Waddesdon Bequest, Rothschild Collection, The British Museum

Marvel at the Renaissance treasures collected by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild MP (1839–1898), displayed in a new gallery at the British Museum.

The Waddesdon Bequest is a collection of nearly 300 objects, left to the Museum in 1898 by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild. It consists of exceptionally important medieval and Renaissance pieces, as well as a number of 19th-century fakes. Together, they paint a fascinating picture of the development of the art market in the late 19th century.

The collection takes its name from Baron Ferdinand’s Buckinghamshire mansion, Waddesdon Manor, where it was displayed in a specially designed setting, the New Smoking Room.

The Waddesdon Bequest is now displayed on the groud floor in Room 2a, a new gallery funded by The Rothschild Foundation. With Rooms 1 and 2, it forms part of a suite of galleries that document the history of collecting and its relationship with knowledge, taste and the expansion of the British Museum.

A special loan from the Goldsmiths’ Company

The Royal Clock Salt
One of the greatest treasures of the Goldsmiths’ Company Collection, the Royal Clock Salt, is now on display in Room 2a until November 2018. Shown with princely treasures from the Waddesdon Bequest, it exemplifies the magnificence of Renaissance court culture.

Probably a diplomatic gift from King François I of France to King Henry VIII of England, or between two of their courtiers, the Clock Salt was made in Paris around 1530–1535 by the royal goldsmith Pierre Mangot. As a display piece, it functioned both as a table clock and a salt cellar.

Of the eleven clock salts listed in Henry VIII’s collection after his death, only this one survives today. It reappears in inventories until it was sold from the Royal Collection after the Civil War in 1649. It is one of only four known surviving pieces from the several thousand items of goldsmiths’ work that once belonged to Henry VIII – another is the Museum’s 15th-century Royal Gold Cup, on display in Room 40.

The loan sees this exquisite piece displayed alongside other luxury goods from the Waddesdon Bequest, such as the Sibyls Casket, which was also made by Mangot for the French court. he loan has also enabled the Museum’s Department of Scientific Research to learn more about the remarkable piece’s origin, history and construction.

This loan coincides with the exhibition of the Aldobrandini Tazze (a famous set of Renaissance silver) at Waddesdon Manor from April to July 2018, sponsored by the Rothschild Foundation.

Baron Ferdinand Rothschild (1839–1898)
As a collector, aesthete, philanthropist and politician, Baron Ferdinand Rothschild was a prominent member of the Victorian establishment, but also an intensely private man. He grew up in Vienna before moving to England, where he married a cousin, Evelina, who died in childbirth 18 months later. At the age of 34 he inherited a vast fortune, dedicating much of his life to building Waddesdon Manor, his Buckinghamshire seat, and filling it with works of art.

One aspect of this was Baron Ferdinand’s collection of Renaissance objects, now known as the Waddesdon Bequest. It was modelled on the courtly European treasuries (Schatzkammern or Kunstkammern) formed by German and Austrian rulers in the 16th century. To 19th-century collectors, these princely collections demonstrated power, wealth, knowledge and discernment. Building on a much smaller collection of curiosities inherited from his father, Baron Ferdinand’s purchases exemplify the renewal of interest in medieval and Renaissance art in the Victorian era.

The collection was housed in the New Smoking Room at Waddesdon, the backdrop to a sophisticated social scene, with Baron Ferdinand playing host to some of the most influential and famous figures of the day.

Highlight objects

The Holy Thorn Reliquary
This splendid reliquary was made in Paris around 1400 to display a thorn from the crown allegedly worn by Jesus Christ at his crucifixion.

The thorn is displayed behind a crystal window and is identified by a Latin inscription that translates as ‘This is a thorn from the crown of Our Lord Jesus Christ’. It was originally made for Jean, duc de Berry (1340–1416), and was part of the Holy Roman Emperor’s Imperial Treasury by 1544. It was acquired by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild some time after 1860.

The Lyte Jewel
The ‘Lyte Jewel’ is in fact an enamelled gold locket. The cover, set with diamonds, bears the royal monogram of James VI (of Scotland) and I (of England).

Inside the locket is James’ portrait on vellum by the great miniature painter Nicholas Hilliard. The jewel was presented by James to Thomas Lyte in thanks for his royal genealogy tracing James’ descent, through Banquo, from Brutus, the mythical Trojan founder of Britain. This was a political message which James used to establish his legitimacy as king of Great Britain. Baron Ferdinand Rothschild acquired it in 1882.

