The Waddesdon Bequest
A new gallery at The British Museum
Opened Summer 2015
This summer The British Museum has opened a new gallery dedicated to the redisplay of The Waddesdon Bequest, the superb collection of medieval and Renaissance treasures left to the British Museum in 1898 by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild MP. The Waddesdon Bequest is the creation of a father and son in the famous Rothschild banking family: Baron Anselm von Rothschild (1803-1874) of Frankfurt and Vienna, and Baron Ferdinand Rothschild MP (1839-1898), who became a British citizen in 1860. The rise of the Rothschild family from the Frankfurt Ghetto to become the world’s bankers within two generations is one of the best-known “rags to riches” stories in Europe.
As an expression of power, wealth and discriminating intellectual taste, the collection tells the story of the rise of the Rothschilds as a new European aristocracy in the 19th century. Until Baron Ferdinand’s death in 1898, it was displayed in a specially-created room, The New Smoking Room, at his country retreat, Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire (now a National Trust house managed by the Rothschild Foundation).
According to the terms of the Bequest the collection has always been shown on its own in a separate room, and was previously displayed on the first floor of the British Museum. The new gallery, Room 2a, previously known as the Middle Room, was the original Reading Room and was part of Robert Smirke’s 1820s neo-classical suite which included the King’s Library (Room 1: The Enlightenment Gallery) and the Manuscripts Saloon (Room 2: Collecting the World). Both rooms were designed to act as an introduction to the origins and breadth of the British Museum’s collection and are now complemented by the addition of the Waddesdon Bequest.
This stunning new display contains some of the most impressive objects in the British Museum’s European collection. One of the most important objects is The Holy Thorn Reliquary, made of gold, enamel and gems sculpted around a simple thorn, supposedly from the Crown of Thorns worn by Christ at his Crucifixion. It was featured in the BBC Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects, and was described by Neil MacGregor as “a single-object museum”. As one of the most important Christian relics, the Crown of Thorns was acquired by Louis IX, King of France, in Constantinople in 1239 for the price of 135,000 livres – amazingly, nearly half the annual expenditure of France. The Reliquary was made in Paris around 1400 as a private devotional object for Jean, duc du Berry, one of the greatest collectors and art patrons of the late middle ages. In 1860 the reliquary went for repair to the restorer, Salomon Weininger, who copied it and sold the original which was acquired by Baron Anselm de Rothschild around 1873.
Another star object is The Lyte Jewel, a diamond-studded locket which was made in London in 1610-11 to hold a miniature of James VI and I of Scotland and England. It was presented by the King to Thomas Lyte of Lytes Cary, Somerset, in thanks for a royal genealogy which represented James as a descendant of Brutus, the mythical Trojan founder of the British nation.
Other highlights in the Bequest range from precious amber and rock crystal, curiosities formed from exotic shells, nuts, ostrich eggs and a “griffin claw”, microcarvings in boxwood and masterpieces of glass, ceramic, goldsmiths’ work and Limoges enamel.
This new gallery was made possible through a generous donation from the Rothschild Foundation and has been designed by the architects Stanton Williams, who won the Stirling Prize in 2012.
Daily 10am – 5.30pm
Fridays late until 8.30pm
The Waddesdon Bequest
The British Museum
Great Russell Street
Associated Exhibition at Waddesdon Manor
The Renaissance Museum:
Treasures from the Smoking Room
Until 25th October 2015
Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire HP18 0JH
To celebrate a new display of the Bequest at the British Museum, supported by the Rothschild Foundation, this exhibition at Waddesdon will examine the furnishings that surrounded the precious objects, that became the Waddesdon Bequest, in the 1890s and Ferdinand’s very conscious decision to decorate this part of the Bachelors’ Wing in Renaissance style. Changes made to the Smoking Room by Alice de Rothschild and its subsequent use and display are also be explored.