The British Museum in London is famed the world over for its displays of artefacts and curios. Granted, there are some that feel many of these objets d’art should be returned to their place of origin, while others feel that they are safer where they are. That conundrum is best left to wiser heads than mine. Now the collection has been joined by The Waddesdon Bequest.
There is a new display at the British Museum and it’s stunning and eclectic, and very much built of one man’s passion for beauty, stability and grandiose statement. In 1898 Baron Ferdinand Rothschild bequeathed to the British Museum as the Waddesdon Bequest the contents from his New Smoking Room at Waddesdon Manor. This collection didn’t comprise racks of pipes and humidors but works of much more universal appeal.
Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire was built by Ferdinand Rothschild in the 1870s in the style of a 16th-century French château. It is now a National Trust property, open to the public and managed by the Rothschild Foundation. It houses a celebrated collection of 18th-century French porcelain and furniture, as well as a noteworthy collection of European paintings.
There are almost 300 items in the Waddesdon Bequest, which include ornate and jewel-encrusted brooches, plate, enamel, carvings, glass and maiolica – Italian tin-glazed pottery. The Holy Thorn Reliquary probably dates back as far as the 1390s, but most of the collection is from the late Renaissance period of the 16th century – although there are a number of 19th-century fakes. There are also more mundane items such as handles and a knocker, to contrast the sumptuous baubles, as well as the most exquisite miniature wooden carvings.
The collection was started by Baron Ferdinand’s father, Baron Anselm von Rothschild, and may contain some works from earlier family collections, as Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1744–1812) had a thriving business dealing in coins and other precious objects. The collection was modelled on the regal European Schatzkammer, which is a German word meaning Treasure Room. Nobility in Germany and Austria in the 16th century were avid collectors of priceless works of art.
Baron Ferdinand’s bequest was specific in nature, and failure to observe the conditions would render it void. The bequest stated that the collection must be housed in a special room which should be called the Waddesdon Bequest Room. Until late 2014 the collection was displayed in a much smaller room. Its new home is a larger gallery on the ground floor, close to the main entrance on Museum Street. The new gallery has been funded by The Rothschild Foundation. Next to Rooms 1 and 2, the Waddesdon Bequest Room now forms part of a series of rooms which document the history of collecting and the growth of the British Museum itself. One sees the glittering collection through open doors as one approaches with mounting anticipation.
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018