British Museum blog

A Rothschild Renaissance: reimagining the Waddesdon Bequest

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).

Nautilus shell cup on a silver-gilt claw foot and mounts. Made in Nuremberg, Germany, late 16th century. H. 26.1 cm. British Museum  WB.114

Nautilus shell cup on a silver-gilt claw foot and mounts. Made in Nuremberg, Germany, late 16th century. H. 26.1 cm. British Museum WB.114

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.

Griffin claw cup of buffalo horn and silver-gilt. Made in Mainz, Germany, mid 16th century. H. 38.8 cm. British Museum WB.102

Griffin claw cup of buffalo horn and silver-gilt. Made in Mainz, Germany, mid 16th century.  H. 38.8 cm. British Museum WB.102

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.

The Holy Thorn Reliquary. One of the most important Christian relics, this precious object of gold, enamel and gems is formed around a humble thorn, supposedly from the Crown of Thorns worn by Christ at his Crucifixion. Made in Paris, around 1400. H. 30.5 cm. British Museum WB.67.

The Holy Thorn Reliquary. This precious jewel of gold, enamel and gems is formed around one of the most important of Christian relics, a humble thorn, supposedly from the Crown of Thorns worn by Christ at his Crucifixion. Made in Paris, around 1400. H. 30.5 cm. British Museum WB.67

Boxwood prayer nut with the Adoration of the Magi carved inside the lid and in the lower half, the Virgin Mary grieving over the dead body of Christ. Made in the Northern Netherlands, around 1510–1525. L. (open) 9.7 cm. British Museum WB.238

Boxwood prayer nut with the Adoration of the Magi carved inside the lid and in the lower half, the Virgin Mary grieving over the dead body of Christ. Made in the Northern Netherlands, around 1510–1525. L. (open) 9.7 cm. British Museum WB.238

Pair of maiolica vases illustrating the story of Hercules and his wife Deianira (left) and river gods among a lush landscape (right). Made in Urbino, Italy, 1561–1571. The brass-gilt mounts were added later, in Paris before 1765. H. 56 cm. British Museum WB.61a and 61b

Pair of maiolica vases that once belonged to Horace Walpole. The vases illustrate the story of Hercules and his wife Deianira (left) and river gods among a lush landscape (right). Made in Urbino, Italy, 1561–1571. The brass-gilt mounts were added later, in Paris before 1765. H. 56 cm. British Museum WB.61a and 61b

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.

You can also find out about some of the highlight objects in more detail on Tumblr.

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.

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The first ring of the doorbell

Hugo Chapman, Exhibition Curator

I’m writing on Thursday evening at the end of the first day of the public viewing of the exhibition. I was unusually nervous and keyed-up all day. I now realise my feelings were a bit like those I experience in that half hour before a party begins. The food and drink is all ready, but I can’t shake off a bat squeak of panic in my head that there’s been collective form of amnesia among my friends, or I told them the wrong date. Such nerves are quickly dispelled by the first ring of the doorbell. Would the Reading Room have only the warders in attendance on the opening day?

With these dark thoughts in mind it was heartening to step into the Reading Room around 11am to see it thronged with people. It was fantastic to witness the hushed concentration of the visitors as they looked intently at the drawings and at the explanatory films.

The scene made me think back to how panic-struck I had been three years ago when I was told that my proposed show was to be in the Reading Room. How could such a vast space be given the intimacy that drawings need? In the event the BM exhibition designer, Jon Ould, came up with a brilliant plan that gave the works space to be viewed without having a sense of the great void above.

Inside the exhibition

One of the thrills of the show was to see the transformation of the empty Reading Room platform to the exhibition space that Jon had designed. The discussions with Jon and other colleagues as to how the drawings should be structured and displayed mirrored many others that shaped the show’s formation. For me the collective, collaborative nature of creating an exhibition is the perfect antidote to the essentially lonely business of writing the book that preceded it.

