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  • South Front, Waddesdon Manor. (Studio 8 (c) National Trust Waddesdon Manor)
    South Front, Waddesdon Manor. (Studio 8 (c) National Trust Waddesdon Manor)
  • The Grey Drawing Room at Waddesdon Manor. (Chris Lacey (c) National Trust Waddesdon Manor)
    The Grey Drawing Room at Waddesdon Manor. (Chris Lacey (c) National Trust Waddesdon Manor)
  • The new Rothschild Treasury permanent exhibit. (Waddesdon Image Library/Mike Fear)
    The new Rothschild Treasury permanent exhibit. (Waddesdon Image Library/Mike Fear)
  • The Tower Drawing Room at Waddesdon Manor. (Chris Lacey (c) National Trust Waddesdon Manor)
    The Tower Drawing Room at Waddesdon Manor. (Chris Lacey (c) National Trust Waddesdon Manor)
  • The Waddesdon Manor dining room. (Chris Lacey (c) National Trust Waddesdon Manor)
    The Waddesdon Manor dining room. (Chris Lacey (c) National Trust Waddesdon Manor)
Waddesdon Manor exhibits its treasures, and glorious history

When UK’s ‘Jewish Downton Abbey’ hosted royalty, PMs, and young wartime evacuees

A new permanent gallery in the Rothschild home offers a public glimpse at its former owners’ opulence — and their role in helping Israel and saving young European Jews in WWII

Robert Philpot is a writer and journalist. He is the former editor of Progress magazine and author of “Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew.”

Main image by Studio 8 (c) National Trust Waddesdon Manor, shows the South Front, Waddesdon Manor.

LONDON — Nestled in the gentle rolling farmlands of the Aylesbury Vale, Waddesdon is an archetypal English village. The medieval church in its center is a reminder of a history which stretches back to the times before the Norman conquest in 1066.

But, above the village, atop a hill with panoramic views and shrouded by trees, sits a startling discovery — a French Renaissance-style chateau.

Waddesdon Manor, with its spires, turrets and towers, drew inspiration from the great Loire Valley chateaux of the Valois kings, with features from Chambord, Blois and Maintenon rising incongruously from the Buckinghamshire countryside.

Waddesdon is the best-known of the Rothschild family’s great houses in England. Last month, it opened a new permanent gallery to celebrate the Rothschilds’ love of collecting. It is likely to cement its place as one of the UK’s most-visited stately homes.

But, for a time in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Waddesdon drew a rather more select band of visitors. Its weekend house parties entertained kings and queens, prime ministers and the cream of aristocratic society. If this calls to mind the fictional period drama Downton Abbey, it comes with a distinctly Jewish twist.

Rothschild’s dream

As one of his visitors wrote, Waddesdon was the “marvelous creation” of Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild. It was, indeed, entirely fitting that Ferdinand should have brought a little piece of France to the home counties which surround London. Born in Paris and raised in Frankfurt and Vienna, Ferdinand decided to make England his home in 1859.

He stood at the crossroads of the English and Austrian branches of the famous European banking dynasty. Ferdinand’s father, Anselm, took the helm at the Viennese bank in 1849, while his mother, Charlotte, was the daughter of Nathan who had come to England at the turn of the 18th century and later established the NM Rothschild and Sons bank in London.

Ferdinand, however, had little interest in banking and instead devoted himself to his twin passions: politics and what his mother-in-law called “curiosity-hunting.” The family had indeed played an important part in bringing Jews onto the British political scene. Ferdinand’s uncle, Lionel, fought a long battle to become Britain’s first Jewish MP, while his brother-in-law, Natty, was the first openly Jewish person to be elevated to the House of Lords.

North Front, Waddesdon Manor. (Chris Lacey (c) National Trust Waddesdon Manor)

In what became known as “Rothschildshire” — so-called because of the number of properties owned by the family in the Aylesbury Vale — Ferdinand was able to pursue both those passions. When Natty, who had represented the ancient market town of Aylesbury in Parliament for 20 years, went to the House Lords in 1885, Ferdinand was comfortably elected to replace him. He was returned to the House of Commons — on one occasion unopposed — at every election until his death in 1898.

By the time he became an MP, Ferdinand had already begun to realize his dream for Waddesdon. He bought the farming estate — which comprised little but a bare, 600-foot high hilltop which lacked even a water supply — from the Duke of Marlborough in 1874. An epic, seven-year project commenced. Ferdinand hired a French architect who had recently worked on the 16th-century Chateau de Mouchy.

Even for Ferdinand, however, Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleur’s vision was too grandiose. Over the Frenchman’s objections — “one always builds too small” — new plans were drawn up. In the meantime, 30-foot foundations were dug, a railway was constructed to bring in building materials, and the grounds were landscaped and mature trees planted.

The Grey Drawing Room at Waddesdon Manor. (Chris Lacey (c) National Trust Waddesdon Manor)

The interior of the house matches the breathtaking exterior; “an absolutely stunning circumvention of cosiness” in the words of one contemporary journalist. Waddesdon was built for entertaining: the house was only opened in the summer months for weekend house parties. Here, Ferdinand was able to showcase his collection of 18th-century French furniture, Sevres porcelain and Beauvais tapestries, and English portraiture. Little expense was spared: Louis XV paneling from the house of the Maréchal-Duc de Richelieu and Louis XVI paneling from the home of the financier Nicolas Beaujon were, for instance, brought from Paris.

A dining room at Waddesdon Manor. (Chris Lacey (c) National Trust Waddesdon Manor)

Three years after the foundation stone was laid in 1877, the Bachelors’ Wing was completed and Ferdinand threw a small house party for seven close male friends. Above the basement kitchens, the wing contained 10 bedrooms for single male guests and 15 bedrooms for the male staff, as well as accommodation for the staff of visitors. Its billiard room contains intricately carved, dark wood paneling from the French chateau of Acquigny.

In 1883, the main house was at last ready to entertain guests, and Ferdinand invited 20 of them to stay. They wanted for nothing: 24 staff were on hand to look after them, while a French chef and Italian pastry chef traveled up from London. Beneath two sparkling chandeliers, and surrounded by marble and mirrors which have been compared to a mini-Versailles, Ferdinand could seat up to 24 guests. After dinner, the men remained in the room and drank port. The women retired to the Grey Drawing Room to listen to music, play cards and admire the three full-length portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds. The next morning, the men gathered in the Breakfast Room, while the women had breakfast in their bedrooms.

In 1889, Ferdinand conceded that his architect’s original advice had been correct and the house was extended to the west, allowing the creation of the Morning Room. Here his guests could read newspapers and write letters and telegrams, seated at one of two “Bureau du roi” — desks which had once stood in Louis XVI’s study at Versailles — surrounded by paintings by Thomas Gainsborough and the Dutch Old Masters.

If Ferdinand felt the need to escape from his guests, he could disappear into the Small Library, closing the mirrored doors and immersing himself in his collection of politics, history and literature books, many of them signed by the authors.

The Tower Drawing Room at Waddesdon Manor. (Chris Lacey (c) National Trust Waddesdon Manor)

Kings, queens, five prime ministers

The guest list for the “Saturday to Monday” house parties was exclusive. Beyond members of his family, Ferdinand often entertained the Prince of Wales — later Edward VII — and helpfully also thought to invite his mistress.

William Gladstone was another visitor, as were senior members of his cabinet. Gladstone was just one of at least five prime ministers — including Lord Rosebery (who was married to Ferdinand’s cousin, Hannah), Arthur Balfour, Henry Asquith and Winston Churchill — who visited Waddesdon.

Churchill liked to stay in the white-paneled Portico Room. It was the only bedroom with a balcony, allowing him to slip outside for a smoke and thus evade the ban imposed by Ferdinand’s sister, Alice.

The Waddesdon Manor dining room. (Chris Lacey (c) National Trust Waddesdon Manor)

Alice inherited the house from Ferdinand after he died in 1898 — his wife, Evelina, had died in childbirth 33 years earlier, a blow from which he never really recovered — and imposed strict rules. When Ferdinand’s old friend, the Prince of Wales, now Edward VII, returned to Waddesdon he asked to have the blinds raised so he could better see the paintings. Alice, however, was not bending what were known as “Miss Alice’s rules,” even for the king.

