described it as “an exaggerated nightmare of gorgeousness and senseless and ill-applied magnificence” but who later admitted that “lighted up and full of well-dressed people, it appeared quite tolerable“.  Even his nephew Lionel de Rothschild described it as ‘looking like a huge wedding cake‘. Most of the objections appeared to sniff more at the lavish expense than real architectural criticism.  Mark Girouard, writing in 1979, was far more generous, describing it as ‘splendidly Louise Seize with another sumptuous winter garden…a tour de force of Rothschild extravagance‘.

Halton House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Green Baron via Wikipedia)
Halton House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Green Baron via Wikipedia)

Sadly, this was a house built for the age of grand entertaining, one which WWI ended.  Alfred was deeply patriotic and having frequently used his political connections in the service of the government, wanted to help further.  He offered the Halton estate to his friend Lord Kitchener and so the house became first an infantry camp, then for the engineers, then, once created, the Royal Air Force.  With the house shuttered and neglected, the gardens and house declined, mirroring Alfred’s own failing health.  After his death in 1918, the house was inherited by his nephew, Lionel, as “he was the only Rothschild without a country house” but he didn’t like it and so sold it to the RAF for a bargain £112,000. They quickly expanded the facilities and, in 1919, Halton House became the Officers’ Mess of RAF Halton; a role it still performs today.

Outcome: house and estate taken over for military use

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Part 2 of this article will appear soon…

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Other links of interest: