In 1898 Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild left his magnificent collection of medieval and Renaissance treasures to the British Museum, to be displayed together as the Waddesdon Bequest, named after his beloved country house, Waddesdon Manor.
This collection has now been redisplayed in a new gallery at the museum (room 2A, entry free), enabled by a donation from the Rothschild Foundation.
Baron Ferdinand inherited some of these objects from his father, Baron Anselm von Rothschild, but he greatly increased the collection himself as well. He was consciously emulating the art collections formed by the princes of Renaissance Europe.
The collecting and building activities of various members of the Rothschild family, with its branches in Vienna, Frankfurt, Paris and London, demonstrated that they saw themselves as a new enlightened European aristocracy.
Of the 45 Rothschild mansions across Europe, only Waddesdon remains intact and open to the public. The house and grounds were bequeathed to the National Trust in 1957 and are managed by the Rothschild Foundation.
Baron Ferdinand’s Renaissance collection was kept in the Smoking Room at Waddesdon. His sister Alice, who inherited the house, replenished the room with further treasures in a similar taste, which can still be seen there today.
The new display at the British Museum was designed by architects Stanton Williams in collaboration with the British Museum’s curators, conservators and other specialists. The large but subtle display cases, made by Goppion, lead the visitor around the objects and allow close viewing of their beautiful surfaces and exquisite craftsmanship.
Evocative images of life at Waddesdon in Baron Ferdinand’s time are projected in a slow cycle on the upper level of the gallery. Discrete wall-mounted video screens show magnified details of some of the more intricate objects.
The new display is accompanied by a splendid catalogue by curator Dora Thornton. The British Museum’s website also includes a dedicated Waddesdon Bequest microsite. And there is an exhibition at Waddesdon specifically about Baron Ferdinand’s Renaissance collection, until 25 October.