Alice de Rothschild. (Waddesdon Image Library)

In 1890, Queen Victoria asked to visit Waddesdon. She did not stay the night, but rested in the State Bedroom — a room reserved for the most important guest, often royalty — after she had traveled from Windsor Castle. The famously dour monarch was impressed: “the host was as delightful as the place was beautiful,” she wrote in her diary. The newly installed electricity also caught her eye, and she asked to have the lights turned on and off repeatedly. The conversation also appeared to be somewhat indiscreet, as Rothschild hinted: “So much only can I say, that the various statesmen not only of Great Britain but of Europe, were freely canvassed.”

The Queen gave Ferdinand a bust of herself, which now stands in the Baron’s Room, part of his private apartment in the house. It stands close to a huge rolltop desk made for the French revolutionary, playwright and diplomat Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais.

The Baron’s Room at Waddesdon Manor. (Chris Lacey (c) National Trust Waddesdon Manor)

Another royal visitor was, like Victoria, impressed by his stay at Waddesdon. The Shah of Persia delighted in watching Ferdinand’s poodle, Poupon, performing jumps up and down the East Gallery. He also loved the musical elephant automaton, which played four tunes as its part moved, and asked for it to played again and again. After the dancing elephant, he was distinctly underwhelmed by the rest of Ferdinand’s collection.

In the tiny Tower Drawing Room, Ferdinand originally kept some of the most precious items in his collection, only sharing them with select visitors. These include a small writing table made for Marie-Antoinette. In the smoking room in the Bachelor’s Wing, Ferdinand displayed what he called his “cinquecento,” 16th-century works of art, in locked cabinets.

Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild. (Waddesdon Image Library)

The new Rothschild Treasury, housed in the former servants’ quarters behind a stone archway and ironwork grille, would probably have been a very familiar concept to Ferdinand. It is a contemporary interpretation of a “Schatzkammer” — treasure rooms first created in European courts of the 16th century.

Many of the 300 objects lent by the family are on display for the first time and are deeply personal. There is a silver gilt baby set of a beaker, knife, fork and spoon bearing the monogram FR, which was given to the infant Ferdinand. A gold bracelet with a portrait of Victoria encrusted with diamonds was a gift from the Queen to her friend Alice. A mahogany chest contained the ancient coin collection which James de Rothschild, who inherited Waddesdon from his great-aunt Alice after her death in 1922, began collecting at the age of eight. It consists mainly of gold and silver Greek and Roman coins which range in date from 336 BCE to the first century CE.

The collection highlights moments of celebration for the family. A pearl tiara was a wedding gift for James’s wife, Dorothy, from her future father-in-law. Its emeralds are thought to include some which formerly belonged to Empress Eugenie of France. An extravagant silver, enamel and hardstone Renaissance revival commemoration vase was given to Ferdinand’s great-uncle, Amschel Mayer von Rothschild, and his wife, Eva, on their golden wedding anniversary by the employees at the Frankfurt branch of the Rothschild bank. The enamel plaques depict the family home in the Jewish ghetto in Frankfurt where they lived in 1796 when they were married.

The Treasury also showcases the family’s shared passion for collecting gold boxes and its sponsorship of archaeological excavations. Ancient jewellery and glass from the Middle East and a 2nd century gold engagement ring are on display. A fascination with technical ingenuity is seen in two astronomical clocks; one, made of silver and gilt bronze and dating back to the 18th century, is thought to have been acquired by Ferdinand’s father, Anselm.

A stately home like no other

Astronomical clock. (Waddesdon Image Library/Mike Fear)

Darker moments, too, are evident in the fact that 20 items still contain the inventory numbers the Nazis used after they had seized them from the French Rothschilds.

Those numbers are a reminder that Waddesdon is like no other stately home in England. Nowhere else, for instance, would you find a room devoted to telling the story of its former owners’ devotion to what would be the State of Israel.

The James and Dorothy de Rothschild room, which opened earlier this summer, charts the story back to James’ father, Baron Edmond de Rothschild, who in 1882 provided loans to support the colony of Rishon le Zion. Soon he was purchasing land for settlements himself and investing in infrastructure for them. By 1902, 19 of the 28 Jewish communities in Palestine owed their existence to the baron’s support.

James and Dorothy diligently continued Edmond’s work. They were early supporters of Chaim Weizmann, as he began his effort to convince the British government to support Zionist aspirations in Palestine. Shortly after the outbreak of World War I, Weizmann began meeting with Dorothy — her husband was by now serving in the French army — and she became, in the words of Jonathan Schneer’s study of the Balfour Declaration, “a political go-between” for the future Israeli president.

