Friday, March 26, 2010

The Great Country Estates of Britain Series. Part Seven: Waddesdon Manor ( inc. Parterres, and Aviaries) ...

Waddesdon Manor is a country house built on a hilltop overlooking Waddesdon village, Buckinghamshire. The house was built in the Neo-Renaissance style of many French chateaux between 1874 and 1889 for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild (1839–1898), who was a member of the Rothschild banking dynasty.

Above: Waddesdon Manor by Photographer David Henderson

It was designed by Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleur. The last member of the Rothschild family to own Waddesdon was James de Rothschild. He bequeathed the house and its contents to The National Trust in 1957. In 2007–08 Waddesdon was the National Trust's second most visited paid-entry property, with 386,544 visitors. Today, following an extensive restoration, it is administered by the Rothschild Charitable Trust that is overseen by Jacob de Rothschild (The 4th Baron Rothschild).

The 1st Baron wanted a house in the style of the great Renaissance Chateaux of the Loire Valley. Destailleur was already experienced in working in this style, having overseen the restoration of many châteaux in that region, in particular that of Chateau de Mouchy. Through Destailleur's vision, Waddesdon embodied an eclectic style based on the châteaux so admired by his patron.

The towers at Waddesdon were based on those of Chateau de Maintenon, and the twin staircase towers, on the north facade, were inspired by the staircase tower at Chateau de Chambord (However, following the theme of unparalleled luxury at Waddesdon, the windows of the towers at Waddesdon were glazed, unlike those of the staircase at Chambord. They are also far more ornate).

Above and below: The Famous Staircases

The structural design of Waddesdon, however, was not all retrospective. Hidden from view were the most modern innovations of the late 19th century including a steel frame, which took the strain of walls on the upper floors, which consequently permitted the layout of these floors to differ completely from the lower floors. The house also had hot and cold running water in its bathrooms, central heating, and an electric bell system to summon the numerous servants.

Once his château was complete, Baron Ferdinand installed his extensive collections of French 18th-century tapestries, boiseries, furniture, china, paintings and renaissance object d'art. Extensive landscaping was carried out and the gardens enhanced with statuary, pavillions and an aviary. The beautiful Proserpina fountain (below) was brought to the manor at the end of 1800 from the Palace of the Dukes of Parma in northern Italy.

The grounds were laid out by the French landscape architect Laine. An attempt was made to transplant fully-grown trees by chloroforming their roots, to limit the shock. While this novel idea was unsuccessful, many very large trees were successfully transplanted, causing the grounds to be such a wonder of their day that, in 1890, Queen Victoria invited herself to view them. The Queen was, however, more impressed by the electric lighting in the house than the wonders of the park. Fascinated by the invention she had not seen before, she is reported to have spent ten minutes switching a newly electrified 18th-century chandelier on and off.

When Baron Ferdinand died in 1898, the house passed to his sister, Alice de Rothschild, who further developed the collections. Baron Ferdinand's collection of Renaissance works and a collection of arms were both bequeathed to the British museum as "The Waddesdon Bequest".

Waddesdon, as with many of the country houses during WWII, was used to house evacuee children from London.

Following Alice de Rothschild's death in 1922, the property and collections passed to her great-nephew, James de Rothschild of the French branch of the family, who further enriched it with objects from the collections of his late father Baron Edmond James de Rothschild.

When James de Rothschild died in 1957, he bequeathed Waddesdon Manor, 200 acres of grounds, and its contents to the National Trust, to be preserved for posterity. The Trust also received their largest ever endowment from him: £750,000 (£13,012,710 as of 2010).

Jacob Rothschild, 4th Lord Rothschild, has recently been a major benefactor of Waddesdon Manor through The Alice Trust, headed by the Rothschild family. In an unprecedented arrangement, he was given authority by the National Trust in 1993 to run Waddesdon Manor as a semi-independent operation. The Trust has overseen a major restoration, and enhanced the visitor attractions. The Alice Trust has also acquired works of art to complement the existing collections at Waddesdon, such as Le Faiseur de Châteaux de Cartes by Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, added in 2007.

