Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild wanted an estate where he could escape London in the summer months to entertain family and friends for weekend house parties. The Vale of Aylesbury was already known as ‘Rothschildshire’ for the number of the houses owned by the family in the area.
A marvelous transformation
‘The difficulty of building a house is insignificant compared with the labour of transforming a bare wilderness into a park.’
Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild
When he came into his inheritance in 1874 he purchased a bare agricultural estate with a misshapen cone at its center. The foundation stone was laid in 1877 and six years later the land had been transformed into a beautiful landscape by planting mature trees, bringing in the water supply from Aylesbury and removing 30 feet of soil to create the impressive approach to the house.
Ferdinand wanted the exterior of the house to be in the style of the French Renaissance châteaux of the Loire valley and engaged a French architect, Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleur. Loath to build on a palatial scale, Ferdinand, nevertheless, found that he needed to add a wing nearly half the length of the original house to the west end.
In 1883 the completion of the house was celebrated with the first of many house parties. Running water and central heating were provided from the start and electricity was introduced in 1889. Ferdinand put in a small passenger lift for Queen Victoria’s visit in 1890 (on view in the Powerhouse), but she declined to ride in it, not trusting in the magic of electricity.
Very little changed until the Second World War when the rooms were emptied to accommodate 100 children evacuated from London, the first and only time that children lived in the house.
From secluded estate to tourist attraction
After the war James de Rothschild became increasingly concerned about the future of Waddesdon. He decided to bequeath Waddesdon to the National Trust, with a large part of the collections and an area of garden. The Trust was not complimentary about the architecture, but considered the collections as superlative.
James also left the largest endowment the Trust has ever received, for the continued upkeep of the property. This ensured that the house remained intact as the only example of the famous ‘Rothschild style’ of the 19th century and that it could be visited by the public.
His widow, Dorothy, oversaw the opening of the house to the public in 1959 and chaired the management committee until her death in 1988.
Shortly before her death, she began a survey into the state of the roof. Lord Rothschild, her heir, expanded the project into a complete renovation of the house and its services. The house was closed and emptied in 1990 and the first floor only opened again in 1995.
During this time the Wine Cellars were created, the dilapidated Dairy was rebuilt, and the formal planting of the Parterre was restored to its extravagant 19th-century appearance.
The Rothschild Foundation continues to manage the property on behalf of the National Trust, as well as providing the majority of the funding.
Highlights of the house
The first sight of Waddesdon transports you to France.
Where else can you find a French Renaissance château, inspired by those in the Loire valley, built by a Rothschild in the 19th century, and filled with royal treasures and many objects with an exceptional story to tell?
The marvellous elephant
The marvellous mechanical elephant, whose parts move while it plays, is the favourite of many of our visitors. It captivated Baron Ferdinand’s guests including the Shah of Persia, who asked for it to be wound again and again. The mechanism is fragile but you can see it in action on special monthly tours or watch this video.
You can follow it on Twitter @WMelephant
Baron Ferdinand, who built Waddesdon, was also fascinated by 18th-century France. He used a French architect who created rooms using wall panels taken from Parisian houses of the 1700s. Here in the Green Boudoir, they are carved with dragons, butterflies, and monkeys imitating humans.
A weekend party house
Waddesdon was created to impress. It was only used on summer weekends to entertain Baron Ferdinand’s friends and family. The mirrors and marble of the Dining Room evoke a mini Versailles. The richly decorated table is set for a party of 24, just as it was in his day.
The Rothschilds were famous for their hospitality and had many dinner services, like this French one. Over 400 pieces of porcelain to serve 24 people. Even though it was a royal gift from King Louis XV to an Austrian prince in 1766, it was still used by the family until the 1980s.
Important French 18th-century decorative arts
The house is full of 18th-century French objects, of exceptional quality and history: here a delicate desk made for Queen Marie-Antoinette, another for King Louis XV’s daughter and a carpet from the chapel in the palace of Versailles. Above the fireplace is a vase in the shape of a ship made by the royal Sèvres porcelain factory. Only 10 examples exist and Baron Ferdinand owned three of them.
Painted ladies: 18th-century British portraits
Ferdinand’s private sitting room above is exactly as it was in the 1890s, crowded but cosy, with old and new furniture, small treasures, flowers and family photographs. He must have enjoyed catching the eyes of the beautiful women, many of them actresses, hanging on the walls. They were painted by famous British artists of the 1700s, like Reynolds, Gainsborough, and Romney.
Arms and armour
Male guests enjoyed the Smoking and Billiard Rooms in the Bachelors’ Wing. Many visitors are surprised that much of the collection of arms and armour in the corridor was bought by Ferdinand’s sister, Alice.
