by Roderick Conway Morris

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Waddesdon Bequest/Trustees of the British Museum
Part of the new gallery for the Waddesdon Bequest at the British Museum.

A Sleek Home at British Museum for Ferdinand's Gift

By Roderick Conway Morris
London 23 July 2015


The Waddesdon Bequest, a sumptuous donation of Renaissance and Baroque gold, silver, rock crystal, amber, enamels, ivory, majolicas and sculptures left to the British Museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild (1839-98), is the only collection of its kind to be kept together within the museum. Now, thanks to a donation from the Rothschild Foundation, the bequest has at last found a suitably stylish and permanent room at the museum.

The donation, whose amount was undisclosed, was clearly lavish, judging by the superlative quality of every detail of the new gallery. Until Ferdinand's death, the collection was housed at Waddesdon Manor, the French Renaissance-style château near London that the baron built for himself in the 1870s.

Of the many collections amassed during the 19th century by the various branches of the Rothschild family in their 45 mansions scattered across Europe, Ferdinand's is the last to remain intact. At the time of the donation, Ferdinand's fellow collector and a co-trustee of the British Museum, C.D.E. Fortnum, wrote: 'I wish he had left a good round sum of money wherewith we could build the necessary rooms.'

The fact that the baron did not condemned the collection of 256 pieces to a peripatetic existence within the British Museum and to periods of storage. The collection was last relocated in the early 1970s.

What was until 1838 the Reading Room, later a library, in the first completed wing of the museum has been returned to its Georgian elegance, furnished with state-of-the-art display cases and lighting by the architectural firm Stanton Williams. The Waddesdon Bequest room, inaugurated last month, completes a new axis within the museum, with a sight line that runs through the new Enlightenment and Collecting the World galleries, culminating in lofty open oak doors, beyond which the bequest's treasures can be seen from afar, glittering invitingly.

The models for Ferdinand's collection were the Schatzkammern (treasure rooms) or Kunstkammern (art rooms) created by German and Austrian princes and emperors at their courts in Prague, Vienna, Innsbruck, Munich, Dresden and Kassel. Ferdinand was brought up in Austria, but his mother, Charlotte, was English and an accomplished painter, interior and garden designer. At the age of 21 he decided to live in England, where he married an English cousin, Evelina, and became a member of Parliament for the Liberal Unionist Party in 1885.

The fortunes of the Rothschild dynasty were founded to a large extent on the success of the antiques business established in the Frankfurt ghetto by Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1812), which enabled the family to branch out into banking. Many of the descendants were avid and competitive collectors, especially among themselves. As Ferdinand wrote in a letter in 1874: 'Oddly enough they never admire each other's purchases and while extolling their own discrimination, ridicule the follies committed by others.'

Ferdinand inherited a considerable collection from his father, but he nearly tripled it. In 1896 he created a smoking room at Waddesdon to accommodate it. A primary inspiration for this carefully planned space were the new smoking rooms at his cousin Baron Alphonse's mansion in Paris, of which Ferdinand wrote: 'They are the very perfection of taste and arrangement and are crammed with the most beautiful things.'

The intimate and antique ambience of the smoking room at Waddesdon was in marked contrast to the more classical interiors of the rest of the manor's rooms. This is nicely echoed in the new Waddesdon Bequest room at the museum, with its blend of the old-fashioned and the new, which sets it apart from the modern and single-object display styles of much of the rest of the museum.

Three tall rhomboid-shaped cases of structural glass are indeed crammed with beautiful things but designed so that the viewer can get close and appreciate the exquisite craftsmanship of all the pieces - from enameled caskets and silver-gilt sculptures to majolica urns painted with mythological scenes and richly detailed goblets, ewers and platters. Visitors can also see, from multiple angles, through to the cases in the rest of room and the objects they contain. Other smaller pieces, such as some of the rock crystal, are set in niches in the walls, and the objects throughout are brilliantly lit to enhance their sparkling, varied colors and coruscating surfaces.

The opening of the new gallery is accompanied by the publication of 'A Rothschild Renaissance: Treasures From the Waddesdon Bequest,' a lively and lavishly illustrated new book by the collection's curator, Dora Thornton, which relates its history and highlights 40 of the rarest and most important pieces.

Among these is the Holy Thorn Reliquary, an astonishing confection of gold, precious stones, rock crystal and numerous tiny enameled figures, made around 1400 to house a supposed thorn from Christ's crown of thorns. In 1860 it was sent by the Imperial Treasury in Vienna for repair, but the unscrupulous restorer made a copy and secretly sold the original, which was later acquired by Ferdinand. That the baron had unwittingly bought the original was only confirmed in 1959, when the copy was brought to the British Museum for comparison.

Another prized piece is the Palmer Cup, a richly decorated glass drinking vessel from Syria or Egypt, dating to the early 1200s, converted by a contemporary French jeweler into a European goblet with the addition of a silver-gilt foot. A Mrs. Palmer-Morewood brought this heirloom to the British Museum in 1893 for identification, saying she had been using it as a flower vase on her piano; it was snapped up by Ferdinand when it was auctioned soon afterward.

The so-called Cellini bell, encrusted with live-cast lizards, grasshoppers, snails and foliage, once belonged to the 18th-century collector Horace Walpole, who ecstatically described it as 'the uniquest thing in the world.' The baron was skeptical that it had been made by the celebrated Italian goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini, rightly believing it to be German.

Ferdinand delighted in acquiring pieces that had once belonged to famous collections, including a lovely pair of miniature boxwood busts of Margaret of Austria and her husband, Philibert II, the duke of Savoy, which had been in Rudolf II's famous Kunstkammer in Prague. Margaret was herself a discriminating artistic patron and her 'little cabinet' of treasures was a forerunner of the grand Kunstkammern of succeeding centuries.

First published: International New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023