I’ll definitely keep on returning to the show to savour the reaction of the viewer and to admire the drawings. Someone at the opening told me wistfully that they hoped that the Icelandic volcano would keep on erupting to allow the Uffizi drawings to remain. Volcanic ash or not the exhibition will, however, certainly close on 25 July so the clock is ticking…

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Image caption: Inside the exhibition

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Renaissance under review

Hugo Chapman, Exhibition Curator

Andrea Mantegna, Allegory of the Fall of Ignorant Humanity

I’ve just got back to my desk from the press launch of the exhibition and although it’s just gone midday I feel exhausted. I gave a 10 minute speech to the assembled journalists in the Reading Room and then fielded a few questions. Thankfully the grandeur of the setting, with Sidney Smirke’s Pantheon-inspired vault above us and the beauty of the Renaissance drawings, had a calming effect.

Only time will tell whether this will wear off once they return to their computers to write their reactions to the exhibition. So far the reviews have been excellent, but will the drawings of Verrocchio, Leonardo and the others conquer all?

Tonight it’s the launch party with hundreds of guests invited. Sadly all the curators at the Uffizi in Florence, who I was so looking forward to showing around the exhibition, have been prevented from coming by the volcanic ash. It’s a subject worthy of a Renaissance allegorical painting: Vulcan trampling on Mercury (the gods of volcanoes and the arts respectively) but with Fame blowing a trumpet, and perhaps the party loving Bacchus, providing a more positive spin on events.

In the exhibition there’s an eye-catching, if somewhat bleak, allegory of this kind showing mankind, represented by a blind woman, being led to a precipice by a variety of dodgy characters including Deceit, Ignorance and Folly. This is definitely an image one should keep in mind during this election period.

I imagine it will feel a little odd to be in the exhibition with quite so many people. Over the last weeks I’ve grown used to the space with just a handful of people putting up the drawings. An exhibition that has for the past three years existed first in my head, and then in the evolving plans of the designer, will finally be viewed.

Aside from the predicted laid-back and unimpressed reactions of my two teenage sons, I hope that the opening crowd like what they see.

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Image caption: Andrea Mantegna, Allegory of the Fall of Ignorant Humanity (‘Virtus Combusta’) About 1490-1506

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A Renaissance cover-up

Hugo Chapman, Exhibition Curator

I’ve been ducking in and out of press previews as the opening day approaches so in a rare spare moment, I’m taking the opportunity to catch-up on our progress over the last week.

Inspecting the drawings

Before being carried up from the basement storage to the Reading Room to be hung, the 50 drawings from the Uffizi gallery were given some rest time to get over their long journey from Italy.

The handmade rag paper on which the majority are drawn (the exceptions are a couple of works on parchment made of animal skin) has the quality of a living organism. It expands and contracts according to the level of humidity in the atmosphere. Such minute changes need to be monitored and the first thing that happens when a drawing comes out of the crate is a thorough examination by a paper conservator from the British Museum.

As in the medical records that our doctors look at when we go for a check-up, the drawing’s condition is compared against a detailed report written by a paper conservator of the lending institution. Usually this consists of a photograph with the stains, tears, repaired holes, undulations and other scars of 500 years of existence marked.

The British Museum conservator and the Uffizi courier (the person who has overseen the transport of the works) check this condition report to see that nothing has altered during the drawing’s journey.

Drawing with a paper cover

Normally the toughness and resilience of paper means that it adjusts to the change in atmospheric conditions. In the rare cases where changes have occurred: for example the surface has become fractionally more undulating; the drawing will be put on a list to be monitored closely during the run of the show.

The condition checking over, the drawings were ready to be put on the walls. The position and spacing of each work has been worked out by the exhibition designer and once they’re on the wall, each of them is covered over with paper to protect them from light so that the inks and washes do not fade in the bright lights needed for the installation.

For a time the exhibition had the air of a contemporary art installation piece. With all the works on the wall and the lighting at the right level, we could start taking the covers off and with just days to go, I’m looking forward to seeing if our visitors are as excited by the result as I am.

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Images:
Inspecting the drawings
A drawing with its paper cover

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One Leonardo – to go

Hugo Chapman, Exhibition Curator

For the last couple of weeks we’ve been carefully installing the exhibition in the Reading Room. It’s been an exciting – if slightly nerve-wracking – time as the plans we’ve had in place for so long are finally realised.

