Thursday, 24th September 2021 – Waddesdon Manor
On the Thursday of our staycation, after a scheduled session with my physiotherapist to sort out a neck/shoulder issue, we headed off into Buckinghamshire, via a series of delays caused by the hideous works for HS2, to spend the day at Waddesdon Manor. Now, Wikipedia says that Waddesdon Manor is a country house. The same could be said of the two places we visited on the preceding two days (Rockingham Castle, Deene Park). However, to view Waddesdon in that way is a bit like calling the QE2 and a rowing boat ships. One utterly dwarfs the other. Waddesdon is enormous – you could fit both of the aforementioned Nene Valley properties into the house and have room to spare.
It is, for those who have never seen it, a fantastical neo-Rennaissance style French château in the middle of Aylesbury Vale. It’s so big that you are warned when booking to visit that it takes up to 25 minutes to reach the house from the car park! The place even has its own shuttle bus service from the car park to various points around the estate, so extensive are both the house and the grounds. You can get round this by booking (and paying for) a closer car park, which will cost you a substantial sum but also means you won’t need to worry about whether you’re going to make it to the house in time. We opted to hand over the extra. We were already shelling out a small fortune to visit the house, and see one of the special exhibitions.
The house is owned by the National Trust but managed by the Rothschild Foundation, and with around half a million visitors in a year is undoubtedly getting a massive boost financially from being open. That of course also means that during the lockdowns, it would have lost a lot of income that it will now need to attempt to recoup somehow. Even so, over £70 for two of us was pretty eye watering, so we booked an earlyish entry to make sure we could make the most of it. I do have to say it was worth it. The Manor is a Grade I listed house, built between 1874 and 1889 for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild (1839–1898) as a weekend residence. He wanted to use it both for entertaining and to display his extensive collection of arts and antiquities. Three generations down the line, the house now contains one of the most rare and valuable collections in the world, and some of it is truly breathtaking. It’s one hell of a weekend retreat, is all I can say!
A quick coffee before heading into the house fortified us for the morning as we joined the crowds already there. It was certainly a popular stop for people on a weekday, but it never felt too busy. Most people wore facemasks, as requested, and there were plenty of hand-sanitiser points dotted around. On the way in, I asked about photography and was told that as long as I didn’t use flash, it was positively encouraged. This was a very welcome change!
Unlike our other visits, this was not a house that was built on the foundations of an earlier structure. In fact it had been an agricultural estate when the Baron bought it from the Duke of Marlborough in 1874. It was 6 years before it could be used, and the first house party was held in May 1880. Three years later, the main house was ready and Rothschild invited 20 guests to stay. House parties were frequent thereafter, usually for between 14 and 20 guests, most of them influential people, attended to by 24 members of staff. Apparently the guests included Queen Victoria, who actually asked to be invited. She was impressed with the beauty of the house and grounds, and was reported to be very “struck by the newly installed electric lights designed to look like candles in the chandeliers, and … she asked for the room to be darkened to fully witness the effect”. Given that Ferdinand had apparently insisted on all mod cons, and the latest technology, this is perhaps not surprising.
Among other impressive items is one of the first pieces of art you encounter in the house, a mechanical elephant, no less. It’s an elaborate musical automaton made by Hubert Martinet between 1768 and 1772, it is wound up using two keys, and when it is set running, a musical box plays, while the elephant flaps its ears and swishes its tail, and various figures move and dance around. It was at Waddesdon no later than 1889, and it “delighted the Shah of Persia, Naser al-Din Shah Qajar, who visited the manor that year”. There’s a video of it in action here, and you can also listen to a podcast about it on the National Trust’s website here.
There followed room after room, decorated lavishly, especially when you consider that the place was basically a weekend retreat, and only summer weekends at that! For example, the dining room where the table is set for 24 people, the maximum number of guests the house would accommodate at any time. Let’s face it, we all set our weekend table with the best silver and crockery…
Speaking of crockery, I’ve never been a fan of 18th and 19th century porcelain, especially Meissen. I’m pleased to note that there’s not a lot of Meissen, though there are some absolute horrors nonetheless. It wasn’t the plates and such though that really made me step back and go “Whoa!” It’s this, whatever the hell it is. I appreciate the skill that has gone into it, and that it’s probably incredibly valuable, but you couldn’t pay me to take it home. It’s the epitome of ghastly.
Ironically, there was actually a Meissen piece that I quite liked, though I’ve no idea what you would do with it. It’s a goat and kid, commissioned by Augustus II the Strong, or Augustus the “Ooh Shiny! Must Have!” as we refer to him. He was the Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, and he had it made in 1732 for a menagerie of life-sized animals (70 of them) that he kept at his Japanese Palace in Dresden. There’s a turkey as well – of course there is, why wouldn’t you want a turkey – and it and the goat are on display in the breakfast room.
