My first visit to Waddesdon Manor, as a teenager nearly 20 years ago, resulted in a long running love affair. The manor is an unusual and eccentric place; a French chateaux style country house built on top of a hill in the Buckinghamshire countryside completed in 1889 for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, a member of the Austrian arm of the European banking dynasty. Other members of the family also had country houses in the area such as Ascott House, Halton Hall, Tring Park, Champneys and Mentmore Towers (a topic I may return to in another post). Waddesdon was bequeathed to the National Trust in 1957 and is now the Trust’s second most visited pay-for-entry property. Since 1993 the house has been run as a semi-independent operation with The Rothschild family charitable trust donating towards it’s upkeep.
There are many things I love about Waddesdon; the circuitous route from the main road up the house revealing glimpses of the broken roofline until finally one is confronted with the main house which is so wonderfully out of place in its Buckinghamshire context. The exterior of the house is an essay in eclecticism; an asymmetrical series of forms and baroque ornament taking inspiration from numerous precedents yet somehow working as an overall composition. The surrounding parkland is mature, very well kept and a particular delight when the daffodils are in flower. The interiors are overblown, packed full of priceless collectables yet in places have domestic qualities that feel homely and liveable. In contemporary times the house would be labelled as a ‘pastiche’ and as an architect one feels like I should reject this approach however I cannot bring myself to dislike any part of Waddesdon.
My last visit was made in October this year to visit an exhibition of contemporary sculpture in the garden, which included pieces from Richard Long, Anthony Gormley and others, and also to visit the new archive building by Steven Marshall Architects. Both of these were fantastic and are worthy of blogs in their own right however it was an exhibition of ceramics by Edmund de Waal that really caught my attention.
In stark contrast to the opulent interiors the work of de Waal is extremely minimalist. He placed a series of vitrines, containing pure white ceramic pieces, in unexpected places around the house, each piece designed to relate specifically to its surroundings. The placement of the ceramic pieces, which are small in scale, help to heighten the impact of the intricate detail of the interiors by encouraging a close visual relationship with the pieces. The result is a deep appreciation of both the ceramic exhibition and the house interior. I feel there are parallels to be drawn here with the effect that a good contemporary piece of architecture can have on an ensemble of historic buildings.
Following the visit to the exhibition I have seen further work of Edmund de Waal at Roche Court in Wiltshire and I am also reading his fascinating biography ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’. De Waal was a member of the prominent Ephrussi family, another prominent Jewish European banking dynasty, and is related to the Rothschilds through his maternal line making the Waddesdon exhibition a very personal commission. The book tells the story of a collection of Japanese miniature sculptures called ‘netsuke’ which were passed down through the family until they were inherited by de Waal. The passage of the netsuke through the family is meticulously researched, covering the major events of European history during the 19th and 20th Centuries and the changing fortunes of the Ephrussi family alongside that of the European Jewish population through this time.
Although unfortunately the exhibition at Waddesdon has now finished the book is well worth a read and a limited number of de Waal sculptures, alongside a great collection of outdoor sculpture, can be seen at Roche Court in Wiltshire