As our car sweeps up the twisting driveway of Waddesdon Manor, all is as it should be on an April morning in the heart of the Buckinghamshire countryside. The lime and chestnut trees are in full leaf; the rolling parkland sparkles emerald-green after a week of torrential rain. Drawing nearer the house, marble statues of nymphs and deities proffer a languid, rococo welcome.
As we round a bend, however, an alien hoves into view. Crouched on a grassy crest like a faceless, mechanical toad, this ominous 17ft-high creature is not some extra-terrestrial herald. Rather it is a sculpture by American minimalist Tony Smith. It is also one link in a chain of events that yokes together past and present, art and commerce, public duty and private passion, privilege and loss.
More prosaically, the work, entitled “Moondog”, is part of an exhibition of contemporary sculpture in the grounds of Waddesdon Manor. Organised by Christie’s, the show – in which the works are for sale as if in a gallery – is the latest in a series of private selling exhibitions that is proving a lucrative new market for auction houses. (Revenue from private sales at Christie’s has risen by 500 per cent since 2005. In 2011, it accounted for £502m, a rise of 44 per cent on the previous year.)
The benefits for Christie’s of a collaboration with Waddesdon are clear. An hour’s drive from central London, the stately home is easily accessible to international art buyers. And though Christie’s won’t be drawn on the details of running costs or commission, with blue-chip art works that include Damien Hirst’s “This Little Piggy Went to Market ...” (a bisected pig in formaldehyde), the Jeff Koons bronze “Aqualung” (1985) and a price list that spans £60,000 to £7.4m, the risks are surely worth taking.
The fact that Jacob Rothschild has accepted the role of host is perhaps more surprising. Waddesdon is, after all, a rare surviving testament to his family’s history as the leading collectors and tastemakers of 19th- and early-20th-century Europe.
Of more than 40 Rothschild houses built in Europe during that period, only Waddesdon has kept its collection intact. While other branches of the family surrendered their goods under a range of pressures, from economic necessity to Nazi looting, Waddesdon remains a flagbearer for “le goût Rothschild” – that opulent confection of French 18th-century furniture and Renaissance architecture that was the family’s signature style.
Before Lord Rothschild can explain the decision to contaminate this historic pleasure ground with contemporary art, we have to find time to meet in London. This proves no small challenge. In his 77th year, the 4th baron’s activities as banker, art collector and philanthropist ensure he remains a busy man. After resigning from the family bank NM Rothschild & Sons following a dispute in 1980, he now chairs investment trust company RIT Capital Partners, whose net assets approach £2bn. He also plays a role in several other international investment firms, including The Xander Group and The Blackstone Group.
The result is a life at the centre of global wealth and power. Waddesdon can count Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair among visiting world leaders. Rothschild’s philanthropic activities have included chairmanships of Britain’s National Gallery, National Heritage Memorial Fund and the National Heritage Lottery Fund. He has sat for portraits by both Lucian Freud, who was a friend, and David Hockney.
Given his reputation for reserve, I expect to negotiate an army of assistants before meeting him. Instead, a receptionist buzzes me into the lobby of the Georgian townhouse that is his London HQ and bids me climb the green-carpeted staircase. At the top stands Rothschild himself, no aide in sight. Dressed in a casual black corduroy jacket over a pale-blue shirt and tie, he looks distinguished yet friendly. With a warm smile, he introduces himself as “Jacob Rothschild”, and apologises for his previous cancellations.
He ushers me into a conference room enlivened by a red-and-white abstract by British painter Tony Bevan and two photographs of Central Park by American photojournalist Ruth Orkin – “I used to have an apartment there,” he later explains. The room also sees “a lot of American visitors”.
As we settle at the long table, empty save for a tray of mineral water and glasses, Rothschild eyes my tape recorder warily. It is, I suspect, only his commitment to Waddesdon that compels him to put himself through an ordeal-by-media at all. His association with the house began in 1988 when his aunt Dorothy died, leaving him both the Waddesdon estate and its adjoining twin, Eythrope (where he lives with his wife Serena in a 19th-century tea pavilion). Waddesdon Manor had been a National Trust property since Dorothy’s husband James bequeathed it in 1957. Today, Rothschild manages it through his family trust on the National Trust’s behalf.
