Country Life

A very modern collector

The retiring banker on continuing his family’s tradition of artistic innovation


Jacob, 4th Baron Rothschild, talks to Clive Aslet about his latest initiative at Waddesdon

Here we have a connoisseu­r who is eager to embrace the latest technology

THIS month, aged 83, Jacob Rothschild stands down from his position as chairman of RIT Capital Partners, the investment trust he founded in 1961. A visit to Waddesdon Manor, the Rothschild palace outside Aylesbury in Buckingham­shire, however, suggests that he will have plenty to fill his retirement.

Banking is not the only family trait: the Rothschild­s are famous collectors (as well as racehorse owners and wine growers). Lord Rothschild, who bought the art dealers Colnaghi in 1970 and transforme­d the National Gallery during his 1985–91 chairmansh­ip, claims not to be such an active buyer as he used to be, yet some things are simply too good, or too appropriat­e, to miss. His latest acquisitio­n, made through the Rothschild Foundation, is a complete set of the 60 etchings by Madame de Pompadour; she had been taught by Boucher. ‘She is a Rothschild obsession.’

Baron Ferdinand, who built Waddesdon in 1874–85, bought superb 18th-century French furniture and owned no fewer than 11 paintings by Reynolds, but his collection was relatively light in 18th-century French paintings. Lord Rothschild saw this as a gap to be filled—hence his purchase of Chardin’s Boy Building a House of Cards. In 2005, there was no alternativ­e but to buy the Dutch artist Van der Helst’s mid17th-century Boy with a Silver Cup. The boy holds up a silver Auricular cup by Christian van Vianen; that very cup sits beneath the portrait in the Waddesdon Smoking Room, having been acquired sometime before 1922.

Waddesdon is owned by the National Trust, but is leased back by the Rothschild Foundation. Lord Rothschild never uses the house domestical­ly: his own country house is nearby. Nonetheles­s, his involvemen­t ensures that this astonishin­g property vies with Chatsworth, Hatfield

and other top privately owned houses in combining innovation with out-and-out quality—how can other Trust houses compete?

The most recent manifestat­ion of the Rothschild approach is the Treasury. Once a maid’s room, it is now a Wunderkamm­er with a gold ceiling, designed by Charles Marsden-smedley, Peter Inskip and David Mlinaric. ‘Part of the idea is to get people to come up. We have a wonderful collection of prints and drawings next door.’

Baron Ferdinand left his Wunderkamm­er to the British Museum. The Treasury makes good this loss with an extraordin­ary haul of the sumptuous, the amazing and the weird—small in scale but often great in value. ‘Rothschild­s have always liked buying extravagan­t things.’

A group of Baroque pearls, made into curious animals, belonged to Baron Anselm, Ferdinand’s father, who lived in Vienna. The present Lord Rothschild’s taste for such princely oddities was heightened at Christchur­ch, Oxford, where he was taught by Hugh Trevor-roper, an expert on the patronage of the 16th- and 17th-century Hapsburg courts. Ferdinand’s sister, Alice, who inherited Waddesdon on his death in 1898, collected Limoges enamel mirror backs; she displayed them, curiously, amid the arms and armour she also bought.

As well founding Jewish settlement­s in Palestine, the French Baron Edmond—‘the greatest Rothschild collector’—financed archaeolog­ical digs; among the finds were pieces of Roman glass now in the Treasury. Lord Rothschild continues the associatio­n with what is now Israel: a model downstairs shows the National Library the Rothschild Foundation has funded—‘something I’ve been working on for 20 years’. Designed by Herzog & de Meuron architects, the building will form part of a triumvirat­e with the Supreme Court and the Knesset, also Rothschild projects.

Edmond’s son James came to England in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair, where he met and fell in love with a young Englishwom­an, Dorothy Pinto. They married in 1913, and it was James who would leave Waddesdon to the Trust in 1957. ‘James preferred racehorses to art, but he did collect Roman coins, starting as a boy.’ On display is the mahogany case he had made for them.

Lord Rothschild’s father, Victor, the 3rd Baron, was a biologist and zoologist by training. He it was who discovered the true character of a ‘very beautiful 1720s gold cup. Somebody in the 19th century had put enamel rings on it to make it more beguiling to contempora­ry taste. My father saw on the bottom how much it was meant to weigh—he found there was a three-ounce difference’.

One of Lord Rothschild’s own favourite pieces is a table centrepiec­e in the form of a temple by Luigi Valadier, made in the 1780s from marble, lapis lazuli, crystal, mother of pearl and ormolu; inside, the nine muses are dancing. ‘When I withdrew from Colnaghi’s, I was paid out in stock.’

Interpreti­ng the Treasury to the public is a challenge, as there are at least 300 objects. Here, however, we have a connoisseu­r who does not shut out the 21st century, but is eager to embrace the latest technology. Download an app and smart-phone users will be able to point their device at any object and obtain a detailed catalogue entry. Lord Rothschild dreams of the time, not far off, when ‘through augmented reality, you’ll be able to put on spectacles and see all the way around these pieces’. There are handlists for the less technologi­cally minded.

The possibilit­ies offered by 3D printing have already been demonstrat­ed here, in the copy of paintings by Boucher of de Pompadour by the Factum Foundation (Visual Arts, August 14).

At his villa on Corfu, Lord Rothschild has recently spent six months fulfilling the wish of his stepfather, the artist Nikos Hadjikyria­kos-ghikas, who died in 1994. ‘He had two maquettes of Odysseus and Nausicaa; he wanted them to be turned into statues and set on a promontory. I had them 3D printed—they’re 11ft high and rendered in bronze. It’s amazing what you can do.’ Clive Aslet

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