Boxwood tabernacle
This elaborate miniature tabernacle, carved in boxwood in the Netherlands around 1500–1530, was designed as a portable object of private devotion.

Standing just over 22cm tall, the tabernacle is set in a Gothic architectural framework. It consists of several sections which come apart to reveal in astonishing detail scenes from the life and Passion of Christ. It is an outstanding example of the minutely detailed, small-scale works of art that were owned by nobles or wealthy merchants in northern Europe during this period.

The Palmer Cup
The Palmer Cup is around 800 years old and of exceptional quality. It has survived thanks to being prized from the moment it was made.

It is made up of an enamelled glass beaker from Syria or Egypt in the early 1200s mounted on a silver-gilt foot made in France shortly afterwards. In 1893 a Mrs Palmer-Morewood took it to the British Museum for identification. Curator A W Franks suggested she put it up for auction, where it was purchased by Baron Ferdinand. Franks had probably tipped off the Baron in the hope that it would end up at the Museum.

Huntsman automaton
This automaton is in the form of a huntsman. It is a rare survival from German drinking parties of the early 17th century.

It was made by Wolf Christoff Ritter of Nuremberg around 1617–1620. It retains its original (now broken) mechanism, which would have propelled it across a dining table on three hidden wheels in the base. It is a trick wine cup – according to contemporary dining custom, the person it stopped in front of was expected to remove the head and drink all the wine from the hollow figure.

Hippocamp pendant
This splendid pendant, made of enamelled gold, emeralds and pearls, is in the form of a hippocamp (sea horse) with a Native American rider.

It was probably made in Paris in the early 19th century, but is modelled on jewels made in the 16th century that were intended to show off massive deep-green emeralds from the Colombian mines in the New World. It is set with 13 impressive cabochon and table-cut emeralds and the rider is separately cast.

Turquoise glass goblet
This goblet was made in Venice in the late 1490s from extremely rare turquoise glass, imitating the semi-precious stone turquoise.

The stem is made of a darker blue glass and imitates lapis lazuli, another prized stone. The whole exterior is decorated with bright enamel and gilding. On the bowl of the glass, two round panels feature pairs of richly dressed lovers, one in sunlight, the other moonlit. The figures probably represent love or chastity, suggesting that the goblet was made to celebrate a marriage or betrothal.

The Deblín Cup
This dazzling and exceptionally large Venetian cup is made of soda glass, making it light in weight, but also giving it a great sense of clarity.

To make the body, ribs were formed in a mould before being pinched together to form lozenges. These were filled with blobs of richly coloured glass, which were then gilded for a jewel-like effect. The shape of the cup imitates late Gothic goldsmiths’ work, although creating it in glass requires much more agility. Its name comes from a Czech inscription on the base toasting the Lords of Deblín in Moravia, near Brno in the modern-day Czech Republic.

Waddesdon Manor
Built by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild in the 1870s in the style of a 16th-century French château, the Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire is now a National Trust property, open to the public and managed by the Rothschild Foundation. Its interiors house a world-famous collection of 18th-century French porcelain and furniture, as well as an important collection of European paintings. The Renaissance-style New Smoking Room, the Bequest’s original home, can also be visited along with the rest of the Bachelors’ Wing.

British Museum, London, United Kingdom

The British Museum, located in the Bloomsbury area of London, United Kingdom, is a public institution dedicated to human history, art and culture. Its permanent collection numbers some 8 million works, and is among the largest and most comprehensive in existence having been widely sourced during the era of the British Empire, and documenting the story of human culture from its beginnings to the present. It’s the first national public museum in the world.

The British Museum was established in 1753, largely based on the collections of the physician and scientist Sir Hans Sloane. The museum first opened to the public on 15 January 1759, in Montagu House, on the site of the current building. Its expansion over the following two and a half centuries was largely a result of expanding British colonisation and has resulted in the creation of several branch institutions, the first being the British Museum of Natural History in South Kensington in 1881 (it is nowadays simply called the Natural History Museum, and is separate and independent).

In 1973, the British Library Act 1972 detached the library department from the British Museum, but it continued to host the now separated British Library in the same Reading Room and building as the museum until 1997. The museum is a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and as with all other national museums in the United Kingdom it charges no admission fee, except for loan exhibitions.

In 2013 the museum received a record 6.7 million visitors, an increase of 20% from the previous year. Popular exhibitions including “Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum” and “Ice Age Art” are credited with helping fuel the increase in visitors. Plans were announced in September 2014 to recreate the entire building along with all exhibits in the video game Minecraft in conjunction with members of the public.