Monday, 30 November -0001

THE WADDESDON BEQUEST

In 1898, a Renaissance treasure trove was given to the British Museum. Now in a new gallery, it has the chance to shine.

Written by James Crawford Smith
In a small Buckinghamshire village west of Aylesbury there stands a gargantuan monument to good taste. A monument so impressively stylised it wouldn’t look out of place in Renaissance France, which was of course Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild’s intention when building his new home – Waddesdon Manor.

No expense was spared in the creation of the fantastical property, and in the Rothschild way it was to be a grand showcase for the wealth of artefacts its owner possessed. Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, like many Rothschilds before him, was a collector. After inheriting his father’s already renowned collection of objets d’art, Ferdinand created an environment worthy of its splendour.

After he had filled Waddesdon Manor with suites of furniture and tapestries from France and Italy, it was, in its time, one of the grandest homes in all of England, welcoming the brightest personalities of the day. One of the most renowned and triumphant rooms of the house was the New Smoking Room, to which Ferdinand and his gentlemen guests would adjourn after dinner for brandy and cigars.

Waddesdon-Jul17-02-590A collection of the bequest on display in the gallery

The room had another, more cultured use during Ferdinand’s time at his home; it was also where he housed a priceless collection of treasures, modelled after the art collections assembled by Renaissance princes. Comprising Renaissance and some medieval pieces, alongside some 19th-century fakes, it included, in his own words, ‘plate, enamel, bijouterie, carvings in boxwood, majolica, glass, arms and armour.’

Ferdinand de Rothschild took pride in his collections and was concerned as to what would happen to his wondrous acquisitions and home once he died, having no heir. He wrote, ‘I fear that Waddesdon will share the fate of most properties whose owners have no descendants, and fall into decay. May the day be yet distant when weeds will spread over the gardens, the terraces crumble into dust, the pictures and cabinets cross the Channel or the Atlantic, and the melancholy cry of the night-jar sound from the deserted towers.’

He had no idea what would become of the home he left to his unmarried sister on his death in 1898, some 10 years after its completion. For his treasures at least he had a concrete plan. The objects displayed in the New Smoking Room were to be catalogued and bequeathed to the British Museum, the collection being named the Waddesdon Bequest.

The terms of Ferdinand’s bequest stipulated that no piece was to be lent to other museums and that the entirety of the collection was to remain on show in a separate, dedicated room – not an unreasonable demand, considering it is arguably the finest collection of Renaissance artefacts anywhere in the world. The British Museum has remained faithful to the Baron’s wishes, and this year, following a generous donation from The Rothschild Foundation, the collection was rehoused in a new, larger gallery on the ground floor, which opened last month.

Waddesdon-Jul17-03-590Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild relaxes with his dog Poupon in the Baron's room

Walking through the Enlightenment Gallery, one is now met with an unbroken view down the length of the museum. Light pours in via the windows with the cavernous hall leading visitors past a wide range of curios to a room called Collecting The World, before they finally reach Room 2a.

Formerly known as the Middle Room, the space served as the museum’s original Reading Room – it is now lined with bronze panelling – and formed part of the British Library before that became a separate entity. Now it is the new high-tech home of the Waddesdon Bequest, greeting visitors with high-resolution video footage of Waddesdon Manor.

Displayed in complementary groupings in transparent cases with anti-glare glass, the artefacts truly dazzle. Video displays in the gallery offer an in-depth look at some of the objects, and CA T scans of the boxwood tabernacle and 3D models also aid the visitor in understanding their significance.


A series of educational talks on the bequest will take place throughout the year, and a book accompanying the opening of the new gallery, A Rothschild Renaissance: Treasures From The Waddesdon Bequest, by the curator Dora Thornton, is out now.

FIVE OF THE BEST OF THE BEQUEST

Waddesdon-Jul17-TOP5-590


The Lyte Jewel
Presented to courtier and genealogist Thomas Lyte by King James I, the Lyte Jewel is an enamelled gold locket containing a miniature of the king painted by Nicholas Hilliard. With a front cover studded with diamonds that form the initials IR, for Iacobus Rex, it is shown worn by Lyte in a 1611 portrait by an anonymous artist. The Lyte Jewel is displayed in the new gallery with a video detailing various aspects of the precious piece.

Ostrich egg flask
This unusual, ornate powder flask is constructed around an ostrich egg, and while it may not have seen any
action, it remains one of the most intricate pieces in the collection. Made in Germany in the late 16th century, and featuring silver-gilt mounts, it is a superb example of the goldsmith's art. Ostrich eggs have been prized for their purity and colour since ancient times, and clearly appealed to Baron Ferdinand, who had an interest in rare and exotic birds.

The Holy Thorn Reliquary
Featuring gold, enamel, rock crystal and gems, this reliquary was made in Paris around 1400 to
hold a thorn taken from a crown allegedly worn by Jesus Christ at his crucifixion; the thorn it contains (which may be a replacement) is mounted in the centre behind a sapphire. The front view depicts the Last Judgement, with a figure of Christ displaying his wounds, seated atop a rainbow with the Virgin Mary and St John the Baptist kneeling beside.

The Mermaid jewel
Made before 1857, this jewel-encrusted pendant in the shape of a mermaid is an excellent example of the newer pieces in the Waddesdon Bequest. The pendant features 24 cabochon emeralds, and opens to reveal an empty compartment. Although similar designs existed in the 16th century, various features identify it as belonging to the 19th. This later piece in the collection serves as a snapshot of a particular period, when a new dynasty was fashioning its own identity.

Seychelles nut ewer
This late 16th-century ewer is formed from half of the nut of a double coconut palm. Believed during the Renaissance to grow under the ocean, these nuts were thought to possess mysterious powers as an antidote to poison. The ewer features a monstrous animal headas the spout, and has a snake, a lizard, a grasshopper and fighting sea monsters depicted in gold on the foot and base.




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