A Rothschild Renaissance:
Treasures from the Waddesdon Bequest

Opens 11 June 2015
Room 2a
Admission Free


The Waddesdon Bequest, the superb collection of medieval and Renaissance treasures left to the British Museum in 1898 by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild MP, will be redisplayed in a new gallery that opens on 11 June 2015.

The gallery is made possible through a generous donation from the Rothschild Foundation. The new display will contain some of the most impressive objects in the British Museum’s European collection, and will give fascinating historical insight into shifts in taste, the growth of the art market, and the development of forgery in response to demand from collectors in the nineteenth century. In addition, the redisplay will involve the most ambitious digital treatment of a permanent gallery by the Museum.

As a demonstration of power and discernment, the collection tells the story of the rise of the Rothschilds as a new European aristocracy in the 19th century. Until Baron Ferdinand’s death in 1898, it was displayed in a specially-created room, The New Smoking Room, at his country retreat, Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, a National Trust house managed by the Rothschild Foundation. With this new gallery, which reconnects the Waddesdon Bequest both with Waddesdon Manor and with the history of the British Museum, the collection can be fully understood for the first time in its proper intellectual and historical context.

According to the terms of the Bequest the collection has always been shown on its own in a separate room. It was previously displayed on the first floor of the British Museum. The new gallery, Room 2a, previously known as the Middle Room, was the original Reading Room and was part of Robert Smirke’s 1820s neo-classical suite which included the King’s Library (Room 1: The Enlightenment Gallery) and the Manuscripts Saloon (Room 2: Collecting the World). Both rooms act as an introduction to the origins and breadth of the British Museum’s collection, which will now be complemented by the Waddesdon Bequest.

The Waddesdon Bequest is the creation of a father and son in the famous Rothschild banking family: Baron Anselm von Rothschild (1803-1874) of Frankfurt and Vienna, and Baron Ferdinand Rothschild MP (1839-1898), who became a British citizen in 1860. The rise of the Rothschilds from the Frankfurt Ghetto to become the world’s bankers within two generations is one of the best-known “rags to riches” legends in Europe. The family helped to shape the modern world: by the end of the 19th century they controlled not only a European rail network but a global mining industry. The Rothschilds invested their wealth in great houses filled with some of the most sumptuous art collections ever seen. This collection can be viewed as a small, select museum, formed on the fast-growing art markets of Frankfurt, Vienna, London and Paris. It is a treasury of intricate, precious objects, modelled on the art collections formed by princes and nobles in the courts of Renaissance Europe, known as Kunstkammern. Forming Kunstkammern of their own demonstrated the rise of the Rothschilds as a new European aristocracy.

One of the star objects is the Holy Thorn Reliquary, made of gold, enamel and gems sculpted around a simple thorn, supposedly from the Crown of Thorns worn by Christ at his Crucifixion. It was featured in the BBC Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects, and was described by Neil MacGregor as “a single-object museum”. As one of the most important Christian relics, the Crown of Thorns was acquired by Louis IX, King of France, in Constantinople in 1239 for the price of 135,000 livres – nearly half the annual expenditure of France. The Reliquary was made in Paris around 1400 as a private devotional object for Jean, duc du Berry, one of the greatest collectors and art patrons of the late middle ages. In 1860 the reliquary went for repair to the restorer, Salomon Weininger, who copied it and sold the original which was acquired by Baron Anselm de Rothschild around 1873.

While the Waddesdon Bequest has a strong continental European feel, there are select objects with British historical associations that reveal Baron Ferdinand’s sense of British identity. The Lyte Jewel is a diamond-studded locket which was made in London in 1610-11 to hold a miniature of James VI and I of Scotland and England. It was presented by the King to Thomas Lyte of Lytes Cary, Somerset, in thanks for a royal genealogy which represented James as a descendant of Brutus, the mythical Trojan founder of the British nation. As a Scot and survivor of several assassination attempts, James I was keen to assert his right as a legitimate king of England. Baron Ferdinand proudly showed this important document for British history to his British royal visitors at Waddesdon Manor, such as Queen Victoria and the future Edward VII.

Other treasures include the ‘Cellini’ Bell, encrusted with tiny lizards, beetles and grasses cast from life in silver by Wenzel Jamnitzer in Nuremberg around 1600. The Bell had previously belonged to the British connoisseur, Horace Walpole, who displayed it proudly at his villa at Strawberry Hill. Other treasures in the Bequest range from precious amber and rock crystal, curiosities formed from exotic shells, nuts, ostrich eggs and a “griffin claw”, microcarvings in boxwood and masterpieces of glass, ceramic, goldsmiths’ work and Limoges enamel.

The new gallery has been designed by the architects Stanton Williams, who won the Stirling Prize in 2012. Their design invokes the Schatzkammer (treasure room) tradition that inspired Baron Ferdinand’s collection and extends it into the twenty-first century, allowing visitors to appreciate both the extraordinarily varied objects in the collection and the original library room designed by Robert Smirke. High quality materials are used throughout, including bronze panels that are reminiscent of the luxury of the Smoking Room at Waddesdon Manor and match the craftsmanship of the Middle Room. The curatorial narrative is embedded within the design of the gallery, which enables fully integrated interpretation of the collection through graphics and digital media.

