Lunch with the FT: Jacob Rothschild

Idon’t, you know, usually give interviews. So if you decide to write anything, I’d rather it wasn’t about me.” With this unpromising plea for discretion, my host Jacob Rothschild offers a glass of Château Duhart-Milon 2000, a Rothschild wine – his cellars contain 15,000 bottles, going back to 1870 – and insists that what is interesting is not himself but “what we’re doing at Waddesdon”, the National Trust property that houses the Rothschild collection.

Lord Rothschild, 73, is known for tremendous dynamism while staying resolutely behind the scenes. If the tall, thin man standing before me in tweed jacket, grey turtle-neck jumper and black trousers looks familiar, it is not because he has cultivated a public persona; it is because the long oval face, high forehead and arched, hawk-like eyes, as well as the intellectually engaged expression, resemble exactly his 1989 portrait by Lucian Freud.

I comment on this likeness. “When he paints us we think we look awful and horribly old, then 20 years later we’re pleased,” he says drily. Freud’s painting is in the National Portrait Gallery – “not because of me, but because of him”. A second version hangs at Waddesdon Manor alongside David Hockney’s 2003 double portrait of Lord Rothschild and his daughter Hannah, eldest of his four children.

Rothschild has invited me to Eythrope, Buckinghamshire, for Sunday lunch. We are in the 19th-century tea pavilion that is his private home, next to his Waddesdon estate. His wife Serena is skiing in Switzerland, and this is the only free slot in his overloaded schedule as banker, arts philanthropist, collector and country house owner.

After working in and then resigning from the family bank NM Rothschild & Sons, he founded J Rothschild Assurance Group, now St James’s Place, with Sir Mark Weinberg in 1991. He is also chairman of his investment trust company RIT Capital Partners and his other business concerns include Spencer House Capital Management and the mini-merchant bank Spencer House Partners.

As a philanthropist, his achievements include restoring the publicly owned Somerset House, one of the neoclassical jewels of London, and establishing it as a centre for the visual arts, and ensuring the future of the Courtauld Institute of Art, which contains an unrivalled collection of impressionist and early modernist masterpieces. As a personal project he bought Spencer House in St James and spent £16m returning it to 18th-century glory.

To all those activities, he has brought individual flair and an instinctive grasp of the innovations needed to uphold historical continuities. Today he says that his “main interest” is the reinvigoration of Waddesdon Manor, the neo-Renaissance chateau built in the 1880s by Ferdinand de Rothschild. The house has just opened for the summer 2010 season with an unexpected twist: the dramatic installation of Jeff Koons’s reflective blue 6ft 6in high chromium stainless-steel “Cracked Egg” and, from May 1, chandeliers and furniture by the witty, irreverent Brazilian designers Humberto and Fernando Campana.

Rothschild describes his family as having “operated the first European business, in a way, and, genetically, they got lucky”. Since the mid-19th century its members have tended to offset their astounding wealth and lavish properties with a sober, retiring private demeanour.

We chat in an opulent Eythrope drawing room – deep soft beige sofas, long coffee tables heaped with art books, and superb Chilterns views, though the eye is drawn, above all, to a huge, modernist grey chandelier. It is by Diego Giacometti, brother of the more famous Alberto. “Oh, I was in the Paris studio when Diego was making the chandeliers for the Picasso Museum and he said, ‘Do you want me to make them for you as well?’” he explains. “All the chandeliers in the house are by him.”

A sly black cat by Alberto Giacometti is stretched out beneath a Freud etching of a garden. “I worship Giacometti,” says Lord Rothschild, leading me past another of the sculptor’s figures, a serpentine upright female form, into a dining room lined with 18th-century rococo panels. Serving dishes are already spread on an antique sideboard: we help ourselves to roast chicken, pan-fried new potatoes, brussels sprouts – from the estate – and carrot and swede purée. All are cooked to tender perfection in plain English style.

We sit at a circular table laid with a white cloth and groaning with silver, candles, flowers and piles of books. Lord Rothschild eats slowly and little, while talking in measured tones that do not entirely conceal his excitement about new developments at Waddesdon. “Cracked Egg”, he explains, is owned by Mark Getty, son of the billionaire Sir Paul, and a “close friend and neighbour” who as a resident non-domicile cannot bring it into the UK without paying tax. “So I said, ‘It’s more fun to have it down the road than not to see it at all – can we borrow it?’” It joins contemporary works including Sarah Lucas’s surreal horse and cart “Perceval” and a chandelier of broken china commissioned by Lord Rothschild from the inventive German lighting designer Ingo Maurer, whose work is collected by museums including New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The piece is, says Lord Rothschild, “funny, witty, a breath of fresh air in the house, and our bestselling postcard”.

