Lord Rothschild: Why I brought King David home

The banking family scion explains to Tanya Gold why Il Guercino's masterpiece now hangs proudly at Waddesdon Manor


Lord Rothschild pictured at Waddesdon Manor. Pictured behind - Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, known as Guercino (1591-1666), King David, 1651. A new loan to Waddesdon for 2023. On display in the Red Ante Room. Byline John Nguyen/JNVisuals 12/04/2023

Lord Rothschild stands in an upper room at Waddesdon Manor and looks at Il Guercino’s King David, a Baroque masterpiece that arrived here this spring.

The king looks pensive and burdened: the gaudy robes he wears seem like an afterthought, signifying nothing.

I think Il Guercino, an Italian, understood Jewish striving, and I wonder if Rothschild thinks that too.

David holds a stone inscribed with a verse from Psalm 86, which Rothschild translates for me: “Glorious things are spoken of thee, O city of God.”

“There are very few portraits of King David as a king on his own,” he says.

“There are lots of King David slaying Goliath and lots of him playing the harp.

"But very few — what I would call — big formal portraits. It’s a real masterpiece and it belongs somehow to Waddesdon Manor more than anywhere else.”

There’s no doubting the personal significance of this moment for Lord Rothschild. For one, it is an expression of his intimate relationship with great art and artists. He was a trustee of the National Gallery, was taught art history by Lucian Freud — informally, while sitting for a portrait by the painter.

But the symbolism goes much further. Rothschild is tall and graceful and, as I listen to him, I think of Simon Sebag Montefiore telling me that diaspora Jews reflect their time and place.

“And I thought,” he continues, “given the long-standing connections we have had with the state of Israel and the Jewish community here that it would be a wonderful thing if it could come here. It was a difficult choice, but we made it.”

King David’s journey to Waddesdon — passing through series of great houses — befits its quality. It was painted in 1651 and passed to the Spencer family in 1768, who hung it at Althorp, their country house.

Rothschild bought it in 2010, and moved it to Spencer House in London, which he leased from Lord Spencer for the Rothschild Investment Trust, from which he has retired. It hung in the Great Room, though I would hang it in my office.

Rothschild is a direct descendant of Mayer Amschel Rothschild, the Frankfurt-based coin dealer who sent his five sons to the capital cities of Europe to establish a revolutionary banking dynasty: the Rothschild coat of arms contains five arrows for five sons.

If you haven’t read a history of the family, you should. I read one the day I had a minor antisemitism-related Twitter storm and, reading of the audacity — the ingenuity — of this brilliant family, I laughed my head off.

The Rothschilds are a paradigm of the Jewish diaspora, just more gilded than is common. They are great philanthropists, and advocates for Jews. Jewish children were brought to Waddesdon village from Nazi Germany, and Rothschilds were central to the founding of the Jewish state.

If they are more abused than non-Jewish capitalists, that is the Jewish condition: the fearful mirror. I suspect Rothschild is reticent by nature, but art can speak too.

Waddesdon is late-Victorian, built in the French neo-Renaissance style, but later, and more comfortably: Rothschilds offered an ideal of living to their non-Jewish neighbours.

“They wanted to be in the right place,” Rothschild tells me, when I ask if it is true that they followed their friend Benjamin Disraeli to Buckinghamshire after he bought Hughenden Manor.

“With all these Rothschild houses they were bought from the British upper classes who resented them a lot — doing what they did and buying up everything — but it was the right place to be.” His great-uncle James bequeathed Waddesdon Manor to the National Trust in 1957, but the Rothschild Foundation manages it.

I have not seen paintings of this quality outside national museums — there are two amazing Guardis of Venice on the ground floor, and an exquisite Watteau — but he takes me to the room where the Jewish artefacts are kept.

“That picture,” he says, pointing at an enormous canvas, “I commissioned. It’s one of the Rothschild family, starting in the ghetto in the middle” — I see the famous House of the Green Shield on the Judengasse in Frankfurt, where Mayer’s wife Gutle lived until her death — “then the five sons and then around them the 40 houses they built in the 19th century as a record of what they had in their heyday”.

The painting is delicate and idyllic, a fancy. Houses rest on the branches of trees; it looks like a garden of houses. He shows me a model of the Knesset, which James funded, and a model of the Israeli Supreme Court, which was begun by James’ widow, Dorothy, and completed by Jacob.