The aim of the gallery, its digital programme and accompanying book, A Rothschild Renaissance, is to reward close looking. The ambitious digital programme accompanying the displays will embrace a variety of platforms. Six in-gallery screens will reveal objects in minute detail and show intricate hidden details. A large-scale projection will connect the gallery with Waddesdon Manor and the Smoking Room. Free WiFi access offers new opportunities for mobile interpretation on visitors’ own devices. A fully responsive microsite will allow visitors to access further information about individual objects. The programme strikes a balance between the on-site and online experience; drawing on resources and knowledge across the collection and exploring the potential of digital media to engage visitors and attract new audiences.

The Waddesdon Bequest gallery is unique in showing an entire surviving 19th Century collection of exceptional quality and rarity. Similar collections formed by Jewish collectors during this period were mostly broken up or lost in the 20th Century: of the forty five splendid European houses and their collections created by the Rothschilds, only Baron Ferdinand’s creation at Waddesdon Manor survives intact and open to the public. This year, an exhibition at Waddesdon, The Renaissance Museum: Treasures from the Smoking Room, explores the context in which the Bequest was originally displayed, before its transfer to the British Museum through the Bequest in 1898.

Notes to Editors:

The Waddesdon Bequest
Room 2a, admission free

Opening hours 10.00–17.30 Saturday to Thursday and 10.00–20.30 Fridays.

The beautifully illustrated accompanying publication A Rothschild Renaissance: Treasures from the Waddesdon Bequest, written by Dora Thornton, will be published in June 2015 by British Museum Press. By looking at individual objects in detail, and drawing on new photography and research, the book will enable readers to see and understand the objects in a completely different light. Hardback £30.

Follow updates on the gallery via Twitter with #WaddesdonBequest and follow the Museum


The Renaissance Museum:
Treasures from the Smoking Room
25 March – 25 October 2015
Waddesdon Manor
Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire HP18 0JH

To celebrate a new display of the Bequest at the British Museum, supported by the Rothschild Foundation, this exhibition at Waddesdon will examine the furnishings that surrounded the precious objects in the 1890s and Ferdinand’s very conscious decision to decorate this part of the Bachelors’ Wing in Renaissance style. Changes made to the Smoking Room by Alice de Rothschild and its subsequent use and display will also be explored.


Waddesdon Manor
Waddesdon Manor, the National Trust house, was built by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild between 1874 and 1885 to display his outstanding collection of art and to entertain the fashionable world.

It combines the finest 18th-century French decorative arts and magnificent English portraits and Dutch Old Master paintings with one of the finest Victorian gardens in Britain, famous for its parterre and ornate working Aviary. It was bequeathed by the Rothschild family to the National Trust in 1957 and is now managed by a family charitable trust under the chairmanship of Lord Rothschild.

Today, the Manor continues its great tradition of entertainment and hospitality. There are events celebrating food and wine, and a changing programme of exhibitions and special interest days to entice visitors of all ages.

Admission to house and gardens, £18 and free for National Trust members. Timed entry to the house is best booked online at www.waddesdonmanor.org.uk


About Stanton Williams
Stanton Williams are a multi-award winning architectural design practice based in London. The studio was founded by Alan Stanton and Paul Williams in 1985 and has a team of 100 people with five directors, two associate directors and nine associates. Stanton Williams have successfully completed over 350 architectural, urban design, master-planning, exhibition and interior design projects, winning more than 90 international and regional awards, including the prestigious RIBA Stirling Prize for the Sainsbury Laboratory in Cambridge. Alan Stanton and Paul Williams were also each awarded an OBE in recognition of their services to architecture last year.

The practice has developed its portfolio from an initial focus on museums and galleries towards a wide variety of projects, all of which demonstrate its overarching objective of putting the user’s experience of space, light and materials at the forefront of the agenda, as well as creating places that sensitively respond to their cultural, social and physical context.

Completed projects include: the UAL Campus for Central Saint Martins at King’s Cross, King’s Cross Square, Fitzroy Park House, the Sainsbury Laboratory in the University of Cambridge’s Botanic Garden, the Britten Pears Archive in Aldeburgh, the Hackney Marshes Centre and the London 2012 legacy venue - Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre.

Current projects include: the Musée d’Art in Nantes, France, the Garden Building, Lincoln College in Oxford, university key worker homes and local centre in the North West Cambridge Development, a new research centre for Great Ormond Street Hospital and the Royal Opera House ‘Open Up’ project both in London, a student residential building at King’s Cross and a number of high-end residential projects in Central London.


For further information

Please contact the British Museum Press Office
on +44 20 7323 8583 / 8394 or communications@britishmuseum.org

High resolution images and caption sheet available at http://ow.ly/LqwgA

For further information about Waddesdon Manor please contact the Waddesdon Press Office on + 44 1296 653231 / + 44 1296 653259 or vicky.darby@rothschildfoundation.org.uk

Hippocamp Pendant. Enamelled gold jewel set with emeralds and pearls. Probably French, early 19th century. H. 8.7cm. British Museum WB. 156. Bequeathed by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild. © The Trustees of the British Museum.