In a burglary on 10 June 2003 by The Johnson Gang, approximately 100 priceless French gold snuff boxes and bejewelled trifles were stolen from the collection. None of them were recovered intact, though fragments of a few were found amid melted gold in the burnt wreckage of a motor vehicle close to the Manor. These irreplaceable artefacts, many encrusted with diamonds, had belonged to, among others, Marie Antoinette and Madame de Pompadour.

Here are a few of my favourite boxes, which sadly are no longer extent. For a full catalog of the missing boxes click here.

Several films have been shot at Waddesdon Manor, including The Queen, in which the interiors and the gardens doubled for Buckingham Palace.

Above: A plan of Waddesdon's ground floor.

1:Vestibule; 2:Entrance Hall, 3 Red Drawing room; 4:Grey Drawing Room; 5:Library; 6:Baron's Sitting room; 7:Morning Room; 8:West Hall; 9:West Gallery; 10:East Gallery; 11:Dining Room; 12:Conservatory; 13:Breakfast Room; 14:Kitchen; 15:Servant's Hall; 16:Housekeeper's Rooms; 17:Site of further servants quarters (not illustrated); 18:Terrace and parterre; 19 North Drive; St:Staircases.


A parterre is a formal garden constructed on a level surface consisting of garden beds, edged in stone or tightly clipped hedging, and gravel paths arranged to form a pleasing, usually symmetrical pattern. Parterres don't need to have flower beds, although many do.

French parterres were elaborated out of 16th-century knot gardens.

This art form reached a climax at the Chateau de Versailles and its many European followers, such as Kensington Palace (below).

Waddesdon boasts many splendid examples of parterres...

The Aviary

Waddeson also has a lovely aviary. It was completed in 1889 by an unknown architect. Baron Ferdinand wanted it as a reminder of the aviary he had grown up with in his childhood home, the Villa Grüneburg outside Frankfurt. It is made of cast-iron in the style of a rococo trelliage pavilion, such as those erected at Versailles and Chantilly in the early eighteenth-century.

Among the bird species that are successfully bred there, are the Pekin Robin, Silver-Eared Mesia, Grosbeak Starling, Snowy-Crowned Robin Chat and Bearded Barbet. In addition, the White Bellied Go-Away bird and Sumatran White Crested Laughing Thrush are thought to be the first breedings in the UK.

New arrivals in the aviary include White Crested and Fischer's Touraco from Africa, Yellow Throated Laughing Thrush from China (critically endangered), Chestnut Backed Thrush from Indonesia, White Collared Yuhina from China and Fairy Bluebird from South East Asia.

We will have a similarly designed aviary at Willowbrook, although it will not be home to any endangered species. The 2 part structure will have exotic birds in one end section, a chicken, quail, and guinea fowl house in the middle section, and a pheasant house in the other end section. Once the young are successfully bred (e.g. pheasant chicks) they will be released into the hedgerows around the park to get on with their business in the wild.

Aviaries and menageries were very popular in Victorian and Edwardian times.
Here are a few paintings which use them as their subjects...


  1. What a fantastic article. I have visited the outside of Waddesdon building and gardens myself, but I have never seen most of the images you captured. Well done.

    What was most interesting was this sentence: "Baron Ferdinand installed his extensive collections of French 18th-century tapestries, boiseries, furniture, china, paintings and renaissance object d'art". His collection of Renaissance works must have been sensational and worth a study of their own.

  2. Thank you so much for this post. Most enjoyable. I am in awe of
    Waddesdon. I just didn't really see enough when I was in England. So fasinating.


  3. Fascinating post! I had something lovely to read with my coffee this morning. thank you!! :) Erica
    ps- you have a new fan and follower!


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