The ‘Renaissance Museum’
Ferdinand kept his ‘Renaissance Museum’, his most prized collection of precious objects from the 1500s and 1600s, here. He left it to the British Museum in his will, where it can be seen as The Waddesdon Bequest. Similar pieces collected by other members of the family have taken its place in the Smoking Room.
The sound of clocks ticking and chiming surrounds you in the house. There are 56 in all, at least one in every room. Nearly all are in working order and some even play music as well. It takes over an hour to wind them each week.
New and old
Time moves on and Waddesdon still adds to its collections. This chandelier was specially commissioned in 2003 by Lord Rothschild for the Blue Dining Room, with its walls of 18th-century carved paneling. It is made of smashed china and is called Porca Miseria.
The Wine Cellars at Waddesdon were created in 1994 to celebrate the association of the Rothschild family with some of the finest wines in the world for more than 100 years.
The Rothschilds and Bordeaux wine
Bordeaux was exporting its red wine as early as the 13th century. Large quantities were sent to England, where the wine was known as claret. By the early 1700s wines from single estates or vineyards were singled out as being some of the best.
For the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1855, 62 of the best Bordeaux wines were chosen from the several thousand produced in the region. These top wines were divided into five classes or growths (crus in French).
In first place, at the top of the top group, was the wine from Château Lafite.
Baron James de Rothschild (1792-1868) tried to buy Lafite for several decades and only managed to do so a few months before his death in 1868. As with his art collection, James wanted only the finest wine to serve at his table.
The estate of Mouton, also in Bordeaux, was bought by his English son-in-law in 1853. Mouton was classified as the first wine in the second group.
Baron Philippe de Rothschild (1922-1988) successfully contested the classification and managed to place Château Mouton Rothschild into the top group in 1973.
Waddesdon’s Wine Cellars
The vaults at Waddesdon hold 15,000 bottles of historic wines, dating back to 1868. They are modelled on the private cellars at Château Lafite Rothschild and are the largest private collection of Rothschild wine in the world.
Over the years a collection of works of art related to wine has been assembled, such as the figure of Bacchus, god of wine, by John Cheere from about 1740.
Also on display in the cellars are some of the designs for Mouton Rothschild wine labels. Baron Philippe established the custom of inviting an important contemporary artist to design the label for each year’s Mouton vintage. In 2004, the artist was HRH Charles, Prince of Wales, to mark the centenary of the Entente Cordiale between the two nations.
You can visit the Wine Cellars as part of your grounds ticket admission to Waddesdon Manor. We also run daily talks when the house is open.
From 22 Mar-29 Oct 2017, Wed-Sun
Join expert-led, daily 20-minute talks in the Wine Cellars and discover the history of the Rothschilds and their wines. The vaults hold 15,000 wine bottles and an impressive statue of Bacchus, god of wine. Free with grounds admission.
These floorplans and the handset tour guide will help you plan your visit inside the house. You can download and print them or view on your mobile device.
Handset tour guide
Handsets with hour tour guides are available to hire at the main entrance of the house for £3 per handset. They are available in English, French, German and Mandarin, and for families.
Ground floor rooms
First and second floor rooms
The first floor contains both exhibition spaces as well as dining and bedrooms, with more exhibition space and drawing rooms up on the second floor.
Running the house
For over a century, the priority at Waddesdon has been to care for the house and its collections – and to welcome guests.
Looking after the Manor
In 1891, 24 indoor staff were recorded at Waddesdon – a modest figure for a house this size, but explained by the fact that it was the home of two unmarried people who also lived in London and abroad.
They included a steward, housekeeper, cook, kitchen, still room and scullery maids, eight housemaids, footmen, a porter, an attendant for the electric light, an odd job man, a hall boy and a needlewoman. Eight more staff were based at the Laundry and the Dairy and a further 16 at the Stables, including grooms and coachmen. The numbers of indoor staff would double when there was a house party and Baron Ferdinand’s French chef and Italian pastry-chef came down from London.
Staff were kept discreetly hidden from guests as they went about their daily duties. The two main spiral staircases were used by visitors, as they are today. The lift was used only for luggage. Six other staircases were for the servants and they were carpeted to ensure that their movements did not disturb the guests.
Baron Ferdinand did install a small passenger lift near the west entrance in anticipation of Queen Victoria’s visit in 1890. She declined to ride in it, however, not trusting in the newly-introduced electricity. This lift was one of the earliest in English country houses and can be seen in the Powerhouse.