Statue of Bacchus

Perhaps strangely for a drawings exhibition, the first work to be installed was a first-century classical marble sculpture of the Roman wine-god, Bacchus. He’s one of the star pieces in our Greece and Rome department and has just returned from a world tour of British Museum masterpieces.

The revival of classical art and learning is central to the artistic revolution that occurred in Italy in the 1400s – the French word Renaissance that we use to describe the period means rebirth and was coined by artists and scholars of the period to claim that they had revived the ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome. In truth the classical world had never disappeared, but it is true that artists began to look at ancient sculptures with a new intensity.

Marble figures like Bacchus encouraged artists to recognise the sensuality and beauty of the human body. The sculpted Bacchus presents an idealised vision of the perfect male body. Such are his charms that lipstick has had to be cleaned off him more than once – I’m hoping he will continue to cast his spell without us needing to wipe off the lip gloss.

But now we’re turning our attention to paper – so much part of our lives that we tend to take it for granted, but this exhibition transports us back to the 1400s when it was a new and precious material.

The Chinese invention of papermaking had been brought to Europe via the Islamic world. The invention of the printing press in Germany in the 1450s gave a huge impetus for papermaking, above all in Italy which was the most literate and urbanised region of Europe.

Renaissance paper was handmade from cloth fibres (not wood pulp as today) obtained from old clothes, sails and ropes.

Drawings in storage

Fortunately for us paper’s durability makes it possible for centuries-old drawings like those we’re displaying in this exhibition to travel safely. However, like the venerable voyagers they are, the Renaissance drawings from the Uffizi need time to rest after their journey from Florence. After a few days to acclimatise the Uffizi drawings will be ready to be hung on the walls of the Reading Room.

I can’t wait to see them out of their crates and on the walls.

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Images:
Marble statue of Bacchus (Dionysus)
Drawings in storage, ready for display

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Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance drawings

Hugo Chapman, Exhibition Curator

As curator of the soon-to-open exhibition, Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance drawings I’ll be writing weekly about what’s happening behind the scenes as the show takes shape before it opens to the public on 22 April.

The exhibition consists of a hundred of the greatest Italian fifteenth-century drawings from the British Museum and the Uffizi in Florence.

The process of selection from the two best collections of Renaissance drawings came close to fulfilling my childhood dream of being locked in a sweet shop… the difference being that I was picking out Leonardos, not sherbet dib dabs.

For the last three years I’ve imagined how the drawings would look in the soaring space of the Reading Room. This week we’ve started to hang the drawings, so finally the waiting is over.

Will the drawings that I thought would work so well together turn out to be good neighbours? Time will tell.

Next week I’ll be back with an insider’s peek at the exhibition installation.

Hope you enjoy following our progress.

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For our final #MuseumInstaSwap post we’re highlighting the 'Make Do and Mend' campaign of the Second World War, as told by our partner @ImperialWarMuseums in their #FashionontheRation exhibition.

The campaign was launched to encourage people to make their existing supplies of clothes last longer. Posters and leaflets were circulated with advice on subjects including how to prevent moth damage to woollens, how to make shoes last longer or how to care for different fabrics. As the war went on, buying new was severely restricted by coupon limits and no longer an option for many people. The ability to repair, renovate and make one's own clothes became increasingly important. Although shoppers would have to hand over coupons for dressmaking fabric as well as readymade clothes, making clothes was often cheaper and saved coupons. ‘Make Do and Mend’ classes took place around the country, teaching skills such as pattern cutting. Dress makers and home sewers often had to be experimental in their choice of fabrics. Despite disliking much of the official rhetoric to Make Do and Mend, many people demonstrated great creativity and adaptability in dealing with rationing. Individual style flourished. Shortages necessitated imaginative use of materials, recycling and renovating of old clothes and innovative use of home-made accessories, which could alter or smarten up an outfit. Many women used furnishing fabrics for dressmaking until these too were rationed. Blackout material, which did not need points, was also sometimes used. Parachute silk was highly prized for underwear, nightclothes and wedding dresses.

