Imagine if you will ‘an extravagantly turreted chateau in the French Renaissance style, sitting on a hilltop in rural Buckinghamshire’.¹ This splendid first glimpse of Waddesdon Manor, after a steep winding climb up a mile-long drive, gave us a breathtaking introduction to the size and opulence of this exquisite house, home to Ferdinand de Rothschild and begun in the 1880’s.
‘Even more unexpected are the treasures inside the house: a superlative collection of English paintings hangs beside the finest French 18th-century decorative arts, set in rooms clad in panelling from the grandest Parisian town houses’.² As we explored the house, the setting for gatherings of the rich, the famous, the cultured and even Royalty, we began to appreciate the world-class collections of porcelain, art and furniture that the widowed Ferdinand amassed after the early death of his young wife in childbirth.
Here was an unsurpassed collection of Meissen and Sevres pottery, filling two rooms; walls lined with portraits and paintings by Gainsborough, Reynolds and others European artists of a similar calibre; historical furniture, including Marie Antoinette’s writing desk ; quirky ‘objets d’art’ such as a huge mechanical elephant – all within an elegant, luxurious and yet surprisingly intimate setting of a private home.
The private quarters of this sociable millionaire were remarkably unostentatious and personal, a place where the owner could relax and enjoy his simple pleasures, in stark contrast to the vast and magnificent State Rooms , which displayed to great advantage his wealth and high social rank.
Among the many surprising articles in this house were the original ‘Balfour Declaration’ of 1917 and a large painting identifying all the homes of the Rothschild family throughout Europe. Waddesdon compared in size and style to some of the most sumptuous Palaces (or Palais) which were scattered in the capital cities of this continent.
Also on display during our visit was an exhibition of linen folding by international expert Joan Sallas, which showcased the intricate art of folding napkins into shapes and figures. I did not have time to explore the extensive and carefully tended grounds, but some of our group were able to do so when the inclement weather ceased. An excellent interactive audio-visual guide enhanced the experience of visiting this unique house and I look forward to a return visit in the not too distant future.
¹ Quote taken from ‘The Waddesdon Companion Guide’ Introduction, page 3
² Quote taken from ‘The Waddesdon Companion Guide’ Introduction, page 3