Dora Thornton, Curator of the Waddesdon Bequest and Renaissance Europe, British Museum
For the last three years, I have been working on the redisplay of the Waddesdon Bequest, the superb collection of medieval and Renaissance treasures which Baron Ferdinand Rothschild (1839–1898), MP and member of the famous banking family, left to the British Museum on his death. Named after Waddesdon Manor, Ferdinand’s fairy-tale château in Buckinghamshire where he housed the collection, the Bequest is a rare survival, but it’s also an outstanding donation motivated by a strong sense of public purpose. Ferdinand was one of the greatest collectors of the 19th century, but saw himself as an agent in the process by which private collections moved inexorably into the public domain. ‘Collectors may deplore the fact’, he wrote, ‘but it should be a source of gratification to the public that most fine works of art drift slowly but surely into museums and public galleries. In private hands they can afford delight only to a small number of persons.’
Thinking of his words and the intention behind them, we have moved the collection, one of the most important in the British Museum, to one of the grandest rooms on the ground floor. This historic space, previously known as the Middle Room, was part of a suite of neo-classical rooms designed by Robert Smirke in the 1820s, which included the King’s Library (refurbished in 2003 as the Room 1: Enlightenment Gallery) and the Manuscripts Saloon (which since 2014 has been called Room 2: Collecting the world).
Both rooms introduce visitors to the riches and breadth of the British Museum’s collection, which will now be perfectly complemented by the remarkable quality, wonder and variety of the Waddesdon Bequest. The new gallery has been designed by renowned architects Stanton Williams, whose design unifies the extraordinarily varied objects by creating a layout in keeping with the proportions and grids of Smirke’s original interior. It expresses the quality and character of a family collection in which objects have been selected not only for their aesthetic appeal, but with a strong sense of their historical importance.
Formed on the fast-growing art markets of Paris, Vienna and London, the Bequest represents a snapshot in the self-fashioning of a new European dynasty of the 19th century. As a collection, the Bequest is a kind of museum in itself: a treasury of intricate, precious objects ranging from virtuoso goldsmiths’ work to cups carved from amber and rock crystal; ‘curiosities’ formed from exotic shells, nuts, ostrich eggs and a ‘griffin claw’; microcarvings in boxwood; and masterpieces of Renaissance glass, ceramic and enamel. It was modelled on the type of art collections formed by princes and nobles in the courts of Renaissance Europe, known as ‘Kunstkammern’. The Rothschilds used such collections – those in Dresden, Munich, Kassel, Prague and Vienna – as blueprints for their own.
The new display contains some of the most impressive works in the British Museum’s European collection. Outstanding objects include the Holy Thorn Reliquary, a work of art shown in its own case, which has been described by Director Neil MacGregor as ‘a single-object museum’, the superbly intricate boxwood prayer nuts, and the fantastic vases that once belonged to the famous English collector Horace Walpole.
My work on the new gallery – and on the book which informs it – is structured around a series of research questions: what was the status and significance of each piece at the time it was made, and why does it look the way it does? How was it handled, used and displayed by its original owners? What kind of afterlife did it have in moving from one collection or culture to another, and what was to be its role in Baron Ferdinand’s New Smoking Room at Waddesdon Manor? How might one interpret this collection for the 21st century?
The gallery is a contemporary visual expression of a collaborative exploration of these questions. Much of my research has been practical, and has grown organically from the experience of handling the pieces repeatedly. The aim of the gallery, its digital programme and accompanying book, A Rothschild Renaissance: Treasures from the Waddesdon Bequest, is to encourage close looking, and to both reconnect the Bequest with Waddesdon Manor and relocate it within the history of the British Museum – so the collection can be fully appreciated in its proper intellectual and historical context. As Baron Ferdinand understood, this collection was formerly the private province of princes. With the help of The Rothschild Foundation, we have aimed to create a bespoke gallery of quality which will be free to the public and permanent: a treasury for everyone to enjoy.
The new Waddesdon Bequest gallery (Room 2a), funded by The Rothschild Foundation, is now open. You can find out more about the gallery and the Bequest here.
This blog post contains excerpts from an article that appears in the British Museum Magazine, and also from the accompanying book A Rothschild Renaissance: The Waddesdon Bequest, available from the British Museum shop online. The Magazine, published three times a year, provides fascinating insights into the work of the Museum and is available as one of the many benefits of Membership. In addition to the Magazine, Members receive free entry to all exhibitions, exclusive events and special Museum offers and discounts. Get closer to the collection by becoming a Member today.