Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild - botanist and gardener
Benefactor and patron
Like all the Rothschilds, Baron Ferdinand was a great benefactor and supporter of various charities. One of these was the Gardeners' Royal Benevolent Institution (still going strong today under the name of Perennial), the treasurer of which was Harry Veitch of the famous Veitch Nurseries .
In 1887 Ferdinand stood as its President, an honorary appointment which no doubt served the Institution well in its fundraising efforts. At its annual fundraising dinner on 29 June that year, the Baron found himself at ‘The Albion' in Aldersgate Street, London, supported by friends like Sir Robert Peel and Christopher Sykes, and ‘a large company of horticulturists and their friends' .
In his speech, the Baron ‘asserted the superiority of British forced flowers and fruit over Continental ones'. He also sketched the ‘history of gardens, from Adam to Paxton, Moore, Turner, Philip Frost and Zadok Stevens'.
Moore, Turner, Frost and Stevens were all eminent professionals in the field of horticulture who had died in recent months. Ferdinand's speech might have been scripted, but it is quite possible that he was at least acquainted with these four men.
In the same fundraising speech he made a plea to his fellow garden owners to contribute to the charity, claiming that it was not right that ‘those who derived gratification from their gardens should forget the gardeners, to whom they owed so much' .
Baron Ferdinand also supported the Royal Horticultural Society, and is believed to have attended their shows regularly . Although Ferdinand (and his sister Alice) provided many a prize for the annual shows put on by the Aylesbury Floral and Horticultural Society, neither he nor his head gardener appear to have entered any competitions themselves; they no doubt realised that the enormous advantages they had over the many other competitors would make for an uneven competition.
Baron Ferdinand proved to be a patron to individuals too. His main orchid supplier, Frederick Sander, was born in Germany in 1847 but, like Ferdinand, he had come over to England in about 1860 and settled there. It is tempting to speculate that the two men talked in their native tongue whenever they met.
The Waddesdon accounts show huge payments to Sander, not only for supplying orchids but also for the care and maintenance (painting) of the glasshouses in which they were grown. This suggests that Sander, whose main orchid nursery was in St Albans in Hertfordshire, might have had a kind of franchise at Waddesdon, although as the accounts indicate, Sander was by no means the only supplier of orchids to the Manor.
When Queen Victoria visited in 1890, it was Sander who was introduced to her by Baron Ferdinand, an honour apparently not bestowed upon his head gardener John Jaques. Shortly afterwards Sander was able to call himself Royal Orchid Grower.
Another royal introduction by Baron Ferdinand, which proved very successful, was that of Elie Lainé, his landscape gardener, to the Belgian King Leopold. In his ‘Red Book' Ferdinand describes how Lainé went on to undertake a number of important works for the Belgian king: 'These commissions [he] owed ....directly to me' . Another commission Laîné might well have owed to Ferdinand, is that at Armainvillier, the estate of Ferdinand's cousin Edmond James (1845-1934).
Finally, the account books at Waddesdon suggest that there are a number of horticultural firms whose businesses must have derived enormous advantage from their Rothschild patronage.
These include the nurseries of Veitch, Anthony Waterer and Messrs. H. Lane & Sons of Berkhamsted, who all received substantial, regular payments throughout the 1880s and 1890s . As mentioned before, significant payments were also recorded on a regular basis to the firm of James Pulham & Son, for rockwork, and R. Halliday & Co. of Middleton near Manchester, manufacturer of glasshouses.
Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild died at Waddesdon of a heart attack on his birthday, 17 December 1898. His interest in horticulture and gardening was both productive and - luckily for posterity - long-lived. Today, visitors to Waddesdon can gain a sense of what his creation must have been, as a number of features from Ferdinand's day (previously lost due to changes in taste and practise) have been restored, most recently the flamboyant bedding arrangements of the Aviary garden.