The Waddesdon Bequest
A Rothschild Renaissance

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Room 2a

Marvel at the Renaissance treasures collected by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild MP (1839–1898), displayed in a beautiful new gallery at the British Museum.

The Waddesdon Bequest is a superb collection of nearly 300 objects, left to the Museum in 1898 by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild. It consists of exceptionally important and beautiful medieval and Renaissance pieces, as well as a number of 19th-century fakes. Together, they paint a fascinating picture of the development of the art market in the late 19th century.

Baron Ferdinand originally displayed the collection in the specially designed New Smoking Room at Waddesdon Manor, his mansion in Buckinghamshire, after which he named the Bequest.

Explore the Waddesdon Bequest

See some of the treasures from the Waddesdon Bequest

Discover the story of Baron Ferdinand and his legacy

The new gallery

The new Waddesdon Bequest gallery at the British Museum
The new Waddesdon Bequest gallery at the British Museum
The new Waddesdon Bequest gallery at the British Museum

The Bequest is now displayed in Room 2a, a magnificent new gallery funded by The Rothschild Foundation. Alongside Rooms 1 and 2, it now forms part of a suite of rooms on the ground floor documenting the history of collecting and its relationship with taste, knowledge and the growth of the British Museum.

In the press

‘an unrivalled collection of precious baroque and Renaissance objects’

The Telegraph

‘a beautifully restored space... glittering, exquisite objects’

Apollo

‘some of the most impressive objects in the British Museum’

Harper’s Bazaar

Baron Ferdinand Rothschild and the Waddesdon Bequest

Greatly expanding a collection inherited from his father, Baron Ferdinand purchased objects that exemplify the renewal of interest in medieval and Renaissance art during his lifetime. The collection was modelled on the courtly European treasuries (known as Schatzkammern or Kunstkammern) formed by princes and rulers in Germany and Austria in the 16th century. To 19th-century collectors, these princely collections demonstrated power, wealth, knowledge and discernment – all of which can be seen reflected in the Waddesdon Bequest.

Find out more about Baron Ferdinand Rothschild on Wikipedia

Highlight objects

The Holy Thorn Reliquary

The Holy Thorn Reliquary

This splendid reliquary was made in Paris around 1400 to display a thorn from the crown allegedly worn by Jesus Christ at his crucifixion.

The thorn is displayed behind a crystal window and is identified by a Latin inscription that translates as ‘This is a thorn from the crown of Our Lord Jesus Christ’. It was originally made for Jean, duc de Berry (1340–1416), and was part of the Holy Roman Emperor’s Imperial Treasury by 1544. It was acquired by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild some time after 1860.

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From the collection online

The Lyte Jewel

The Lyte Jewel

The ‘Lyte Jewel’ is in fact an enamelled gold locket. The cover, set with diamonds, bears the royal monogram of James VI (of Scotland) and I (of England).

Inside the locket is James’ portrait on vellum by the great miniature painter Nicholas Hilliard. The jewel was presented by James to Thomas Lyte in thanks for his royal genealogy tracing James’ descent, through Banquo, from Brutus, the mythical Trojan founder of Britain. This was a political message which James used to establish his legitimacy as king of Great Britain. Baron Ferdinand Rothschild acquired it in 1882.

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From the collection online

Boxwood tabernacle

Boxwood tabernacle

This elaborate miniature tabernacle, carved in boxwood in the Netherlands around 1500–1530, was designed as a portable object of private devotion.

Standing just over 22cm tall, the tabernacle is set in a Gothic architectural framework. It consists of several sections which come apart to reveal in astonishing detail scenes from the life and Passion of Christ. It is an outstanding example of the minutely detailed, small-scale works of art that were owned by nobles or wealthy merchants in northern Europe during this period.

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From the collection online

The Palmer Cup

The Palmer Cup

The Palmer Cup is around 800 years old and of exceptional quality. It has survived thanks to being prized from the moment it was made.

It is made up of an enamelled glass beaker from Syria or Egypt in the early 1200s mounted on a silver-gilt foot made in France shortly afterwards. In 1893 a Mrs Palmer-Morewood took it to the British Museum for identification. Curator A W Franks suggested she put it up for auction, where it was purchased by Baron Ferdinand. Franks had probably tipped off the Baron in the hope that it would end up at the Museum.

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From the collection online

Huntsman automaton

Huntsman automaton

This automaton is in the form of a huntsman. It is a rare survival from German drinking parties of the early 17th century.

It was made by Wolf Christoff Ritter of Nuremberg around 1617–1620. It retains its original (now broken) mechanism, which would have propelled it across a dining table on three hidden wheels in the base. It is a trick wine cup – according to contemporary dining custom, the person it stopped in front of was expected to remove the head and drink all the wine from the hollow figure.

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From the collection online

Hippocamp pendant

Hippocamp pendant

This splendid pendant, made of enamelled gold, emeralds and pearls, is in the form of a hippocamp (sea horse) with a Native American rider.

It was probably made in Paris in the early 19th century, but is modelled on jewels made in the 16th century that were intended to show off massive deep-green emeralds from the Colombian mines in the New World. It is set with 13 impressive cabochon and table-cut emeralds and the rider is separately cast.

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From the collection online

Turquoise glass goblet

Turquoise goblet

This goblet was made in Venice in the late 1490s from extremely rare turquoise glass, imitating the semi-precious stone turquoise.

The stem is made of a darker blue glass and imitates lapis lazuli, another prized stone. The whole exterior is decorated with bright enamel and gilding. On the bowl of the glass, two round panels feature pairs of richly dressed lovers, one in sunlight, the other moonlit. The figures probably represent love or chastity, suggesting that the goblet was made to celebrate a marriage or betrothal.

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From the collection online

The Deblín Cup

The Deblín Cup

This dazzling and exceptionally large Venetian cup is made of soda glass, making it light in weight, but also giving it a great sense of clarity.

To make the body, ribs were formed in a mould before being pinched together to form lozenges. These were filled with blobs of richly coloured glass, which were then gilded for a jewel-like effect. The shape of the cup imitates late Gothic goldsmiths' work, although creating it in glass requires much more agility. Its name comes from a Czech inscription on the base toasting the Lords of Deblín in Moravia, near Brno in the modern-day Czech Republic.

From the collection online

New book

A Rothschild Renaissance
Treasures from the Waddesdon Bequest

Curator Dora Thornton’s new, sumptuously illustrated book unlocks the history and romance of this spectacular collection by looking at some of its greatest treasures and the unique and intriguing stories they tell.

Available now from the British Museum shop online

Double-page spread from Dora Thornton's new book, A Rothschild Renaissance

Waddesdon Manor

Built by Ferdinand Rothschild in the 1870s in the style of a 16th-century French château, the magnificent Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire is now a National Trust property, open to the public and managed by the Rothschild Foundation. Its sumptuous interiors house a world-famous collection of 18th-century French porcelain and furniture, as well as an important collection of European paintings. The Renaissance-style New Smoking Room, the Bequest’s original home, can also be visited along with the rest of the Bachelors’ Wing.

Visit the Waddesdon Manor website to find out more

The New Smoking Room at Waddesdon Manor

The New Smoking Room at Waddesdon Manor, as it looks today. © The National Trust, Waddesdon Manor. Photo: John Bigelow Taylor

Background images

The New Smoking Room at Waddesdon Manor, as it looked in 1897. © The National Trust, Waddesdon Manor

Baron Ferdinand Rothschild and his dog Poupon. © The National Trust, Waddesdon Manor

The South Front of Waddesdon Manor, as it looks today. © The National Trust, Waddesdon Manor. Photo: Richard Bryant