The Rothchilds were among the greatest collectors of the 19th century. The Waddesdon Bequest was donated to the British Museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild on his death in 1898. The Baron’s aim was to possess a special room filled with splendid, precious and intricate objects in the tradition of the European courts of the Renaissance and Baroque periods.
The public can now also enjoy the items on display, which have been moved to what used to be the reading room of the British Museum, made possible through a donation by the Rothchild Foundation. The collection, originally housed in the New Smoking room at Waddesdon Manor, has since June 11, 2015 been moved to a more prominent position at the British Museum. The Baron wanted it to be free. “You collect things to tell people you are not going anywhere”. The collection demonstrates how, within two generations, the Rothchilds expanded from Frankfurt to become Europe’s leading banking dynasty, and reflects the way in which they enhanced their power and status through discerning collecting. They valued virtuosity, and demonstrated discernment and a sense of history in selecting their treasures. Baron Ferdinand’s ambition was to rival the great court collections of Europe.
Film at the side of some of the displays allows visitors to see the intricate detail of the items that might otherwise be missed. An amber tankard from the 17th century has panels carved out, representing the seven deadly sins. Not to be missed is the Holy Thorn Reliquary, made to contain a thorn supposedly from the Crown of Thorns that was placed on Christ’s head before the crucifixion. The Reliquary is enamelled with gold, sapphires, rubies and pearls. Several of the exhibits are known forgeries.
The Bequest is named after Waddesdon Manor near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, a French chateau built by Baron Ferdinand from 1874 – 83. At the back of the room on the wall housing the collection is a film showing rooms at Waddesdon which is now a National Trust property.
Admission free. The British Museum, London.