I laugh out loud at Maurer’s shimmering iconoclasm. “Yeah, that’s what we feel like doing with our porcelain,” Lord Rothschild mutters. Does that imply Waddesdon is a burden? “It’s a burden I enjoy,” he says cautiously, admitting “it would be impossible to live in the house in this day and age.” He runs the manor semi-independently for the National Trust, which received it in 1957 as a bequest from his cousin James, along with its contents and 2,000 acres of grounds. Lord Rothschild owns the rest of the Waddesdon estate.

Today, such private/public sector overlaps in the arts are increasingly successful. Of more than 40 Rothschild mansions built around the world in the 19th century, only Waddesdon still has its collection intact and is open to the public. With nearly 400,000 visitors a year, it is the National Trust’s most visited house and epitomises how the English country house now markets itself as a chic-eclectic mix of styles, media and collapsed aesthetic hierarchies, relevant to young audiences – and emblematic of 21st-century social shifts.

Not that hierarchy has vanished from Eythrope. As Lord Rothschild pours me another glass of smooth, deep-ruby bordeaux, Clive, a fully uniformed butler in pinstripes, waistcoat and tails, brings dessert – intimidatingly large apple and blackberry tarts. “Would you like to share one?” Lord Rothschild asks, slicing the pastry in half and giving me the lion’s portion of tumbling blackberries.

In its Victorian heyday, Waddesdon’s menus were so acclaimed that the Queen sent her cook to learn from the Rothschild chefs. More recent state visits have included presidents Reagan, Clinton and Mitterrand. He inherited the estate in 1988 from James Rothschild’s widow Dorothy: “She didn’t know whom she would leave it to but I was pretty close to her. It was rather awkward to mention it but I had a pretty shrewd idea it would come to me. My interests [in the arts] were always that way.”

This was probably inevitable: he has not only the Rothschild collector’s gene but on his mother’s side a dose of Bloomsbury. His grandmother Mary Hutchinson was Lytton Strachey’s cousin, “so my mother was half-Strachey and my upbringing was very art-orientated”. His father Victor, third Lord Rothschild, by contrast sold the contents of his Piccadilly town house and his country estate at Tring in a sensational auction in 1936. “He joined the Labour party. He didn’t think worldly goods were what he was about. My parents divorced. There was the usual awkward business of going between them but I was mostly with my mother. She remarried to a Greek painter Nico Ghika, so we were always around artists and intellectuals.”

His grandmother was a friend of Matisse – Lord Rothschild pronounces it “Maahtisse”, with a stretched out “a”. “For her birthday every year Maahtisse used to send her arum lilies, painted on the inside. Can you imagine the trauma of watching Maahtisse paintings wither in front of you?”

Matisse’s closest friend, an obscure painter called Simon Bussy, married Mary’s imperious cousin Dorothy Strachey, who noted scornfully that no one will ever “look at his work or take the smallest interest in it”. But Mary did, giving her grandson for his 11th birthday a Bussy bird painting. “I liked it very much, and started collecting him when I was 19. Would you like to see them?” He shows me jewel-like animal and bird studies, and a mural-sized white-green painting with flattened planes depicting two girls taking tea.

“I love Bussy,” says Lord Rothschild. “I get to love the things I find out about and love them even more. I get infectious enthusiasms.” Bussy, “a bridge between the 19th century and modernity” is a true independent-minded connoisseur’s subject – and a symbolic favourite, surely, for a man whose every move combines loyalty to history with a canny eye on the future. He sees Waddesdon as a “monument to the Rothschild family”.

Lunch over – Clive sees us out with a bow – he drives me across the estate in a grey Mercedes past arable fields, dairy, stables: “It’s like a little principality,” he says. I am visiting a week before the house opens but the drive is lined with daytrippers’ cars – French landscape architect Elie Lain’s terraced gardens with their fountains, and a recent adventure playground, are attractions in their own right. We turn a corner and suddenly the towers and turrets of a fantastical Loire chateau look-alike come into view. “It’s rather a surprise in the Buckinghamshire countryside, isn’t it?”

