Home » London Book Review - Non Fiction » Book Review : A Rothschild Renaissance – Treasures from the Waddesdon Bequest by Dora Thornton (British Museum Press)

Book Review : A Rothschild Renaissance – Treasures from the Waddesdon Bequest by Dora Thornton (British Museum Press)


This book presents and explores the Waddesdon Bequest, the name given to the Kunstkammer or cabinet collection of Renaissance treasures which was bequeathed to the British Museum by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, MP in 1898. The collection was modelled on the courtly European treasuries (known as Schatzkammern or Kunstkammern) formed by princes and rulers in Germany and Austria in the 16th century.

The author, Dr Dora Thornton works at the British Museum as Curator of the Waddesdon Bequest and Renaissance Europe and helped to develop the  new permanent gallery for the Waddesdon Bequest, which was opened in June 2015.

The first part of the book, Baron Ferdinand Rothschild and his Bequest to the British Museum attempts to place the Waddesdon Bequest in its social and historical context, the collections and treasuries created by princes and rulers in Germany and Austria in the 16th century became the inspiration and model for 19th-century collectors who believed these collections demonstrated power, wealth, knowledge and discernment. Baron Ferdinand did not create his collection from scratch but expanded a collection inherited from his father, Baron Anselm. The rise of the Rothchilds from the Frankfurt Ghetto to international bankers and businessmen is one of the great European rags to riches stories, however the Rothchilds had been avid collectors from the time of ancestor, Mayer Amshel ( 1744 – 1812 ) who had an antique business in the Ghetto which provided some of the finance for the Rothchilds move into banking.

Baron Ferdinand’s relationship with his mother was close and he inherited a love of England and art. When he was twenty-one he decided to live in England and married his English cousin, Evelina in 1865. Unfortunately his marriage was short-lived when his wife died in childbirth, Baron Ferdinand threw himself into public service becoming a Justice of the Peace, High Sheriff and eventually a Member of Parliament in 1885. For all his worthy public service roles, it was the creation of the French chateau at Waddesdon Manor and his collecting and entertaining there, which he is probably best known for.

His collection was housed at Waddesdon Manor in the New Smoking Room which was created for the display of his treasures but also as a social space where he could entertain guests and show off his art objects, he particularly enjoyed telling the history of his pieces to the specially selected guests in these intimate gatherings. Having no children of his own, as he grew older he began to see his collection as part of his legacy and made the decision to leave his collection to the British Museum when he died. There was one major stipulation which was that it would be shown in a room of its own. When the Baron Rothschild died in 1897, the collection was transferred to the British Museum where it has remained ever since.

The second part of the book, Treasures from the Waddesdon Bequest explores some of the pieces in the collection in greater detail. What makes the Waddesdon Bequest almost unique is that the incredible wealth of the Baron Rothchild allowed him to buy precious objects of art of the highest quality, this allowed a creation of a private collection of pieces that had often once been the property of the Royal Houses of Europe.

One of the main highlights of the collection is The Holy Thorn Reliquary which was made in Paris in 1400 to house a thorn allegedly from Christ’s crown of thorns worn at the crucifixion. It was made for the famed European art patron,  Jean, Duc de Berry but subsequently was in the possession of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1544. In 1860 it was sent for repair to an unscrupulous antiques dealer who made a copy, he sent back the forgery and sold the original which eventually found its way into Baron Rothchild’s collection.
Other highlights include The Palmer Cup (a glass from the 1200s), Casket with Sibyls (made for the French court in the 1530s), Dish with the Woman of the Apocalypse (made in the late 1500s), The Deblin Cup (a Venetian glass from late 15th century) and Horace Walpole’s maiolica vases from the late 16th century.
Although many of the pieces are from the European courts, there are two important British pieces , the Lyte Jewel which is a diamond studded locket made by the famous British jeweller, Nicolas Hilliard which holds a miniature of James VI and the Grenville Jewel which holds a miniature of Sir Bevill Grenville, a Royalist General in the English Civil War.

This wonderfully informative book, full of stunning illustrations explores some of the history of one of the great remaining Kunstkammer or cabinet collection of Renaissance treasures. It is sometimes been suggested that the Waddesdon Bequest is a museum in itself because many of the objects in the collection are miniature masterpieces that need to be studied in detail. Looking at individual objects in detail within the book enable readers to see and understand the objects in all their complexity.
The Waddesdon Bequest is more than a collection of treasures, it represent a lifetime of collecting from an incredibly wealthy individual who thought the collection would convey power, wealth, knowledge and discernment to his selected guests. This was only achieved up to a point, his background was a barrier to full acceptance into the upper echelons of British society and in many ways he was always classed as an outsider. In many respects the legacy of the Waddesdon Bequest to the British Museum has achieved many of the Baron’s objectives, it has been admired by thousands of people over several generations and the new gallery and this book continues to pay tribute to the  life of Baron Ferdinand Rothschild and his wonderful collection of curiosities over a century after his death.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

If you would like further information or buy a copy of the book, visit the British Museum shop here

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