A few days after the Jewel in the Claw, a Silent Eye workshop back in 2018, I was lucky enough to have a visit from the queen. Not, I hasten to add, the one who currently wears the crown, but from my friend who had played Elizabeth I at the workshop, along with the gentlemen who had embodied the characters of ‘Sir Walter Raleigh’ and ‘ Dr Dee’.
As we are all stuck inside at the moment, and as I took them to visit the big house in the village, I thought it would be a good moment to re-share our visit to Waddesdon Manor, the improbable French chateau that graces my little village.
The Manor was built in the last half of the nineteenth century by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, as a place to entertain his guests and to house his art collection. On his death in 1957, James de Rothschild bequeathed the house and its contents to the National Trust, but it remains managed by the charitable Rothschild Foundation.
The house is set in a beautiful garden that combines the natural with the sculpted, but within the fairytale walls, there is art beyond imagining, from the innumerable clocks of every style and material, from inlaid ebony to the fantastical elephant automaton, to the porcelain, sculpture and art. There is not one thing within the house that is not, in its own way, both exquisite in its artistry or workmanship, and redolent with history.
There are carpets from Versailles, pearl handled rifles, Meissen, and whole rooms devoted to Sèvres porcelain, each piece hand painted with different flowers and birds.
There are more paintings by Reynolds than you are ever likely to see in one place, as well as pieces so famous that your jaw drops to find they live in your village and are your neighbours… like Boucher’s Madame de Pompadour, hung, with either romance or humour, above a bust of her lover, Louis XV of France.
There are staterooms, dining rooms, billiard rooms and every other conceivable type of room, all open to the public and fairly oozing opulence. It is not a home, it is a gallery and yet, there is something about the place that speaks of love and care.
After the death of its builder, Baron Ferdinand, the Manor passed to his sister, Alice, who added to the art collection and cherished the house as a memorial to her brother. When Alice died in 1922, the Manor passed to her nephew, James, who further added to the collection and later bequeathed it to the National Trust.
It was never a place designed to hold a family and only ever housed children during the war years, when pre-school children from Croydon, south of London, were evacuated to the Manor to escape the Blitz. James and his wife, Dorothy, also offered the sanctuary of the Manor to a group of Jewish boys from Germany.
The Rothschild family continue to play a philanthropic part in the life of the village and the Manor is the largest local employer. The Home Farm is still worked, the land managed and a new facility to house, educate and showcase modern art was built on the estate a few years ago.
The house has seen many illustrious visitors over the years. Some, like Queen Victoria, were guests. She was fascinated by the newly installed electric lighting and commemorated her visit with the gift of a portrait bust of herself that still sits on a side table.
Others have included members of high society, politics and royalty and, more recently, stars of music, stage and screen. The Manor has been used as a filming location for everything from the O’Connell’s home in The Mummy III to Downton Abbey, Howard’s Way and even one of the Carry On films, to mention but a few.
Today it is still a place where art and culture flourish, with regular exhibitions, theatrical productions and modern art installations in the grounds, where, as a villager, I get to wander for free to my heart’s content.
With all the splendour and fantastic, priceless art that make this such a rich resource on my doorstep, I would never have been able to choose one favourite thing…until this visit, and that was a very human moment.
Our ‘Dr Dee’ had once been known, at the Renaissance Faire, for his embodiment of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and a lifelong love of Queen Elizabeth I. To our surprise and delight, the most iconic portrait of the sixteenth century knight hung on the wall beside that of his queen. To see my friend stand gazing face to face across the centuries, was a beautiful thing and a moment I shall not soon forget.
And that, I think, was the lesson I took from the day… that amid all the magnificence, it is only the human stories that matter. It is the smile of the Pompadour who captivated a king, the hand of the potter who shaped a curious bear jug, the attention of the porcelain painter whose birds are themselves flights of imagination, the love of a sister who preserved the house for her brother’s memory and the quiet, untold stories of the men, women and children who have walked these gracious halls throughout the years.
From the villagers who volunteer as guides, to the housekeepers and gardeners who maintain the Manor… from the visitors who have gasped in awe or decried the obscenity of ostentation, to the stage fright of actors and the satisfaction of artists creating art from light and flowers… every object, every painting, every breath and footstep tells a human story, if we look beyond its surface. And there, I believe, lies the true beauty of this place.