It is a Brideshead moment: the lord of the manor opening the silent house off-season, blinds down, furnishings under wraps, for a swift, clandestine tour. The hushed darkness resonates with the temperament of its creator, the grieving widower Ferdinand de Rothschild, who “consoled himself by building Waddesdon” between 1877 and 1883 and filling it with 18th-century French decorative pieces embodying le goût Rothschild. It is a taste, says Lord Rothschild deliberately, “which is not my greatest passion but I admire it very much and have tried to educate myself in it”.

The Red Drawing Room, with its Savonnerie “Sun King” carpet and Reisener cabinets, both with royal provenance, and Reynolds and Gainsborough portraits, typifies the Waddesdon style of “French furniture, English painting”, though the greatest Rothschild Gainsborough is absent. “My father, much to my rage, sold the supreme masterpiece ‘The Morning Walk’ to the National Gallery.”

Ferdinand de Rothschild died in the house, shortly after writing, “I am a lonely, suffering and occasionally a very miserable individual despite the gilded and marble rooms in which I live.” Now Lord Rothschild’s interventions are piercing the heavy splendour of his ancestor’s style. As former chairman of the National Heritage Memorial Fund (1992-1998) – “chief shopper for the British nation” – he “had to look at everything”; he oversaw the spending of £1.2bn and has an optimistic eclecticism.

Among his other purchases for Waddesdon are Angus Fairhurst’s “funny and melancholy” bronze gorilla hoisting a big fish under his arm, “A Couple of Differences Between Thinking and Feeling”; Leon Bakst’s depiction of Rothschild family members in “Sleeping Beauty”; and a pair of “irresistible” canvases by Giovanni Panini recording festivities on the Dauphin’s birth in 1751. Lord Rothschild eyed these, priced – I discover later from another source – at $10m each, for years before he “made a sporting offer which, to my horror and delight, was accepted”.

Clive is waiting to drive me to the station. Lord Rothschild points out the aviary that will be the comically appropriate venue for “Cracked Egg”, that symbol of 21st-century decadence. Koons’s piece is in the process of being installed and “is fun, interesting and will give us a different audience”, Lord Rothschild asserts. “The question is, what’s the encore?”

Jackie Wullschlager is the FT’s visual arts critic

Eythrope, Waddesdon, Buckinghamshire

Roast chicken

Panfried new potatoes

Brussels sprouts

Carrot and swede purée

Poppy seed baguette

Apple and blackberry tarts

Bottle Château DuhartMilon 2000

Total No charge

To the mansion born: the Rothschilds’ sumptuous villas

More than 40 Rothschild villas were built in the 19th and early 20th centuries. All were sumptuous; their diverse fates reflecting the many strands of European cultural and political history.

Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat: It took Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild seven years (1905-1912) to have this belle époque pink wedding cake palace finished to her exacting standards; she then spent just three nights of her life there. Overlooking both Villefranche and Beaulieu bays in the south of France, it is the most stunningly situated of all Rothschild villas. Now state-owned, it hosts a summer opera festival, Les Azuriales, where evenings conclude with a starlit dinner in the gardens.

Palais (Nathaniel) Rothschild, Vienna: Baron Nathaniel opened this neo-baroque palace in 1878 with a huge housewarming ball. Fifty years later the Nazis confiscated the property and used it as an interrogation centre during the second world war. They imprisoned its owner, Baron Louis, for a year before accepting a ransom for his release. The Allies bombed the palace in 1944 – the Rothschilds returned to find a smouldering ruin in 1945. The remains were torn down and the estate sold to the Austrian Chamber of Commerce.

Tring Park, Hertfordshire: Tring Mansion, built by Christopher Wren, was extended into a French-style chateau by Lionel de Rothschild, who bought the estate for £230,000 in 1872. His grandson Walter collected animals, including a kangaroo, as a child. Aged seven, Walter declared that he would build a zoological museum; this opened in the grounds in 1892. Walter drove around Tring in a carriage pulled by six zebras. His heir Victor sold Tring in 1936; the house is now a performing arts school. Tring was one of seven Rothschild mansions, including Waddesdon and the lavish Mentmore, in the Vale of Aylesbury, aka Rothschildshire.

Chateau de Ferrières, outside Paris: “Build me a Mentmore but twice the size” demanded Baron James de Rothschild on seeing his cousin’s Buckinghamshire home. Inaugurated in 1862, the chateau was the largest and most luxurious in France. Within a decade, the Germans seized it, making it the site of talks between Bismarck and the French following the Franco-Prussian war (1870-1871). In 1940 the Nazis occupied it, looting the vast art collection. Empty until 1959, it was refurbished by Guy de Rothschild, who donated it in 1975 to the chancellery of the University of Paris.


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