Asked whether he finds the responsibility a duty or a burden, he replies in lazy, thoroughbred tones that fail to mask a brain permanently on red alert. “It’s both. But I love my involvement with Waddesdon.” Certainly, the house has thrived under his stewardship. From 1990 to 1994, he took the risk of closing it down entirely for a full-scale refurbishment. The gamble paid off; today, it welcomes about 350,000 visitors a year and is one of the National Trust’s most visited properties.
It’s not hard to see the attraction. The house was built in the 1870s by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild. Inconsolable after the death of his wife Evelina, the 35-year-old widower bought the stretch of farmland – so bleak, Ferdinand declared, “there was not a bush to be seen, nor was there a bird to be heard” – from the Duke of Marlborough. After employing French architects to design the house and grounds, he was rewarded with a Loire-style château.
The fruit of what Ferdinand himself called “Sisyphean” labours is a grandeur that is fanciful rather than forbidding. Behind the turreted, toffee-hued façade, the rooms brim with furniture that has been gilded and lacquered so lavishly that its original structure is but a memory. Savonnerie carpets cover the floors; the walls are dressed with tapestries designed by François Boucher and paintings by Gainsborough, Reynolds and Guardi. The collection of Sèvres porcelain includes pieces ordered by Marie Antoinette. To step inside Waddesdon is to time-travel back to an age when the aristocracy literally lost their heads for luxury.
So why is Rothschild transforming this vanitas for pre-revolutionary France with the shock of the new? “We like doing new things at Waddesdon and we believe they add to our visitor numbers.” He confirms that, as visitor numbers in the house are capped, it makes sense to focus on making the grounds as inviting as possible.
Long before Christie’s came to call, Rothschild was disturbing Waddesdon’s manicured lawns with potent contemporary sculpture. Though the installation of the 6ft-tall, blue-mirrored “Cracked Egg” by Jeff Koons was only temporary, Angus Fairhurst’s bronze gorilla is here for good – as is the life-sized Suffolk Punch draught horse pulling a cart filled with marrows by Fairhurst’s YBA contemporary Sarah Lucas – a witty nod to the teams of Percherons who tugged fully-grown trees up the hill so that Ferdinand could have a ready-made park. “It’s a wonderful piece that [I hoped] would attract a lot of visitors to Waddesdon – a lot of children, which it has done,” he says.
Yet his interest in the contemporary springs from passion as well as pragmatism. He describes the Fairhurst as having “a pathos and feeling that are subtle and interesting”; he actually accompanied Lucas to the caster to see her model enlarged for the first time: “She was in tears when she saw it.” He was moved, too, by the notion of showing Fairhurst and Lucas together. “They were great friends, you know.”
Last year, he unveiled the Windmill Hill Archive, a new building designed to house the Rothschild archives. Graced by modern and contemporary art, including Fairhurst’s gorilla, its centrepiece is an outdoor sculpture of slates commissioned from Richard Long, which appears to meander through the glass wall of the building and mingle with the tumbling lines of a wall work by the same artist. In truth, Rothschild was bred to embrace the avant-garde. As a leftwing student, his father Victor was part of the Cambridge circle that included Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess. His mother, a descendant of the Bohemian Strachey family, subsequently married Nikos Ghika, a painter often described as “the Greek Picasso”.
A first in history at Oxford nearly led to “some kind of an academic career, but I was solicited to join the family bank.” Yet his financial affairs never barred him from modernism’s inner sanctum; Matisse sent painted lilies on his grandmother’s birthday; in his twenties he regularly visited the Giacometti brothers [Diego and Alberto] in their Paris studio. “I became quite friendly with Diego ... and he asked me if I would like casts of all the chandeliers he was making for the Picasso Museum.” He chuckles at the memory. “I said, ‘That’s very generous of you. Yes, please.’”
