At the heart of a turreted manor in Buckinghamshire, the young man sits alone, concentrating on building his house of cards. ‘He is my favourite.’ Jacob Rothschild, collector, banker, philanthropist, smiles: ‘He captures the frailty of life and exhibits patience — a quality I admire, perhaps because I don’t possess it.’
Who needs patience, when the 4th Baron Rothschild boasts a spectacular fortune, an unerring eye, and access to the leading lights in every field? At Waddesdon Manor, the house Lord Rothschild runs semi-independently for the National Trust, Jean-Siméon Chardin’s ‘Boy Building a House of Cards’ hangs under the same roof as the works of Gainsborough, Reynolds and David Hockney, rare Sèvres porcelain services and Reisner cabinets. The eclectic mix, acquired over successive generations, makes for what Lord Rothschild cheerfully acknowledges is ‘perhaps the most eccentric collection in Britain’. It is popular: nearly 400,000 come to view the house that Baron Ferdinand Rothschild built at the end of the 19th century, with its fanciful architecture modelled on the Loire chateaux and its 2,000 acres of grounds.
Most curators measure their success in terms of visitors to their exhibitions, but Lord Rothschild belongs to a new breed of art investors that merges the collector and the philanthropist. He admits to an ‘acquisitive streak in my DNA’ but also wants Waddesdon to be a centre of education. He is happy to hold academic exhibitions that will add to scholarship but may not draw in the punters; and he has scheduled a variety of workshops, lectures and events year-round to study everything from the versatility of lace to servants’ lives in Victorian England. This summer, in addition, visitors will be able to see a Roman mosaic, astonishingly intact; a set of 17th-century Jewish embroideries depicting the First and Second Temples; and a collection of 18th-century portrait busts by Roubiliac of the poet Alexander Pope.
Of the three exhibitions, the mosaic, Lord Rothschild believes, will prove the crowd-pleaser. It hails from Lod, now in Israel, and depicts wild beasts and their prey. Its dimensions (23ft by 14ft) and exquisite craftsmanship suggest that it was commissioned by a prosperous family to decorate their villa in what was then a Roman protectorate. The mosaic dates back to the fourth century, when St George, Britain’s patron saint and a martyr, was growing up in Lod. The mosaic has been shown in Chicago and New York. It will go from Waddesdon to the Hermitage before finally going back to a specially designed resting place in Lod. ‘This is a rare opportunity for the British public to see a Roman mosaic of these dimensions,’ Lord Rothschild says. ‘Very few remain in this country.’
The embroideries and the portrait busts will probably draw a more select audience — which doesn’t worry the guardian of Waddesdon. The embroidered panels that were probably commissioned for a private synagogue in northern Italy are remarkable for being perfectly preserved — and intriguing because their provenance remains a mystery. ‘Fame and Friendship: Pope, Roubiliac and the Portrait Bust in 18th-century Britain’, on loan from Yale University, is made up of eight versions of the celebrated poet’s bust by the leading sculptor of the period, as well as a range of Pope’s printed texts. ‘It’s unlikely to interest the wider public,’ Lord Rothschild admits, ‘but institutions like ours should have scope for academic inquiry.’
His aunt Dorothy, the childless widow who made him her heir in 1957, probably never envisaged such a cerebral role for her beloved Waddesdon. ‘A thoroughly good woman’, she was no intellectual. ‘She never bought a piece of art. Instead, she saw herself as keeper of the Rothschild flame.’ The family’s reputation lay in their investments and extravagant hospitality — Edward, Prince of Wales, spoke so highly of his frequent visits to Waddesdon that Queen Victoria invited herself to lunch; but Dolly Rothschild believed philanthropy, especially supporting good causes in Israel, was equally important. She expected her nephew to follow suit. He has: ‘It is a cardinal factor in Jewish life that we must give back, and although I’m not religious, I am very conscious of my Jewish roots.’ The Rothschild foundation has helped finance the Israeli Knesset (parliament), Supreme Court and National Library. Here in Britain, Jacob Rothschild has chaired both the National Gallery and the National Heritage Lottery Fund and overseen the transformation of both Somerset House and Spencer House. He thinks his countrymen are ‘much more conscious of the obligation to be philanthropic than they were. Corporate social responsibility is today seen as integral to big business. And we have Warren Buffett crusading around the world, saying that anyone who’s made a lot of money should give half of it away. He and Gates have set a remarkable example.’
As a result, the distinction between collector and philanthropist has grown blurred. The appreciation of art pieces coupled with wealth generation over the past 15 years have attracted many City high-fliers to the art market. At the same time, tax breaks have persuaded hedge-funders and private equity investors to subsidise the arts: ‘People always claim that the tax advantage in America is greater, when in fact it isn’t. You get exemption from tax here if you allow public access to your collection, and that’s a big plus. This government has brought in the cultural giving scheme which means you can give a picture during your lifetime to a national museum and get a tax reduction. That makes us pretty competitive with other countries, though France is even better: they have introduced incentives for companies that can pay their tax bills by giving a work of art to the nation. We are most unlikely to get something similar here in this mood of austerity.’
The value of artworks has sparked speculation in the art market — but it has also made possible the survival of grand estates like Chatsworth, ‘where the value of their collection has become so great that they can sell one tiny part of it to fund all the ambitious schemes the present duke is undertaking’.
For his own ambitious schemes, Jacob Rothschild can rely on his wide network in the art world. He can ask Yale University and the Hermitage, as well as the British Museum, to lend him their treasures — though he admits his collaboration with the Russians has ‘faded somewhat’ since Vladimir Putin sent Rothschild’s friend the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky to Siberia. ‘He is out now, and I am in contact with him, but I remain wary of doing business with Russia.’ Heritage swaps are ‘exciting’, though less necessary than they once were: ‘We live in a world where we can all go virtually anywhere. It’s quite a nice thing that Turner can be seen outside this country. At the same time we should take pride, as a nation, in our great things. I am in favour of the export reviewing committee stopping things that are of national interest from going abroad.’ He feels differently about other nations’ artistic patrimony being here, though. When asked whether Britain should give back the Elgin Marbles to Greece, for instance, Lord Rothschild is adamant that ‘The Elgin Marbles should not go anywhere. We shouldn’t send them back, no.’
Jacob Rothschild’s designated heir, his eldest daughter Hannah (he and his wife Serena have four children) will inherit Waddesdon. The new keeper of the flame is already being trained in the art of stewardship. Thanks to Waddesdon, and its present guardian, the family’s reputation as leading collectors and philanthropists has survived into the 21st century. The House of Rothschild is no house of cards.