The Waddesdon Bequest
A Rothschild Renaissance

Free
Room 2a

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

The Waddesdon Bequest is a collection of nearly 300 objects, left to the Museum in 1898 by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild. It consists of exceptionally important 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.

The collection takes its name from Baron Ferdinand's Buckinghamshire mansion, Waddesdon Manor, where it was displayed in a specially designed setting, the New Smoking Room.

New app for families

Download the new Waddesdon App on the App Store

Take on Baron Ferdinand's Challenge, a free app for families based on the Waddesdon Bequest. 
It can be enjoyed both at the Museum and at home.

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The Waddesdon Bequest on film

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 Waddesdon Bequest is now displayed on the groud floor in Room 2a, a new gallery funded by The Rothschild Foundation. With Rooms 1 and 2, it forms part of a suite of galleries that document the history of collecting and its relationship with knowledge, taste and the expansion 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 (1839–1898)

As a collector, aesthete, philanthropist and politician, Baron Ferdinand Rothschild was a prominent member of the Victorian establishment, but also an intensely private man. He grew up in Vienna before moving to England, where he married a cousin, Evelina, who died in childbirth 18 months later. At the age of 34 he inherited a vast fortune, dedicating much of his life to building Waddesdon Manor, his Buckinghamshire seat, and filling it with works of art.

One aspect of this was Baron Ferdinand's collection of Renaissance objects, now known as the Waddesdon Bequest. It was modelled on the courtly European treasuries (Schatzkammern or Kunstkammern) formed by German and Austrian rulers in the 16th century. To 19th-century collectors, these princely collections demonstrated power, wealth, knowledge and discernment. Building on a much smaller collection of curiosities inherited from his father, Baron Ferdinand's purchases exemplify the renewal of interest in medieval and Renaissance art in the Victorian era.

The collection was housed in the New Smoking Room at Waddesdon, the backdrop to a sophisticated social scene, with Baron Ferdinand playing host to some of the most influential and famous figures of the day.

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

The Waddesdon Bequest microsite

Take an in-depth look at every object in the Waddesdon Bequest on a new specially designed microsite.

Discover more about the objects that make up the Waddesdon Bequest with hundreds of high-resolution, zoomable images, label texts, curator's notes and object details. The microsite includes filters and infographics to make it easier to explore the collection, at home or in the Museum.

Visit the microsite

A sample page from the Waddesdon microsite

A new book on the Waddesdon Bequest

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 from shop online

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

Waddesdon Manor

Built by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild in the 1870s in the style of a 16th-century French château, the Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire is now a National Trust property, open to the public and managed by the Rothschild Foundation. Its 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

In July 2015, a conference entitled ‘Something rich and strange’: Cabinets of Curiosity in the English Country House took place at Waddesdon Manor. A summary of the research presented and videos of some of the lectures can be found on the Waddesdon Manor website.

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