Rothschild bought his first piece, a Cycladic-style figure by Alberto Giacometti, at the age of 25. “I had to sell my father’s stamp collection to afford it, which he had given to me. He was very cross!”
It seems unlikely that he is an impulsive buyer. “No,” he concurs. “But I am an impulsive looker” – a habit that may account for an artistic eye sufficiently eclectic to encompass not only Giacometti and Sarah Lucas but also “lesser-known 17th-century Venetian painting”. This latter pleasure is sparked, he thinks, by “the wonderful maritime view and light” at his family villa on Corfu. A particular favourite artist is Palma Il Giovane – “wonderful colour, wonderful light, in the tradition of Titian and Veronese”.
Would he buy Titian and Veronese if he could? He regards me incredulously. “Of course. I revere Titian and Veronese.”
His education in Old Masters makes him a breed apart from the hedge-funded bauble-hunters who have colonised much of the contemporary art market. (He gives a clipped “No” when I ask if he uses one of the art advisers that are fashionable of late.)
Curiously, his appreciation for the antique also fuelled his decision to host the Christie’s show. “I have always been interested in transcriptions of Old Master paintings by contemporary artists,” he explains, mentioning Lucian Freud’s transcription of Chardin’s painting “The Young Schoolmistress” in the National Gallery; the acquisition of a Leon Kossoff drawing of Poussin’s “Destruction and the Sack of the Temple in Jerusalem” (1625-26), a painting bought by the Rothschild Family Trust and donated to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem; and his recent purchase of a reproduction by an unknown 18th-century artist of Titian’s “Diana and Actaeon”.
What drew him in particular to the Christie’s project was the proposal by their head of contemporary and postwar art, Francis Outred, that the pieces should respond to Chardin’s 1735 painting “Boy Building a House of Cards”, which Rothschild acquired privately for £5m in 2007.
That purchase – “a very big acquisition for us” – was deeply significant for both the peer and his property on several levels. Chardin and the Rothschild dynasty are bound together by a poignant history that stretches back to 19th-century France, when Charlotte de Rothschild assembled one of the finest Chardin collections in the world. On inheriting it, her grandson Henri enlarged the collection further with purchases that included “Girl with a Shuttlecock” (1737), which once belonged to Catherine the Great of Russia. Yet during the second world war, when the paintings were sent to Bath for safekeeping, nearly three-quarters of them were destroyed, perhaps by flooding, perhaps by bombing – it has never been entirely clear.
Leaving aside the personal connection, “Boy Building a House of Cards” is a marvellous painting. It shows a young man, possibly a servant, alone at a table in front of a window, constructing a house of cards. It is a meditation on transience – of youth, of daylight, of all that we so painstakingly acquire and build – that captivates through its delicate play of muted tones and subtle, shifting light. Nothing is restless, extraneous or extravagant. It is, in other words, the antithesis of le goût Rothschild.
Chardin painted three more versions of “Boy...” and, in a curatorial grand slam, the baron managed to persuade the Louvre and the National Galleries of Washington and London respectively to lend them to him for “Taking Time”, an exhibition currently at Waddesdon. Despite its diminutive size, the show is rightly being hailed as revelatory for the insights it offers into the genius that Chardin – usually celebrated for his still-lifes – brought to his figure studies. (Alongside the quartet are six other Chardin paintings including the 1735 masterpiece “Lady Taking Tea”, on loan from The Hunterian at the University of Glasgow, and the privately-owned “Girl with a Shuttlecock”. This latter painting survived the war through a grim irony. Given by Henri to his son Philippe, it was appropriated by Herman Goering for his private collection when the Nazis occupied France, and subsequently returned to the family.)
When he talks about the Chardin exhibition, which runs until July, Rothschild lights up: “I love and revere Chardin ... I am thrilled by [this show.] It is an incredible pleasure [for us] and incredibly exciting for the United Kingdom.”
