|Manors Maketh Man
copyright © 2007
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
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
"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
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.