Waddesdon Manor was built by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild between 1874 and 1889 to display his art collection and to entertain his friends and business contacts. The house is in the style of a sixteenth century French chateau, by Gabriel Hippolyte Destauiller.
Walking up the long drive towards Waddesdon, the first thing I thought of was not high culture and art, but Sleeping Beauty's castle. This is not meant as a criticism. I like Sleeping Beauty's castle. I felt I was in for a dreamy, fanciful time, rather than a worthy historical visit. Certainly there is a great sense of the theatrical at Waddesdon. An observation by a visitor, displayed on an information board in the house suggests: "The actual objects are all masterpieces of their kind, but more than that, all of these, instead of standing isolated as in museums, are in relation to the whole idea of each chamber."
Each room is almost a stage set in which the works of art play a role. Portraits of Victorian ladies adorn the walls of just the sort of room they would have lived in. A dinner service originally made for George III is laid out as if waiting for the king and his party to arrive. One circular turret room is dedicated to a series of paintings by costume and set designer Leon Bakst. The paintings depict the story of Sleeping Beauty, a fitting tale to tell in the setting of this fantasy chateau.
The feeling of the fantastical is emphasised by clever details of the building itself. Dreamy towers have stone balustrades that sweep up over internal spaces within the house, and then move outside the tower to sweep over external space. The tower pictured here shows the balustrades. For someone walking up the stairs, it is as if borders between inside and outside are undermined. The difference between art and reality is made less clear. This idea might also be seen in the way frames of Leon Bakst paintings are painted the same colour as the walls on which they stand. Waddesdon is a beguiling place, where many tricks are used to set the imagination free from its everyday constraints. The garden continues the effect of the house it surrounds. There is a formal parterre in front of the house, blending down a sloping lawn into more natural looking areas, which are nevertheless carefully planned. The natural world, and the world of imagination, are combined as you wander round the gardens. This I suggest is the spirit in which you should visit. Rather than thinking art, culture, or the niceties of garden design, think fantasy and myth. Waddesdon is more like Disneyland than a museum. This is a Disneyland for grown ups.
There is also some political history there for those who want it. Edmund de Rothschild was a major figure behind the creation of the state of Israel. David Ben Gurion said of him: "he expended more on the settlement of the land of Israel from his own resources than any other individual." There are copies of letters on display confirming the establishment in Palestine of a Jewish homeland, from foreign secretary Arthur Balfour to Rothschild in December 1917. But politics aside Waddesdon is an escapist fantasy of the cleverest and most thought provoking kind.
An extensive programme of events runs throughout the year. Use the web site link below for details.
The Five Feathers Hotel is a French Renaissance style chateau built at the entrance to Waddesdon. Rothschild stored his eighteenth century art here, and today each of the eleven rooms at Five Feathers has unique pieces from the Waddesdon art collection.
Address: Waddesdon Manor, Waddesdon, near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire HP18 0JH
Directions: Waddesdon is off the A41 between Aylesbury and Bicester in Buckinghamshire. Click here for an interactive map centred on Waddesdon.
Opening Times: Opening hours for National Trust properties can be complex. Please use contact details below.
Access: There are designated parking areas, and drop off points at the house. Most of the gardens are accessible, with maps illustrating suitable routes. All areas of the house, shops and restaurants are accessible, although the Wine Cellars and Drawing Room can only be visited by special arrangement. For safety reasons only two wheelchairs are allowed on each floor of the house at any one time.
telephone: 01296 653226
web site: http://www.waddesdon.org.uk/