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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


Contribution to Sandringham

pgds_20080611-132925_sandringham-lake-and-boat-caveThe lake and Pulhamite boat cave at SandringhamIt is interesting to note that Ferdinand apparently influenced the layout of a garden other than Waddesdon. In fact it was no less a property than royal Sandringham which became the subject of his views and ideas. 

Sandringham was the Norfolk retreat of Albert Edward (‘Bertie'), the Prince of Wales and his Danish wife Alexandra.  Acquired by Queen Victoria in 1862 for her somewhat wayward son, the house was rebuilt between 1867 and 1870.

Ferdinand had long been part of the circle of friends surrounding the Prince of Wales, who himself became a regular visitor to Waddesdon Manor. No doubt Ferdinand also stayed at Sandringham. He would have been familiar with the gardens that were laid out surrounding the new house in the early 1870s by William Broderick Thomas, with much rockwork by James Pulham. 

Correspondence from the early 1890s from the Prince of Wales to Ferdinand indicates that, besides finding him a gardener, Ferdinand also provided his friend with advice on alterations to the garden, which the Prince of Wales came to refer to as the ‘Rothschild Sandringham improvements' [27]. 

In July 1891 he wrote to Ferdinand:

'I am most grateful to you for all the trouble you have taken in arranging the new flower garden at Sandringham. I shall be very curious and interested in receiving the new plan from Probyn & I have but little doubt that it will meet with my approval especially as it will enlarge the flower garden, straighten the walks and alter the view to the Church wh. is most desirable' [28].

Sir Dighton Probyn was the comptroller at Sandringham. Privately he expressed concern about the expense of the improvements, but the Prince of Wales was keen to press ahead: ‘I have sufficient confidence in your good taste to be quite easy in my mind that it will be a success', he wrote to Ferdinand [29].

The correspondence also relates to the erection of a circular fountain. Writing in the late summer of 1891, the Prince of Wales agreed with Ferdinand's suggestion to prepare the ground for the fountain, so as to show its location, but to defer the placing of it until the following spring. This would allow sufficient time for the basin to be made. During the intervening months, Ferdinand suggested, the area could be planted with shrubs and winter flowers. The latter might well have included pansies, Princess Alexandra's favourite flowers.

It is difficult to ascertain to what extent Ferdinand's proposals were actually carried out. Apart from a small number of later letters, few others survive that might have revealed more information. Also, a fire at Sandringham in 1891 might conceivably have deferred any garden improvements, especially as these were considered rather expensive by the comptroller Probyn in the first place. In addition, in early 1892, the Prince and Princess lost their son, Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence. No doubt this sad event would have taken their minds off any garden works.

Ferdinand also presented the Prince of Wales with a ‘bronze group' for the garden at Sandringham, which the latter (writing in a letter thought to date from 1891) considered as 'a lasting memento of the valuable advice you have given me on landscape gardening' [30].

It is not clear whether this ‘bronze group' is in fact the same fountain given by Baron Ferdinand to the Prince of Wales, which the then Duchess of York (the future Queen Mary) described, in 1898, as ‘ consists of a large bronze pelican sitting on a rock, & it spits out water from its huge beak, when Mackellar turned on the water I roared with laughter at this truly ludicrous sight.  It really is too awful!' [31]

Today the pelican fountain survives, albeit in storage. Damaged during the war, when it served as a shooting target for bored soldiers, it is currently undergoing restoration.

In the autumn of 1898 the Prince of Wales wrote to Ferdinand that he was looking forward to seeing his fountain and ‘also the plan of the little garden near the Dairy wh you propose - & I hope you will be able to pay us a visit in Oct or Nov so as to talk matter[s] over' [32].

It is not known whether Baron Ferdinand, who died that winter, did actually make the visit. However, the garden in front of the dairy was laid out, posthumously, the following spring. Writing to his eldest sister the Dowager Empress Frederick, the Prince of Wales described in late February 1899 how he was busy laying out the garden ‘after poor Baron Ferdy's plan which I think will come out well' [33].

The fact that Baron Ferdinand supplied the Prince of Wales with such apparently detailed proposals for the garden at Sandringham, strongly suggests that he would have done the same for his own garden at Waddesdon. The design of the rose garden, the plan for the Aviary beds, the layout of the garden around the Dairy - these are all most likely by Baron Ferdinand himself.

10Waddesdon accounts book, 1887There can be no doubt that the gardens at Waddesdon and Sandringham developed along similar lines during the last quarter of the 19th century, with extensive Pulham rockwork; extensive glasshouse complexes with orchids and Malmaison carnations; and dairies surrounded by small formal gardens (at Sandringham the cows were Danish, as one would expect, Princess Alexandra being Danish).

Both estates also featured rose gardens, Waddesdon's being one of the last additions to the garden by Ferdinand, while the one at Sandringham was laid out by the head gardener Archibald Mackellar in 1896. At Sandringham it was enclosed within wire treillage, with 1300 dwarf standard and climbing roses and a wire rose temple ‘dripping with roses' [34]. This is not dissimilar to the recently restored rose garden at Waddesdon Manor.

It was not only Queen Victoria's son who was much taken with Baron Ferdinand's gardening skills.  Her eldest daughter, the Empress Frederick, was also impressed by his talents.  Writing to her mother after a visit by Ferdinand to her house at Frederickshoff in 1894, she referred to him as ‘an excellent gardener and good botanist and [he] has a good deal of artistic knowledge and taste' [35]. On a return visit to Waddesdon, in 1897, she planted a tree near the stables to mark the Queen's golden jubilee.  Unfortunately no trace of this survives.