Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild (1839-1898) was a scion of the Viennese branch of the formidable Jewish European banking dynasty. His father Baron Anselm von Rothschild was the head of the Vienna Rothschild bank and was by all accounts dismissive of his second son’s prospects. As Baron Ferdinand wrote ‘my mother (Charlotte) was my guardian angel, the one being around whom my existence revolved’. ‘Ferdy’, as he was known, moved to London in his late teens and gravitated towards the Piccadilly mansion of his uncle Baron Lionel de Rothschild who headed the London branch of the family bank.
Ferdy fell in love with Lionel de Rothschild’s bright and beautiful daughter Evelina and married her in 1865. He said of his bride ‘she has grown into my heart that my only wishes, cares, joys, affections, whatever sentiments in fact a man possesses were directly or indirectly wound with her existence’. Within a year ‘Evy’ tragically gave birth to a stillborn son and lost her life in the process. Baron Ferdinand established the Evelina Children’s Hospital on Southwark Bridge Road in her memory and never married again.
In 1874 Ferdy began what was to be his great legacy: the construction of Waddeston Manor in Buckinghamshire. Designed by architect Gabriel Hippolyte Destailleur, Waddeston was built in the Renaissance style of a Loire Valley chateau built for the Valois kings of France. Ferdy’s life’s work was the decoration and expansion of Waddeston, the establishment of the formal gardens that surround it and the collection of paintings and objets d’art with a particular emphasis on Sèvres porcelain, French royal furniture from the reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI, Savonnerie carpets and 18th century British paintings.
Though his brother-in-law Nathaniel Mayer de Rothschild thought Ferdy effete and pretentious, this might be the prejudice of a banker against a relative who had no interest in the family business. Ferdy was one of the most well-connected gentleman collectors in late Victorian England. The Prince and Princess of Wales (the future King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra) were regular guests at Waddeston as was his cousin Hannah de Rothschild who married the 5th Earl of Rosebery, Lord Hartington (the future 9th Duke of Devonshire) and Prime Ministers Benjamin Disraeli, William Ewart Gladstone and Arthur Balfour.
Ferdy’s landscaping of Waddeston led the Prince of Wales to seek his advice when improving the formal gardens surrounding his Norfolk retreat Sandringham House. The Prince wrote ‘I have sufficient confidence in your good taste to be quite easy in my mind that it will be a success’. The Prince’s sister the Empress Frederick of Prussia, who ~~Ferdy visited in 1894, reported to her mother Queen Victoria that ‘he is an excellent gardener and good botanist and has a good deal of artistic knowledge and taste’. The future Queen Mary was less kind, writing to say that a fountain in the shape of a pelican given by the Baron to her father-in-law King Edward VII made her ‘shriek with laughter’.
Though Ferdy served as a Liberal politician from 1885 until his death in 1898, his political influence was not best served in the Palace of Westminster. His power was much more subtly exercised at Saturday to Monday house parties at Waddeston co-hosted by his sister Alice who was chatelaine of the estate. The Prince of Wales’s friendship with Ferdy broke the taboo forbidding Jewish people their place in London Society. In 1890 Queen Victoria honoured the Baron with one of her extremely rare visits to dine and sleep at a subject’s estates. On his death in 1898 Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild left Waddeston to Alice and gave the choice of his Renaissance objet d’art collection to the British Museum for whom he was a trustee.
As he said of the collection now known as ‘The Waddeston Bequest’, ‘collectors may deplore the fact, but it should be a source of gratification to the public that most fine works of art drift slowly but surely into museums and public galleries, In private hands, they can afford delight only to a small number of persons’. The Waddeston Bequest is one of the most important single-owner collections of Medieval and Renaissance objects that Ferdy had previously displayed in the Smoking Room at Waddeston. The 300-pieces show-off what was known in the late 19th century as ‘Rothschild Taste’: enamels, glass, reliquaries, boxwood carvings, Italian majolica, rock crystal, gilt centerpieces and fabulous jewels that pleased the eye of a single cultivated man.
Among the masterpieces displayed in the British Museum, a French reliquary made in 1400 is exceptional. It purports to hold a thorn from the crown Christ wore when he was crucified and, from 1544, was part of the Holy Roman Emperor’s Imperial Treasure. The exquisite Lyle jewel is an enameled gold locket concealing a miniature of King James VI painted by the master of the art Nicholas Hilliard.