However, the porcelain I especially liked – and that I would be happy to have at home – is the piece called Porca Miseria, which is a chandelier in one of the smaller dining rooms, the Blue Dining Room. It is made of broken porcelain and cutlery, and was specially commissioned in 2003. It’s made by Ingo Maurer, and I think it’s wonderful.
If you know me, you also won’t be surprised to know that I was much taken with the wine cellar as well. It was installed in 1994 to “celebrate the association of the Rothschild family with some of the finest wines in the world for more than 100 years” and it’s fair to say it contains some mightily impressive, and covetable bottles of Bordeaux wines. The family obsession with the wines goes back to the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1855. This was the event that led to the original classification of Bordeaux wines, with just five wines making it into the top classification, with Château Lafite at the pinnacle. Baron James de Rothschild (1792-1868) had tried to buy the château for years, and managed to complete the purchase just before his death in 1868. In 1853, they added Mouton to the family’s portfolio, which meant they also owned the first wine in the second group. In the reclassification of 1973, the managed to contest the original classification, and Château Mouton Rothschild moved into the top group as a result. There are wines in those cellars dating back to 1868, up to 15,000 bottles of them to be precise! I’d be entirely content to be locked in with the art and a corkscrew. There is a collection of wine-related art as well, but it’s the art in the bottles that really interests me!
We both thoroughly enjoyed the art exhibition we’d come for as well. This displayed a collection of glorious lapidary watercolours by Gustave Moreau (1826-98) which illustrate the Fables of Jean de la Fontaine. They vary in style, but they are all stunning, full of tiny intriguing detail. There are 35 of them, and they were painted 1879 and 1885, at the behest of Antony Roux, an art collector. They were exhibited in Paris in the 1880s and in London in 1886. There were originally 64 pieces, which were collected by xx Rothschild, but sadly nearly half of them were lost during the Nazi era. If you know your Aesop, many of the pictures will make sense at first glance, but there were others that didn’t so we were pleased that the explanatory texts were so good. We weren’t allowed to take photos in the exhibition, understandably, so here’s a couple I found online!
There are so many things to see even without an exhibition in the mix, and we moved on into the other rooms. These include the fabulous, and unexpected, Bakst room, where there are seven panels telling the story of the Sleeping Beauty, painted by Léon Bakst for a commission from James and Dorothy de Rothschild in 1913. Apparently many of them show members of the Rothschild family as various characters.
Once we’d done there, we were able to go upstairs and visit the new family treasury. It’s quite terrifyingly opulent, with all sorts of small items collected by the family over the years. I don’t think I’ve seen so much bling outside the Kaiserliche Schatzkammer in Vienna. There are more than 300 objects made from rare and precious materials stored in there ranging from “a 1st-century cameo of Augustus Caesar’s grandson, to a microscope used by entomologist and flea expert Charles Rothschild”. There is jewellery, gold boxes, silver, an amber casket made in the 17th century, a mounted nautilus shell, an 18th-century Mughal jade decanter, and the Nelme Cup, a unique gold standing cup made in England in 1727. It’s stunning and you step back into the outside world feeling as if you’re suffering retina burn from all the shininess.
By the time we’d finished in the house, we really needed refreshments. The tearoom had room, and we were only going to have coffee and a cake but ended up talking ourselves into an afternoon tea. Normally you need to book, but on this occasion it was quite quiet in there, so it wasn’t a problem. There followed an exquisite procession of tiny, dainty savouries and sandwiches, followed by a scone and cakes, plus repeat refills of tea.
This was definitely the cream tea of the week, possibly the decade.
At least we now had the fortitude to walk around as much of the gardens as we could. Here the rose garden was still looking very good, and the parterre was splendid in the Autumn afternoon sun, even though not all of the fountains were running on the day.
Again there was a lot to see but we were running out of steam now. There’s a fascinating aviary, which does conservation work, though most of the birds were hiding from us. This seems to happen to us quite a lot (it certainly happened when we went to Harewood), so maybe they just don’t want any publicity. Even if the birds won’t co-operate, the building is lovely and worth a look.
Aditionally, there is a family of bamboo elephants in the grounds to publicise CoExistence, a charity dedicated to protecting Asian wildlife and its habitat. They’re very impressive sculptures and apparently could also be seen in London during 2021.
And so as the afternoon was wearing on, we stopped off at the shop to buy some books and the inevitable fridge magnet, before returning to the car and heading for home.