Waddesdon Manor: an extravanganza, over the top, but also wonderful, fun, beautiful and full of treasure. With all its references to art and architectural history it oozes heritage; but of course the whole thing is an art collection housed in a French chateau-styled pastiche. The ‘history’ of the building ‘only’ goes back 134 years. But why not enjoy ourselves and wrap ourselves in everything that is luxurious, everything that is art and beauty.
The exterior of the Manor is clearly inspired by the 16th century French Loire castles such as Chateau Chambord, Maintenon and Chenonseau. Waddesdon was designed by the french architect Gabriel Hippolyte Destailleur (1822 –1893) who had been working on the restoration of the French Renaissance chateaux and so was well versed in the style.
It certainly has the feel of a much older French chateau and all of its grandeur. Its spiral staircase towers (a motif taken from Chateau Chambord), and round corner towers (see Chateau Maintenon) are very effectful. Yet the Manor was built from scratch on a site where there was nothing but a steep hill in Buckinghamshire.
The foundation stone was laid in 1877 and it took 6 years to build the main building. It had electricity, a small lift, running water and central heating: all quite novel features at the time. Queen Victoria came for lunch in 1890 out of sheer curiosity. She was certainly impressed, as she requested the lights to be switched on and off numerous times, just to see the effect. She also sent over her chef to learn the recipes from Waddesdon’s chef as she clearly enjoyed her lunch. The food at Waddesdon was apparently legendary.
The whole house was built by Baron Ferdinand de Rothchild (1839 – 1898), part of the famous banking family De Rothchilds, as a party house. In the 19th century the Rothchilds were the richest family in the world with houses and palaces all over Europe. It was intended to only be open at the weekends to hosts lavish parties (the house has plenty of guest rooms) and to show off Ferdinand’s amazing collection of art and historic objects.
Ferdinand and his sister, to whom he left the place after his death, as as well as his cousin Edmond were the main collectors of the Waddesdon collection. Wandering through the house and browsing the wonderful online collection it is amazing to realise they gathered this huge and precious collection in such a relatively short space of time. Many aristocratic families will have taken centuries to bring together such an impressive collection, if at all. (see for example the Cavendish family of Welbeck Abbey)
French 17th and 18th Century Art
There are a lot of objects from 17th and 18th century France in the collection, such as Sèvres porcelain, furniture, mirrors, carpets and tapestries. Many of the carpets, for example, are from a huge set ordered by King Louis XIV for the Louvre Palace in the late 17th century.
Dutch Old Masters
The Rothchilds also collected Dutch 17th century art as well as plenty of works by British painters such as Reynolds and Gainsborough. Some of my highlights were a stunning Gerrit Dou, Ter Borch and a Metsu. Most of these Dutch old masters were bought by Ferdinand de Rothchild in 1897 from the famous Dutch art collector family Six van Hillegom (irrelevant detail; I grew up close to Hillegom, which is now in the middle of the bulb flower area).
There was a slightly silly display of some 19th century lace, in an ugly and old fashioned frame with a note next to it saying there is a collection of lace…. They must have hung that small display in that tiny corridor just as a tease for me … (just kidding!). Who knows, they might put their lace collection on display some time soon.
The Waddesdon Experience
Waddesdon sweeps you off your feet. The Waddesdon experience is, as it must have been to its guests at the time, impressive. Everywhere you look there is glamour and glitter. After the entrance vestibule guests would have come into the lavish Red Drawing Room, where they would step onto a Louis XIV carpet and be surrounded by Gainsborough portraits on the wall. Moving on, everyone who entered the dining room with me, gasped. It is like a film set of Versailles, but then not quite. Its theatrical setting wows everyone who enters. The long galleries are full of curiosities and art. The beautiful spiral staircases lead to the bedroom floor where right at the end of it all we can admire the latest wonders: Two large late 16th century portraits from the Rothchild collection that only recently have been attributed to the famous miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard. More on these in my next blog post on Friday.
WADDESDON MANOR, AYLESBURY, BUCKINGHAMSHIRE, HP18 0JH
Further Reading (aff. links):