I’ve been to the Heights of Abraham above Quebec but there’s a similar excitement in the heights above the Vale of Aylesbury. Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild chose it for his retreat from London. More a defence against London if you prefer the military analogy.
The site is a hill overlooking the Vale; apparently there was an odd cone on the top. That was where the baron chose to build his house. Palace would be a better description. It was based on a French chateau, such as the Rothschild family knew before they came to this country. There are fascinating references to them in books by Edmund de Waal, who is indirectly related. More of that anon.
It took six years to build the original house, which was extended later. Eventually, as often happened it was offered to the National Trust but with a continuing family influence. This was only recently ended as the last former employee died, aged over 100, in an estate cottage. So ended a paternalistic but humanely benevolent system of management. All employees had enjoyed medical and welfare services that in these days of NHS austerity can only be envied. It was in a way medieval but none the worse for that in a post-feudal age.
Those were nuggets of information we gained from guides as we toured the house. More will follow. Nothing about it is original yet all of it is genuine. The shell is retro but interior fittings were all purchased from French estates that were being liquidated. The art work is also mainly French and of a very high quality. As for the contents of the treasury – someone asked her partner if the rubies were real and he said yes but not to his taste. That may be true but it didn’t prevent thieves a few years ago from raiding the house then incomprehensibly throwing items out of their getaway car as if to distract pursuit.
There are three dining rooms, one furnished for banquets with a conservatory stocked with carnivorous plants – emulation of what went on among the humans perhaps. The service is silver, arguing for sturdy joists beneath the floorboards. Dominating all is one of the grandest paintings imaginable.
The smaller dining rooms are no less impressive. The intention was to be a place of entertainment in the best social sense and it succeeded. Enhancing every room is art of a high order, and it is fitting that the house and stable still accommodate exhibitions.
Of great interest to anyone with a sense of twentieth century history is the room dedicated to the foundation of the state of Israel. There are models of Jerusalem and items of interest but most significant is the letter from HM Government that secured a loan to pursue victory in the First World War. This is the famous Balfour Declaration. The Rothschild and other wealthy Jewish families agreed to subsidise the Allied war effort and in return the British government agreed to look favourably upon the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, as long as the rights of the Palestinian people were respected. The rest is undoubtedly history.
Edmond de Waal’s relationship to the Franco-Jewish families is noted in both “The Hare with Amber Eyes” and “Letters to Camondo”. Something of the prejudice that led to the Dreyfus case is related. How these families needed to relocate was a loss to France and a gain for the UK.
From this room a somewhat perilous climb reaches the treasury – determined thieves they must have been – and, for me, its most exquisite treasure was a small painting by Leon Bakst. There are also small-scale Egyptian and classical antiquities as well as the family jewels for state occasions.
It is a fascinating but exhausting house. The grounds are a magnificent relief and the parterre a delight, with views that can only be described as commanding. However fit you are the bus from the entrance to the house at a modest £2 return is a great asset.