“Then the third building we’ve done is the [National] Library [of Israel], which has been going on now for 25 years, and will probably open — all being well — in October of this year.”

Next, he shows me a portrait of “the characters involved in the building of the Supreme Court. Rabin, Teddy Kollek, Isaiah Berlin and various other characters.” They are high on a wall, and indistinct: from Waddesdon, Israel could be a world away. His first visit to Israel in 1961, he says, was with Berlin. “I went with him and with Nicolas Nabokov [the musician and writer] and we went round kibbutzes listening to music. So, I was enchanted, and became deeply involved, and grew to love Israel from then on.” He would prefer not to speak about current events in Israel, he says, but he does show me the portrait.

The last room he shows me is the Bakst Room, which is hung with a series of paintings depicting Sleeping Beauty.

He explains that James walked around Bond Street until he found a dealer who could recommend a Jewish artist to paint his family. It was Léon Bakst “who became famous as part of the Diaghilev group”.

“Bakst said, ‘I will paint your family but I am fiendishly busy so I can only paint them in Sleeping Beauty, which is the ballet I am doing’. So these are the Rothschilds in Sleeping Beauty.” It doesn’t feel odd, not here.

"When James died, he left them to the Israel Museum. “I went to see them, and I said, ‘That’s a pity, we’d love to show them at Waddesdon.’

“We had a long negotiation and they sold them to us.” He laughs, slightly. “So here they are, which is where they should be.”

His stewardship of Waddesdon has changed the character of the collection, “quite significantly”. It was famous for its 18th-century British portraiture: walls of perfect paintings by Reynolds and Gainsborough. Is this showing the neighbours how to live?

He added Jean-Simeon Chardin’s Boy Building a House of Cards — 14 Rothschild Chardins were destroyed when a bomb fell on Bath in 1942 — and Canaletto’s The Capitoline Hill, Rome. Joana Vasconcelos’s monumental Wedding Cake — a ceramic three-tier pavilion in pink and green — will open in the grounds in June.

“I’m afraid I’m unfocused as a collector,” he says, “all over the place. I’m an avid looker, an obsessive looker.” He says he sold his grandfather’s stamp collection, which was left to him, to buy a “beautiful Giacometti” and his father Victor was furious.

“You like Auerbach?” he asks me. I do. I like his tenderness. “I’ve collected Frank Auerbach’s work for 60 years,” he says.

“They don’t read [fit] very easily with here.” Auerbach, the Kindertransport child about whom Rothschild’s daughter Hannah made the definitive documentary To The Studio, works from a Camden studio, looking inwards. Waddesdon is a different kind of art. Auerbach once rang him up, he says, and said: “Jacob, what is a pension fund?”

Since I would rather ask about his painter friends than try to extract views on sadder matters, I ask him: is it true Lucian Freud had a key to the National Gallery?

“He didn’t have a key,” he corrects me, “he might have said he had a key, but he didn’t. But you could ring the doorbell and get in, he had a pass to come in at any time — and used it.”

He knew Freud well, because he “spent between 7 and 8 in the morning with him, being painted by him, for no less than three years.

Three times a week. He talked a lot, I was allowed to talk, he liked gossip. He educated me about old master paintings.

He said he wanted to paint me, so I was flattered, I was interested. I learnt a great deal because of him.”

He also knows David Hockney, who painted him: it hangs here. “He [Hockney] rang me one day,” he says, “and said, ‘Who are you in a relationship with? I want to paint the two of you.’

I said, ‘I’m not really in a relationship with anyone particularly.’”

He laughs again. Hockney pressed him: “‘You must have somebody?’ ‘What about my daughter Hannah?’ So that’s Hannah and me by Hockney.” In the Hockney, Rothschild’s arms are crossed: he looks down.

As I leave, he gives me a postcard of King David. “If you take the history of the Rothschilds,” he says, “they have been a true Jewish family. To have that painting here has great meaning to us as a family and to the property. It’s something of a pinnacle.

"And so,” he continues, “I think it will be a considerable visitor attraction and underlines the strength of our feeling for the State of Israel.”

Few people speak in art, but he does. You should come and see it.

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