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Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild - botanist and gardener

Article Index

  1. Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild - botanist and gardener
  2. Early influences
  3. Gunnersbury
  4. Waddesdon Manor
  5. Orchid grower
  6. Contribution to Sandringham
  7. Benefactor and patron
  8. Endnotes and sources
  9. All Pages


Waddesdon Manor

3.-early-construction-worksConstruction at Waddesdon, 1870sThese early horticultural influences and impressions came to fruition when Baron Ferdinand bought his own estate near Aylesbury, in the autumn of 1874 from the Duke of Marlborough.

No sooner had he bought it than he began to plan a grand country house on what was essentially a bare hill, known as Lodge Hill. A letter dated February 1875 [10] describes how Ferdinand was pleased with the progress made in the plantations. Early photographs indeed show young trees already in place whilst the carriage drive was still being laid out and the foundations for the house were barely dug. 

In the initial layout of the grounds, Ferdinand was aided by the French landscape gardener Elie Lainé, who was ‘bidden to make designs for the terraces, the principle roads and plantations'.

In his ‘Red Book' Ferdinand made it clear, that although Lainé was involved with ‘the chief outlines of the park', he himself was responsible for much of the ornamental plantings: ‘the pleasure grounds and gardens were laid out by my bailiff [George Sims] and gardener [Arthur Bradshaw] according to my notions and under my superintendence' [11].

As his father had done at Schillersdorf, and as his relative and friend Lord Rosebery (married to Ferdinand's cousin, Hannah) did at Mentmore, Ferdinand transplanted large trees, using Percheron mares.

‘My trees came - some of the - from Wooburn [sic] Abbey...and some from Claydon House - Sir Harry Verney's place.  Some from Halton; some from Drayton Beauchamp - wherever I could get them. Yes, they turned out as we wished...with the exception of the oak.  The oaks have given trouble; but the chestnuts have done remarkably well' [12].

In some of his obituaries, it is suggested that when it came to the planting of trees, Ferdinand lost patience at times, wanting instant effect when he could not have it.

Apart from tree planting, there were extensive tracts of shrub planting. The account books show particularly large orders from the nurseries of Anthony Waterer and H. Lane & Sons, suggesting that they supplied most of the trees and shrubs.

Much planting was carried out in accordance with the colour theories of the nurseryman William Paul [13]. Contemporary reports in the horticultural press describe large plantings of single varieties of different colours adjoining one another. 

One source describes the ‘plantations of spruce and firs, of golden yews and elders, of variegated maples and laurels...disposed between the hilltop and the village' [14].

The order book of Waterer's nursery of 1897/8 shows large numbers of genista, spirea, yew, box, dogwood, privet, buckthorn and quickthorn ordered for Waddesdon, as well as 500 ‘heath of sorts' and small numbers of individual trees such as acers, lime and cupressus.

4.-south-terrace-c.1897The south terrace, 1897Reports of Ferdinand's annual ‘Treat', which appeared in the Bucks Advertiser & Aylesbury News from 1880 onwards, provide a glimpse of the development of the grounds at Waddesdon. The July 1881 account, which still refers to the property as Lodge Hill, reads:

'The slope on the south side of the mansion is formed into terraces, and several fine statues lend embellishment to the scene. Though the exterior of the fabric has now been completed, only a portion is at present rendered habitable, and it was in this part that the Baron had entertained the Prince of Wales and a select company the previous day. Even the windows have not yet been added to the great majority of the apartments, but temporary boarding cover the apertures. The grounds in the vicinity are laid out in pleasant walks and shrubberies; on the east is a well-formed lawn, on which the Prince and the Baron's other guests spent the Sunday afternoon, and a little to the east is a large ice-house, the approach to which, arched over with huge and rough blocks of stone, presents a somewhat romantic air. Wandering northward from here the visitor reaches a spot whence the view is no less expansive and grand then that seen from the south' [15].

Pulham rockwork

pgds_20080611-140007_waddesdon-grottoPulhamite grotto at Waddesdon ManorExtensive rockworks were constructed throughout the gardens by the firm of James Pulham & Son. Their work at Waddesdon was extensive, being on an even larger scale than their hitherto best-known rock work for the Prince of Wales at Sandringham.

One of the Pulham hallmarks was the so-called Pulhamite, an artificial composite, made to resemble real rock. However, at Waddesdon mostly real rock was used, including limestone. Natural rock would have been easy to come by, since large quantities of it were excavated during the levelling of the hilltop in preparation for the building of the house. 

In his ‘Red Book' Ferdinand refers to the ‘deep gash' in the side of Lodge Hill when he first bought the property in 1874. This gash, he remarked, the result of limestone quarrying, proved ‘most useful in the construction of rockeries, and has since been converted into a basin and fountain' [16].

There was further rockwork in the Aviary and in the garden near the Dairy (laid out by 1885) with adjoining lakes created for ornamental wildfowl [17].  Again, these features are an echo of the dairy and lakes at Neuhof.

By 1887 the garden was virtually complete. In August of that year, the Bucks Advertiser reported on the annual ‘Baron's Treat':

'The best attraction ... in the estimated opinion of many present, was the ornamental portion of the Park, which was as usual thrown open.  The fountains were in play, and, together with the beautiful parterres of flowers around them, were gazed at by continuous streams of visitors; the aviary too attracted notice; and walks among the shrubberies, which, with advancing age, are steadily progressing in picturesque beauty, were also enjoyed' [18].

The same year saw a new head gardener, John Jaques, replacing Arthur Bradshaw. Although most of the features of the garden were already in place by then, Jaques would have been involved with laying out the rose garden, one of the last additions to the garden before Ferdinand's death in 1898.

Practical gardening knowledge

2.aerial-viewAerial view of WaddesdonAccording to Marcel Gaucher, gardener to the Rothschild family for many years, Ferdinand, though interested in gardening, left the actual work to his estate staff. This was in contrast to his sister Alice who concerned herself deeply (perhaps to the point of interfering?) with her gardeners and their work.

Ferdinand did, however, have considerable knowledge about the cultivation of plants. On a trip to Algiers in 1886 he bought a large number of palms (no doubt destined for the glasshouses at Waddesdon).  Reporting back to Lord Rosebery, Ferdinand wrote: ‘If she [Hannah] does buy trees mind that they have been for some time in pots or tubs and are not taken out of the ground to be exported' [19].

This image of Ferdinand as a practical gardener is confirmed by an article in 1898 in the Gardener's Chronicle which states that ‘not only did [Baron Ferdinand] like plants but ...[he] had acquired a considerable knowledge of them - a trait which is characteristic of all the Rothschilds' [20].

Most telling is the diary entry of the Earl of Crawford, David Lindsay, who stayed at Waddesdon in June 1898. He wrote:

'... it is in the gardens and shrubberies that he [Baron Ferdinand] is happy. He is responsible for the design of the flower beds; for the arrangement of colour, for the transplanting of trees; all these things are under his personal control and I was astonished at the knowledge he displayed: I don't mean about botanical lore but about the history of the place.  Every tree and shrub has been placed and planted by him for the place was bare upland when he bought it twenty years ago. Point to an oak or a maple and he will tell you precisely when it was planted, whence it was transplanted or wither it shall be moved in the autumn.'

And Lindsay added: ‘It is only when among his shrubs and orchids that the nervous hands of Baron Ferdinand are at rest' [21].