Male and female servants’ accommodation was separate, with women on the second floor of the main house and the men on the second floor of the Bachelors’ Wing. Visitors’ lady’s maids slept in the small bedrooms on the north side of the bedroom corridor. The height of these rooms was half that of the visitors’ bedrooms, so they are stacked one above the other. The northern side of the corridor was considered less attractive as it did not have views over the magnificent Parterre and park.
The domestic service areas were on the ground floor of the Bachelors’ Wing and in the basement below. The original kitchen is now the front room of the Manor Restaurant. The large servants’ hall is the back room. Food was brought to the pantry (located behind the Breakfast Room on the ground floor) along the service corridor before being served.
Caring for the collection today
Miss Alice’s housekeeping rules form much of the basis of National Trust conservation guidelines. She did not allow even King Edward VII to touch the furniture.
The Rothschilds at Waddesdon
Four Rothschilds have been responsible for the creation, care and development of Waddesdon.
From their origins in Frankfurt’s Jewish ghetto, the Rothschilds became the most powerful banking family of the 19th century. The five brothers, symbolised by the five arrows on the coat of arms, set up a multinational bank in Europe’s financial capitals.
A European Rothschild
Marriages within the family were not uncommon and Baron Ferdinand (1839-1898), who built Waddesdon, was a typical pan-European Rothschild. His father was from the Viennese branch and his mother was an English Rothschild. He was born in Paris and raised in Frankfurt and Vienna.
He moved permanently to England in 1860 and married his cousin, Evelina of the English branch. Sadly Evelina and their child died in childbirth just a year later, in 1866.
Ferdinand devoted his energy to travel and collecting works of art, first furnishing his London residence at 142 Piccadilly, then Waddesdon Manor.
He was intrigued by history, particularly of 18th-century France, and wrote about and lectured on a variety of subjects. His social circle spanned from the royal – the Prince of Wales and the Marlborough House set – to historians, explorers and writers. Politicians were often guests as well, as he became MP for Aylesbury in 1885 and was a trustee of the British Museum.
The protector of Waddesdon
Ferdinand left his estate to his youngest unmarried sister, Alice (1847-1922). She was only 12 when their mother died and was raised by their eldest sister, Mathilde, in Frankfurt. After Evelina’s death, Alice also moved to England and often acted as Ferdinand’s hostess. She lived in a house adjacent to his in London and bought a country estate bordering Waddesdon.
She regarded herself as the protector of Ferdinand’s inheritance and is famous for establishing ‘Miss Alice’s Rules’ – guidelines for the care and preservation of the collections which even today form the foundation for those of the National Trust.
She enjoyed collecting, and much of the arms and armour in the collection was bought by her, but her great passion was gardening. The Waddesdon Archives preserve an extraordinary correspondence with her head gardener on all sorts of minute details.
An unexpected inheritance
Alice left Waddesdon and her estate at Eythrope to her great-nephew James de Rothschild (1878-1957) of Paris. He was Mathilde’s grandson and his mother was Alice’s favourite niece. James married an Englishwoman, Dorothy Pinto, and became a naturalized British citizen.
His main passion was horse racing and he established the Waddesdon stud. He and Dorothy did not collect much art but Waddesdon was enriched by James’s inheritance of a third of his father’s collection from Paris, which was one of the most significant of all of the family’s collections. He did commission Leon Bakst to paint the series of the Sleeping Beauty paintings for his London residence, which is now at Waddesdon.
Like Ferdinand, he was also an MP, for the Isle of Ely from 1929, and actively continued his father’s work with early Jewish settlements in Palestine and Israel.
A new beginning
James’s health declined after the Second World War and, being childless, he needed to plan for the future of Waddesdon. He decided to leave the house, most of the important collections and the grounds around the house to the National Trust. A management committee was established, to be chaired by a family member and a large endowment ensured the family’s continued financing of the operations.
For nearly 30 years, Dorothy chaired the committee and oversaw the opening of the house to the public.
At her death in 1988, she left the responsibility for Waddesdon to Jacob, Lord Rothschild (b. 1936), already a leading figure in the world of art and culture. A successful financier who had left the family bank to establish his own financial business, he was deeply interested in heritage and the arts. He chaired the boards of the National Gallery and the National Heritage Lottery Fund. He restored Spencer House in London and masterminded the five-year restoration of Waddesdon from 1990 to 1995. His significant contributions have been recognized with the award of the Order of Merit in 2002.
Under his leadership, the Rothschild Foundation now manages Waddesdon on behalf of the National Trust, and has continued to add to the collections, with both 18th-century and contemporary art. He also has the Rothschild gene for building and oversaw the complete restoration of the Dairy, the creation of the Coach House Gallery at the Stables, and the construction of the Windmill Hill complex and the Flint House.