Welcome to the home of Jewish aristocracy

Lord Rothschild, a member of the famous banking family, on charity, celebrity and sitting for Lucian Freud


By Julia Weiner, May 13, 2010
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The Rothschild family home, Waddesdon Manor, is like a French chateau set down in the Buckinghamshire countryside . Now owned by the National Trust, 350,000 people visit it every year

The Rothschild family home, Waddesdon Manor, is like a French chateau set down in the Buckinghamshire countryside . Now owned by the National Trust, 350,000 people visit it every year

A few miles along the A41, north of Aylesbury, lies a stretch of pretty English countryside that used to be home to the most famous Jewish family in Britain. It was here that Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild bought an estate in 1874 and built Waddesdon Manor, a magnificent Renaissance-style chateau. He chose the location because four of his uncles and cousins had properties nearby - a concentration of family members which led to area being dubbed "Rothschildshire".

None of the family lives at Waddesdon Manor any more and the building is now owned by the National Trust - last year it was the organisation's third most visited property. But Waddesdon Manor is managed by a Rothschild family trust, and head of that trust is Lord Jacob Rothschild. "I came here for the first time when I was 21, when Waddesdon was being handed over to the NT," he says. "Then my late cousin Dorothy asked me to be a trustee of the house."

When Dorothy died in 1988, she left Lord Rothschild the rest of the estate as well as the responsibility of continuing her work of managing the manor. He chose not to move into the house. "It is too big. And with 350,000 visitors a year it would not be an easy house to live in." He instead lives nearby at Eythrope in a home built for Baron Ferdinand's sister, Alice.

Since he took over, Lord Rothschild has overseen the restoration of the house begun by his cousin, and has acquired important additions to its renowned collection of art treasures - a collection that has its origins in much humbler circumstances.

Lord Rothschild

Lord Rothschild

"Of course, it all started right back in the ghetto with Mayer Amschel [the Frankfurt-born founder of the Rothschild banking dynasty] being a coin collector and dealer," Lord Rothschild says. "Then when the family made money, they built 44 houses and had to fill them and became very avid collectors." Lord Rothschild has his own collection: "I started when I was pretty young and have an eclectic range of tastes," he says. But he is particularly proud of what he has brought to Waddesdon. "It is not an easy house to collect for," he admits. "It is already full, with some 25,000 works of art in it. There is not much wall space left."

Among his acquisitions are a series by the great Jewish artist and designer Leon Bakst, best known for his works on the Ballet Russes. "That of course was a very important acquisition for us," he says. "My cousin James left France, in part because of the Dreyfus Affair. He fell in love with an English girl, decided to live in England but when he left Paris he wanted to have members of his family in Paris and his friends depicted in the paintings." Bakst was asked to carry out this commission and suggested he paint the family, friends and even staff and pets in a series of works showing the ballet of the Sleeping Beauty.

"The paintings were in his dining room in 23 St James's Place and, under his will, they were left to the Tel Aviv Museum. They were much more appropriate at Waddesdon where they are a vital family document, so I approached the director of the museum and bought them."

There are some contemporary works already at Waddesdon including a portrait of Lord Rothschild by Lucian Freud. What was it like to sit for Freud? "We'd been friends for 40 years but when he asked me to sit for him I regarded it as a great compliment," he says. "We spent an awful long time talking rather than him painting, which was fascinating. He is great company, terribly intelligent and I learnt an enormous amount from him. I sat between seven and eight in the morning and I don't know how I did it for nearly three years, going two or three times a week. I couldn't do it again!"

In contrast, a portrait of the lord with his daughter, Hannah, by David Hockney took just three hours.

To add a new dimension to Waddesdon's collection, Lord Rothschild is now introducing work by contemporary artists. "I think we are living in a period when visitors are particularly interested in contemporary art and we thought we should make some response to that," he explains. To that end, Jeff Koons's 6ft high stainless steel Cracked Egg is being installed, while renowned Brazilian designers, the Campana Brothers, are exhibiting a range of furniture and chandeliers.

Lord Rothschild feels that the Campana Brothers fit in well at Waddesdon. "The Rothschilds wanted big chandeliers so what they did at times was to cannibalise 18th-century chandeliers with 19th-century crystal to make them bigger. So it is in line with the tradition of the house that we should make not completely conventional chandeliers."

Away from his interest in art, Lord Rothschild is chair of two family charitable foundations, Yad Hanadiv (Monument of the Benefactor) in Israel, which has a staff of 30 based in Jerusalem; and the Rothschild Foundation (Europe) which will be based at Waddesdon and supports Jewish communities in Europe. "I have just got back from a week in Israel for Yad Hanadiv meetings," he says, fulfilling a commitment to carrying on another family tradition - Yad Hanadiv has its roots in the work carried out by Baron Edmond beginning in 1882.

"He was the one who took Russian Jews to Palestine. He was the first real Zionist in our family. His son James carried on his work and donated the money which funded the building of the Knesset, and then James's widow, Dorothy, set up Yad Hanadiv. She left responsibility for it to a large extent to me and it is now a big affair. We built the Supreme Court and we are about to embark on a very, very important project, the National Library. The Israeli government has given the best site we could have to build on, which is next door to the Knesset.

"Of course a National Library in times like these when so much has changed because of digitalisation and the internet is a different landscape even to what it would have been just a few years ago. Planning that landscape will have an impact on the whole intellectual and cultural future of Israel, so it is a very important project."

Arab communities in Israel also receive funding from Yad Hanadiv. "We pay attention to the Arab minority in Israel," he emphasises.

Lord Rothschild is proud of his Jewish identity though he admits he is not "particularly observant.

"If you look at the work we are doing in Israel and the work we are doing for Jewish communities in Europe, these take up a very large amount of my time. I would therefore say I am very active in a lay sense with Jewish affairs and particularly active in Israel. I am a great believer in and supporter of Israel."

He points out that he has made sure that Jewish life at Waddesdon is represented in the display given over to documenting the family's relationship with Israel. "We are putting quite a lot of emphasis on that crucially important part of our lives," he stresses.

He recognises that being a Rothschild can weigh heavily. "It is an enormous amount to live up to. There are an enormous number of responsibilities, which I try to discharge with pleasure, but there are a lot of them so it does not leave very much time for other things. It is a great responsibility - but there are great advantages. I am extremely proud of the Rothschild heritage."

Glass Experiences: The Campana Brothers is at Waddesdon Manor until October 31. Jeff Koons: Cracked Egg (Blue) will be on view from 19th May. Details at www.waddesdon.org.uk

    Last updated: 11:19am, May 13 2010