Not only did she help connect him to important members of the Rothschild family, she also made contact with potentially sympathetic members of the government.

“Through tireless but prudent social diplomacy she had managed to open avenues of influence and persuasion at a time when they were badly needed,” the historian Simon Schama has said.

The new Rothschild Treasury permanent exhibit. (Waddesdon Image Library/Mike Fear)

On leave from the army, James too met with Weizmann, urging him both to “try and influence members of the British government” and to “ask for something which… tends towards the formation of a Jewish State”; words that were music to Weizmann’s ears.

Through Dorothy and James, Weizmann was introduced to Rozsika and Charles Rothschild, the brother and sister-in-law of Walter Rothschild, a former Conservative MP. When Walter’s father, Natty, died in 1915, he inherited his seat in the House of Lords. Two years later, Balfour would address his famous letter to the now-Lord Rothschild who, upon his father’s death, had also become the unofficial leader of Britain’s Jewish community.

James himself visited Palestine for the first time in 1918, returning many more times with his parents and wife. He later became president of the Palestine Jewish Colonisation which Edmond had established to oversee his work.

After James died in 1957, Dorothy, who was 20 years his junior, established the Yad Hanadiv charitable foundation. It has invested heavily in education, environmental, academic and civil society projects in Israel, as well as work with Arab-Israelis. A bequest from James built the Knesset — “a symbol in the eyes of all men of the permanence of the State of Israel,” he hoped — while Yad Hanadiv funded the construction of the new Supreme Court building. Support from the Rothschilds also helped support countless other projects, such as the establishment of the Open University.

Waddesdon thus proudly displays scale models of the Supreme Court building and the new National Library of Israel, which Yad Hanadiv is also backing. Alongside a copy of the Balfour Declaration, various objects showing the manner in which Israel has honored the family are also on show: medals commemorating James and his father; a ceremonial key to the Knesset presented to Dorothy in 1982; and a 500 shekel note issued in 1982 to mark the centenary of the start of Edmond’s work in Palestine.

The new Rothschild Treasury permanent exhibit. (Waddesdon Image Library/Mike Fear)

Dark times, young guests

Like Ferdinand, James also served as a Liberal MP in the House of Commons and was a member of the wartime government. But, as well as using his position to raise the plight of European Jewry, James and his wife also directly helped a group of Kindertransport schoolboys escape from Frankfurt. In March 1939, 21 Jewish boys aged between eight and 13, along with their headteacher, his wife and their two daughters, arrived in Waddesdon. The refugees were housed in a large house in the village — the Cedars — and James and Dorothy were frequent visitors.

Waddesdon Manor itself housed 100 children evacuated from London once war broke out, with its owners moving into the Bachelor’s Wing.

As a recently opened room dedicated to the story of the “Cedar Boys” shows, James and Dorothy formed a lifelong bond with their wartime visitors. There are, for instance, letters from the boys after they left Waddesdon: one informs the couple of his safe arrival in Manchester, another that he is due to sail for America, a third of his voyage to Israel. In a particularly poignant letter from 1983, one of the boys explains to Dorothy why he won’t be traveling to Waddesdon for a reunion. “My only real happiness as a child was under your auspices,” he writes. “The whole truth is I do not want to lose my illusions and happy memories of Waddesdon and England… I want to remember things as they were and live with my memories.” Many others, however, returned for reunions even after Dorothy’s death in 1988.

South Front, Waddesdon Manor. (Studio 8 (c) National Trust Waddesdon Manor)

Although the house is no longer owned by the Rothschilds — James bequeathed it to the National Trust — the family remains closely tied to it. The Rothschild Foundation manages the estate on behalf of the National Trust, with the present Lord Rothschild chairing the management committee.

It is arguable that, however splendid, Waddesdon — this French chateau in the English countryside — is both somewhat whimsical and a monument to conspicuous consumption. But, as the story of its owners’ long-standing commitment to Israel and their efforts on behalf of European Jews show, behind this façade, beyond the tapestries, the wood-paneling from Parisian salons and great works of art, lays another story. It is that of a family which has also used its great wealth in the service of great causes.

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