Asked what his desert-island painting would be, he picks his own Chardin. “He is a master of silence, isn’t he? Of atmosphere, of quietness.”
Little wonder then that the Christie’s proposal piqued his interest. From the outset, he was determined that the link between the contemporary pieces and their 18th-century precedents was genuine rather than a commercial gimmick. “A key piece to try and borrow was Richard Serra’s ‘House of Cards’,” he recalls, naming the American artist’s precarious four-sided structure, assembled from heavy lead panels sustained purely through their mutual equilibrium.
Outred, who is curating the show, tracked down the only version in steel in private hands, and persuaded the anonymous collector to lend it purely to give the exhibition curatorial heft. Certain other pieces also clearly resonate with Chardin’s themes. Hirst’s “Piggy”, for all its flashiness, ticks the mortality box. “Pavillon de Thé”, a giant teapot by Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos, which references Portugal’s tea imports, will sit on Waddesdon’s main lawn. Although not inspired directly by Chardin’s tea-drinker, the teapot, which will be proudly wreathed in jasmine, could be a three-dimensional pendant to that painting.
On the day I visited Waddesdon, installation was still under way. Over the past months, the curators have battled bad weather, egos and National Trust regulations. (How, for example, to install the 1,900kg “Moondog” on grass through which it is forbidden to dig deeper than six-and-a-half inches? The answer is by inserting a shallow steel plate known as a helipile.) Every decision on placing the sculptures must be agreed by a committee that includes Waddesdon’s chief curator, the gardener and the estate manager.
Today’s technical hitch concerns the placing of a cast-iron man by Antony Gormley. “We want to put it opposite the Serra [on the south terrace directly in front of the house],” Outred tells me. “But they have to rebed the flowers and bring the tractor along that path.”
Outred has not only ransacked the Christie’s contact book to track down pieces that fit the brief. In a move that demonstrates the growing slippage both between primary and secondary markets and between dealer and patron, he also commissioned works (by Vasconcelos and the Danish artist Jeppe Hein).
The result promises to be an intriguing and unpredictable encounter between one age of excess and another. A candy-hued chandelier, intricately constructed from tiny plastic figures by Korean artist Do-Ho Suh, sways between the honey-coloured columns of Waddesdon’s porch. And when “Bad Timing, Lamb Chop!”, Urs Fischer’s gigantic cigarette packet and chair, is unveiled on the building’s front lawn, I suspect that its brutal humour will be tamed by the patrician setting. The apparition of “Moondog”, brooding over beds of tulips and a statue of a half-naked neo-classical nymph, reveals that the ballast of minimalism is the perfect anchor for rococo frivolity. The presence of a giant ornamental bird made of soil and flowers close to the aviary is delightfully revealing of pop art’s debt to the conservative heritage it mocks. A recent recreation of the original model, which adorned the garden of Ferdinand’s sister, Alice, it has nothing to do with Christie’s show. Yet its affinity with Jeff Koons’ famous sculpture “Puppy” – the flowerbed shaped as a West Highland terrier that sits outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao – raises smiles. “Shall we try and sell it?” murmurs Outred.
For Rothschild, it is clearly a gamble that Waddesdon’s regular visitors will appreciate such ironies. Is he concerned? “I’m always concerned,” he replies wryly. “I am always nervous as to whether or not [something we do] is going to come off.”
What does not bother him is the potential criticism that such shows may inflate an already pumped-up market. “We have no commercial objectives ourselves in the exhibition,” he points out, underlining that, for Waddesdon, success hinges on an upturn in visitor numbers. “I admire what Christie’s and their competitors have done over the years.” As for the rampant commercialisation of contemporary art in general, his attitude is pragmatic: “Selfishly, I quite like it because it gives me an opportunity to collect in other areas.”
As our time draws to a close I ask him whether he is positive about the global economy in general. “Gotta go,” he says instantly. “That’s too big a subject. We have run out of time.” With that, he ushers me to the door, once again a master of silence to rival the painter he adores.