LONDON - The latest in a long line of collectors, Lord Rothschild has transformed his ancestral estate into a showcase and archive for his family’s historic collection.
The recently completed Windmill Hill was designed by Stephen Marshall Architects of London.
I think it’s turned out rather well,” says Jacob Rothschild as he surveys his latest achievement, Windmill Hill, a stunning new building complex on the grounds of Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, which will house a substantial portion of his illustrious family’s vast archives, and provide a new showcase for contemporary art.
Lord Rothschild, the 4th Baron Rothschild, is hardly being boastful. He just can’t hide his enthusiasm.
That keenness – combined with his highly refined taste and intelligence – has made Rothschild one of the great arts patrons and builders of our time. For the past quarter-century Waddesdon has been the focus of much of his energy. An extraordinary French Renaissance-style château built in the 1880s by one of his ancestors, it is the greatest surviving example of what is known as le style Rothschild.
“In the 19th century, my family built 44 great houses throughout Europe. Waddesdon is the only one left which is open to the public, with its collection intact, so one can see how the family used to live and collect.”
But Waddesdon is hardly stuck in time. In fact, since he became steward of the property in 1988 Rothschild has made significant additions to it and acquisitions for it, including works by contemporary artists.
“I’ve added quite a bit over the years. We’re doing things all the time. I’m that type,” he says.
Windmill Hill is but the latest proof that the dynamism that has propelled this fabled family for generations is alive and well.
Designed by Stephen Marshall Architects of London, the new building was built in the footprint of a dairy barn that existed on the site. Incorporating some of the original structure, it is a minimalist marvel, constructed largely of English oak. The Royal Institute of British Architects recently gave it one of its top awards.
Once the building is properly humidified, it will house two distinct archives. The first comes from a Rothschild family foundation that has long aided Jewish causes and is based in Geneva. The second comes from Waddesdon itself and is composed of papers belonging to the four generations that have lived on the estate.
An aerial view of Waddesdon Manor, the French Renaissance-style château built by the Rothschilds in the 1880s.
“It is a lot of material. We prefer to keep it together,” says Jacob. Indeed, active as the Rothschilds have been, the subject matter is wide ranging, from wine, politics, art, horticulture and agriculture to social history, for example the protocol of a visit by Queen Victoria.
These varied holdings will be catalogued and made available to scholars and visitors to Waddesdon (for opening times, visit waddesdon.org.uk).
The heart of the building, which contains two courtyards, is the enormous Reading Room, a gallery-like space. Throughout the building, there are many adornments.
“We couldn’t resist acquiring some works of art for it,” says Rothschild.
In addition to pieces by Anish Kapoor, Andy Goldsworthy and the Campana brothers, among others, there are two monumental, specially-commissioned works by Richard Long. On the rolling lawn is Brotherlines, made of blue paving slate, while Energy Gravity, china clay on plaster, embellishes the long wall outside the Reading Room.
Lord Rothschild, 76, is the fourth generation of his family to steer Waddesdon, and it is highly entertaining to hear him recount its fascinating history.
“Waddesdon was built in the 1880s by Baron Ferdinand. He was an Austrian Rothschild who married an English lady,” he says.
“He was only interested in collecting – he had no other interests really.”
Richard Long’s Brotherlines and Energy Gravity were specially commissioned for the rolling lawn at Windmill Hill.
“He was a pretty eclectic collector. He liked French furniture and boiseries. When Haussmann was pulling down large sections of Paris, Ferdinand bought many whole rooms and brought them here. But in terms of paintings, he liked mainly 18th century English portraits, and that is the real strength of the collection today, such as works by Reynolds and Gainsborough. That look – English pictures and French backgrounds – influenced a number of American collectors such as Henry Huntington and Henry Clay Frick.
“The main body of the collection at Waddesdon was put together by Ferdinand. His wife had died in childbirth, and the child died, too. He never remarried. He consoled himself by building Waddesdon and his collection.
“After his wife’s death, he asked his sister, Miss Alice, to come over from Frankfurt to keep him company. She looked after the house from 1898, when Ferdinand died. Alice, who never married, was very severe about maintaining the collection and kept everything meticulously. She set what we call ‘Waddesdon standards.’
“Before she died in 1922 she decided to leave the house to a French grand-nephew, James, who had married an English girl, Dorothy. He had moved to England in reaction to the Dreyfus case. James and Dorothy never had children, either. The odd thing about Waddesdon is, you’ve got about 100 years with never a child in the house.’’
Still, as Rothschild continues, there was plenty coming in. “As my family kept on intermarrying, they kept inheriting things. There was hardly a square inch without something. Nothing’s ever really gone out of the house. James’ father was Baron Edmond, who was the greatest Rothschild collector of them all. On his death, much of his collection went to Waddesdon.”
After WWII, Waddesdon became too big for even a Rothschild to live in. James and Dorothy moved into a house on an adjoining estate, Eythrope. When he died in 1957, he bequeathed the Manor house, its principal contents and 165 acres to the National Trust, but the family has continued to manage the estate, and handsomely endow it. When Dorothy died in 1988, she left the responsibility of looking after Waddesdon to Jacob, her cousin. Since then, he has overseen extensive refurbishments to the house, including the installation of new rooms designed by David Mlinaric, as well as to the estate’s elaborate grounds and gardens.
The immaculately preserved Red Drawing Room at Waddesdon Manor.
“I love Waddesdon. It has been a joy to have the opportunity to do it,” says Jacob, who spends most weekends here with his wife, Serena, with whom he has four children.
In 2007, Rothschild made another highly important acquisition to the collection when he purchased one of the four versions of A Boy Building a House of Cards, by French still-life master Jean-Siméon Chardin. Painted in 1735, it is the earliest of the series – which Rothschild describes as “remarkable paintings of stillness and quiet.” Since 1797, the picture had belonged to the Harcourt family, until Rothschild acquired it in a private sale.
Once it arrived in Waddesdon, Rothschild had another inspiration.
“My ambition was to unite the series for the first time.” As the other versions belonged to the Louvre, the National Gallery, Washington, and the National Gallery, London, this was no easy feat.
“We thought it was real chutzpah to ask for the paintings, but, to our amazement and delight, they agreed to lend them to us.” The resulting exhibition at Waddesdon last year received rapturous reviews.
True to his family heritage, there seems to be little that doesn’t interest Lord Rothschild. “Some of that DNA must have rubbed off on me,” he admits. It certainly has.
James Reginato is writer-at-large of Vanity Fair.
[This article originally appeared in Sotheby's at Auction. To subscribe click here.]