We've really enjoyed working with and learning from our friends at @imperialwarmuseums this week. You can catch up on all our posts and discover many more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 4773 For #MuseumInstaSwap we’re discovering the street style of the Second World War in the #FashionontheRation exhibition at @ImperialWarMuseums. In this archive photo a female member of the Air Raid Precautions staff applies her lipstick between emergency calls.

In wartime Britain it was unfashionable to be seen wearing clothes that were obviously showy, yet women were frequently implored not to let 'standards' slip too far. There was genuine concern that a lack of interest in personal appearance could be a sign of low morale, which could have a detrimental impact on the war effort. The government's concern for the morale of women was a major factor in the decision to continue the manufacture of cosmetics, though in much reduced quantities. Make-up was never rationed, but was subject to a luxury tax and was very expensive. Many cosmetics firms switched some of their production to items needed for the war effort. Coty, for example, were known for their face powder and perfumes but also made army foot powder and anti-gas ointment. Make-up and hair styles took on an increased importance and many women went to great lengths to still feel well-dressed and stylish even if their clothes were last season's, their stockings darned and accessories home-made. As with clothing, women found creative ways around shortages, with beetroot juice used for a splash of lip colour and boot polish passing for mascara.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap © IWM (D 176) In the @ImperialWarMuseums exhibition ‘Fashion on the Ration: 1940s street style’ we can see how men and women found new ways to dress while clothing was rationed. Displays of original clothes from the era, from military uniforms to utility underwear, reveal what life was really like on the home front in wartime Britain.

Despite the limitations imposed by rationing, clothing retailers sought to retain and even expand their customer base during the Second World War. Britain's high street adapted in response to wartime conditions, and this was reflected in their retail ranges. The government intervened in the mass manufacture of high street fashions with the arrival of the Utility clothing scheme in 1942. Shoppers carefully spent their precious clothing coupons and money on new clothes to make sure their purchases would be suitable across spring, summer and autumn and winter. Despite the restrictions, the war and civilian austerity did not put an end to creative design, commercial opportunism or fashionable trends on the British home front.

#FashionontheRation exhibition runs @imperialwarmuseums until 31 August.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. For our final day of #MuseumInstaSwap we’re learning about the Second World War @ImperialWarMuseums, and discovering the impact of the war on ordinary people. 
Clothes were rationed in Britain from 1 June 1941. This limited the amount of new garments people could buy until 1949, four years after the war's end. The British government needed to reduce production and consumption of civilian clothes to safeguard raw materials and release workers and factory space for war production. As with food rationing, which had been in place since 1940, one of the reasons for introducing civilian clothes rationing was to ensure fairness. Rationing sought to ensure a more equal distribution of clothing and improve the availability of garments in the shops.

As this poster shows, the rationing scheme worked by allocating each type of clothing item a 'points' value which varied according to how much material and labour went into its manufacture. Eleven coupons were needed for a dress, two needed for a pair of stockings, and eight coupons required for a man's shirt or a pair of trousers. Women's shoes meant relinquishing five coupons, and men's footwear cost seven coupons. When buying new clothes, the shopper had to hand over coupons with a 'points' value as well as money. Every adult was initially given an allocation of 66 points to last one year, but this allocation shrank as the war progressed. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 8293) This week on @instagram we’ve joined up with other London museums to highlight our shared stories. Our partner is @imperialwarmuseums, whose incredible collection brings people’s experiences of modern war and conflict to life. Follow #MuseumInstaSwap to discover some of the intriguing historical connections we have found, as well as insights into everyday life during wartime. As part of our #MuseumInstaSwap with @ImperialWarMuseums, we’ve been given special access to the Churchill War Rooms – located deep below the streets of Westminster.
This is Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s bedroom, which includes his private desk, briefcase and papers, his bed and chamber pot and even an original cigar! The bedroom is located close to the Map Room, keeping Churchill as close as possible to the epicentre of Cabinet War Rooms.
Following the surrender of the Japanese Forces the doors to the War Rooms were locked on 16 August 1945 and the complex was left undisturbed until Parliament ensured its preservation as a historic site in 1948. Knowledge of the site and access to it remained highly restricted until the late 1970s when @ImperialWarMuseums began the task of preserving the site and its contents, making them accessible to as wide an audience as possible and opening them to the public in 1984.
Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap
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