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Things That Have Interested Me

Manors Maketh Man

James Fenton
copyright © 2007

Originally published in The Guardian
30 June 2007

It is now 50 years since Waddesdon Manor, the great Rothschild house between Bicester and Aylesbury, was donated to the National Trust. The estate used to belong to the Duke of Marlborough, who flogged it in 1874. At that time, Anselm de Rothschild lay dying in Frankfurt, and his son Ferdinand gave orders from his father's deathbed to purchase the property. The land had no great house of its own, and that suited Ferdinand well. He liked building, and he liked shopping. What he didn't like was banking. So, on his father's death, he sold his shares in the family bank and was able, we would say, to focus on his priorities.

This part of England is famous for its Rothschild homes, which consist of great houses, normally in the French style, on model estates. I asked what the correct term is for this characteristic estate architecture, which you see in the village of Waddesdon itself and elsewhere in the well-nurtured landscape. There is the dairy, the stables or farmhouses, laid out in a courtyard design that seems to have been particularly popular. There is a garage courtyard, no doubt planned to house a score of visiting chauffeurs in the pioneering days of the motor car.

"Anglo-Norman" is the term for the style. The buildings are in red brick with tile-hung gables, reflecting an English vernacular, but with passages of half-timbering in the Norman manner, a style that was being revived and elaborated in Normandy at the time when Waddesdon was conceived. One would hesitate to call the result of this cross-fertilisation beautiful, but it is (I love this word and overuse it) characteristic. It can be simple. It also lends itself to the elaborations of fantasy, with some extra-decorative tile-work or a bravura creation in wrought iron.

Waddesdon Manor itself, the great house, is built in the style of a Loire chateau. At the time of its donation to the Trust it was widely considered hideous and a monstrosity, but - once again - the word characteristic comes to our aid to cover something not perhaps beautiful, but definitely not run-of-the-mill, something inauthentic (as its popular critics would have averred) yet strongly expressive. It is plutocratic. It is nouveau riche, like the Scottish baronial style. It is pure Buckinghamshire.

The interiors give it its claim to fame. They are furnished throughout with French 18th-century boiseries, carved wooden panelling of the very highest quality. But the resultant look does not resemble a French interior: the boiseries have been mostly stripped of their original paint and have been fitted into rooms that are considerably taller than those they came from. The story that so much French panelling became available because of Haussmann's demolition work in Paris is apparently an oversimplification. Noble families are always falling on hard times, and the British aristocracy, as well as the French, contributed many a masterpiece to Waddesdon.

The end result, exactly like the estate architecture, is eclectic. Most of the grandest paintings are English portraits, most of the grandest furniture - and it is very grand indeed - is French. But there is also a significant scattering of comfortable button-backed chairs dating from the 19th century. This was never an austere interior. The house was built for weekend entertaining in the summer months, and as a place for the private display of a great collection of fine and decorative arts. It always had central heating. It very soon acquired electricity. It also used to contain its fair share of junk.

So, as an ensemble, it deceives the eye. A French noble interior in the 18th century would have had far less of this kind of furniture: it would have looked to our taste perhaps rather empty and formal, with none of these frequent clusters of tables and chairs inviting cosy little groups to gather round. A Rothschild interior of the 19th century, by contrast, would have had even more stuff everywhere than we now see. Indeed, what we are looking at in some of the main rooms reflects a National Trust aesthetic from 50 years ago, the result of an editing process influenced by the needs of the visiting public.

Only a part of the contents of the house belongs to the National Trust. The rest, including works recently acquired, belongs to a Rothschild family trust that continues to manage the house. So what you see at Waddesdon is very much a continuation of the Rothschild taste - le goût Rothschild - in action.

A recent acquisition, which I was able to see this week, is an imposing state portrait of Louis XVI by a lesser painter called Antoine-François Callet - a work executed for the French embassy in London. The convention was that you were not supposed to turn your back on this painting when you were in its presence. The point of this export-stopped acquisition was that a very high-quality frame (by François-Charles Buteux) put it in the Waddesdon league.

Among the curious things I learned at Waddesdon are these. At an 18th-century banquet, there were no glasses on the table. When you wanted a glass of wine, a footman stepped up with a tray and you knocked it (the glass) smartly back in one. The glass was then washed (in the same room) and replenished. Glasses on the table belong to the 19th-century tradition. They are coeval with wine connoisseurship - another Rothschild tradition.

Give your silk curtains a rest by laying them flat in the dark.

When you are washing porcelain, do so always with two hands, and always in silence. This was one of Miss Alice Rothschild's rules, which is followed by the National Trust at Waddesdon to this day. Nothing must be allowed to surprise or distract you when washing porcelain. So, when the porcelain is being washed, a notice is put up outside the room where this ceremony is in progress, demanding complete quiet.

Queen Victoria adored the electric lights at Waddesdon and kept asking for them to be turned on and off.

The Prince of Wales fell down the stairs there, an event recorded by Max Beerbohm.

Nicole Kidman was photographed, magnificently, by Mario Testino at Waddesdon, using only natural light.

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