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After the Duke’s death, it was initially put up for auction, largely unaltered, by the Duke’s son in 1848 but was withdrawn – but not before it had attracted the attention of the Rothschilds.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 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: