Coming to the countryside after a gap of more than four months, I find that an entire season has gone by. The last I remember of the hills were their fresh greens, with a generous sprinkling of daffodils here and there. Today I find the pastures are still as green but the arables wear a different colour. The harvest is over. The fields are bare except for the rolls of hay dotting them. Rectangular bales are stacked up under sheds that are overflowing with the bounty of nature. Trees are heavy with the weight of apples. It will be quite a few more months before they ripe or fall. It is irrelevant whether I travel or not; whether I manage a sedentary routine indoors or an active pursuit under the open skies; nature will proceed at her own will and in her own cycles of time, life and death.
In these months my life had changed. The months were long and slow. The usual swiftness of time has remained so but while it lasted it was not perceived as such. Today for once I am making an attempt to get back to what I enjoy most, the discovery of this land while there is still time to do so – for life is short and the end is always unexpected and too soon.
Waddesdon, a small village west of Aylesbury lies in the county of Buckinghamshire. It is about 25 miles from Woodstock and has many similarities with the latter. Both are admirable villages containing many old buildings with impressive facades. Both lie at the doorstep of famous estates – Waddesdon Manor for Waddesdon and Blenheim Palace for Woodstock. In both cases, the fame and prosperity of the villages is very much the shadow of the estates they serve. There is yet one more connection. The area that is now occupied by Waddesdon Manor was purchased by Ferdinand de Rothschild from the Duke of Marlborough in 1874.
My usual wanderings by public footpaths and bridleways had to be substituted with public transport. The problem with Luton is that it is connected by train by only one main line, south towards London and north towards Bedford. Otherwise, it is not connected by train to any of the neighbouring towns east or west. By bus, Luton is well connected. Arriva Shires and Essex buses serve much of the counties of Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire. The services are well-timed and the connections are good, but to use them requires a bit of planning. One can’t just take off at the last minute or change itineraries at will. One is not in London.
The grounds open only at 10 am but I was allowed in at 9.30 am since I wasn’t driving. So here is yet another advantage of travelling without a car. The approach to the manor from the village of Waddesdon is by an easy road that winds along a valley surrounding a moderate hill. The hill and its environs are sufficiently wooded to keep the house a secret to the last. When the house finally comes into view it is only in glimpses. Chestnuts, yews, beeches and conifers are in plenty. Oaks and limes are also present. There is a blue Atlantic cedar planted by King Edward VII in 1906. There is also a mammoth tree, Sequoiadendron giganteum. Some of these trees look so ancient and venerable that in passing them I sensed their ancient spirit, their rooted lives and unspoken wisdom matured from silent observations. All these make it a pleasant prospect today, a reality only by the foresight, planning and diligence of Ferdinand de Rothschild. He saw something in the unpromising barren dry hill with a short plateau that it once was when he had purchased it.
Waddesdon Manor did not come as a surprise. It is difficult to be surprised in this age of photography, publishing and information overload. I had seen the facade of the manor long before in guidebooks. The architecture of French Renaissance is something that pleases me a great deal but it was not a novel experience. I had seen some wonderful French chateaus of the Loire valley some years ago. The feeling was more of familiarity than of novelty. Yet in an English setting it is something new for my English travels, something different from the more familiar Tudor, Elizabethan, Victorian or Palladian styles. This is a grand house from the end of the 19th century, of the Victorian era but not Victorian in that sense. This is the style of 16th century French architecture, a splendid example of the fact that it is the French who set the style and it is the English who follow. It is also an example of a love of the past in preference to more modern styles.
The elaborate embellishments on the exterior are beautifully done and well-preserved. They are perhaps a little overdone but not oppressive. They are balanced. This balance is achieved by the use of proportions that are so important in Renaissance architecture. Symmetric design contributes to this balance. The balance is also consolidated by the colours, the warm yellow shades of the stones matched against the muted blues and greys of the roofs, turrets and pinnacles.
Of the interiors and their luxurious contents, a description would run into many pages. Every item is worth noting: carpets, curtains, walls, panelling, cabinets, desks, commodes, tabletops, tapestries, paintings, decorative porcelain, clocks… Some brief thoughts are captured here.
- Here I found two associations with the National Gallery of Scotland. Firstly, there are two portraits by Thomas Gainsborough, of Lady Sheffield and Mrs Douglas. The latter in particular is a superb execution. But neither of these is good enough to replace Gainsborough’s portrait of Mrs Graham. Secondly, there is a miniature copy of Canova’s “The Three Graces”, of gilt bronze on marble. I found that the original is not the one in Edinburgh but another in St Petersburg.
- There is this meaningless obsession with collecting. Here we find fans and buttons being collected. Books are collected for the single purpose of decorating the room. Bookbindings have prized artwork, more valuable than words, so that here we may justly say that it is enough to judge a book by its cover. Porcelain dinner sets are beautifully displayed. This is the problem with rare and expensive stuff. You can’t really use them. They are passed on generation to generation without serving their intended purposes.
- Unlike many houses that contain an enfilade this one doesn’t. The arrangement and access of rooms here are excellent. There is good separation between public and private spaces. Mention is made that the East Gallery was designed to house the two huge paintings by Guardi. The common man builds the house and then decides how to furnish them. A passionate collector of the arts does the reverse.
- In the West Gallery there stands a clock designed by Andre-Charles Boulle in 1715. It has the representation of the four continents since Australia was then unknown to the western world. A parallel is seen in the gardens outside where there is a group of four statues, one for each continent; but surely by this time Australia would have been discovered? Representation of the four continents in art has become almost a tradition, a deliberate ignorance of the newer continents. This is like the survival of the expression “between Saturn and the fixed stars” even after the discovery of Uranus.
- I learnt a new art term: capriccio. It is an architectural fantasy that combines elements of realism and imagination. It is a balanced combination of ruin and preservation. It attempts to create a romantic atmosphere in picturesque settings. It was in vogue in the 18th century when the discovery of Herculaneum and Pompeii kindled interest in antiquity. So we find men and women wandering among romantic ruins that have withstood troubling times to deserve a peace that is expected to prevail.
- What I appreciated most is the power of collective enterprise that made all this wealth for the Rothschild family. The family crest of the five arrows bound together in unity signifies this. In no other visit have I learnt so much and with such interest about the creators of the property. There is money to be made in banking and finance. There is sense in marrying within the family to keep the wealth secure. There is sense too in diversifying into newer industries of revenue and reputation such as represented by the vineyards of Lafite and Mouton.
The parterre gardens, formal and out of fashion as they are for our modern times, are still beautiful. The nature of these gardens is that the pattern can be admired from a high viewpoint in the same spirit as Elizabethan knot gardens. The walks in the gardens are pleasant but they do not impress or surprise. Such things belong only to great gardens that I have seen elsewhere in my travels.
But there is one garden that captured my attention a good deal, The Rose Garden. The point of interest was the names given to the roses. Most are classified as English roses and most of these are named after people – Noble Antony, Baroness Rothschild, Miss Alice, L.D. Braithwaite, Graham Thomas, Grace, Getrude Jekyll, Crown Princess Margereta. The last two of this group are alike in their whorl of petals and almost alike in scent and colour so that it is difficult to tell them apart. Moreover, Crown Princess Margereta was seen in more than one colour. So one wonders the basis for these names. Then there are others that have literary connections – William Shakespeare 2000, Christopher Marlow, Falstaff, A Shropshire Lad, Tess of the D’urbervilles. There are some modern shrub roses that have fewer petals and smaller cups but just as attractive – Jacqueline Du Pre, Baby Love. How about Teasing Georgia? This is a cream-coloured rose whose outer petals are flushed open while the inner ones are half-closed, linked together in a self-composed privacy that is displayed in provocative glimpses. There is the hybrid musk rose, Nur Mahal, with a strong scent. A climbing English rose is aptly named the Pilgrim. Yet another curious name is the Ingenious Mr Fairchild. Perhaps the rose is just as ingenious; or rather its creator thinks he is ingenious for this plethora of names and varieties is the result of laboratory cross-pollination to create more than what nature wants to provide. So man is always searching for new things in an old world. Contentment and greed, creativity and need, play an interesting game.
The aviary is a rare addition to any English manor house. It’s a small collection of exotic birds for the childish pleasure of visitors. Imagine, birds that once flew in the great forests of Amazon or Borneo locked up in a small artificial space shared with other birds, living their lives in a different climate, making hopeless calls for help that are heard as sweet songs for our entertainment. These days it is easy to justify such things in the name of preservation of endangered species; and so they lock up two birds of the same species in a constrained space. Being bored and together they will naturally mate for the benefit of the species. We take the credit. An example of this is the “Rothschild’s mynah” once endangered in their native island of Bali but now thriving in captivity that may lead to an introduction to the wild. It’s a difficult issue. As humans we have encroached and destroyed their natural habitats; and so we must take responsibility and make amends. But in what form should this responsibility be discharged? Will the last two specimens of any species care more for the continuity of their species or for their own freedom? This preservation of nature is only an excuse for our own survival.
The return journey from Waddesdon required a wait of nearly two hours at Aylesbury. It was only because I didn’t stick to my original plan. Waddesdon Manor was so good that I lingered late into the afternoon when much of the crowd had already disappeared. Worse still, I almost missed the bus at Aylesbury simply because I had forgotten the art of taking public transport. The bus displayed “2” on the side and was printed with destinations that were not mine. Only by enquiring with the driver did I find out that the bus was Route 61 going to Luton. The return journey was by slow country roads passing delightful villages. At Tring, I noted a pub named The Robin Hood. I also noted directions to the Zoological Museum which was founded by one of the Rothschild family. At Ivinghoe, I saw its windmill from the road. At Dunstable, I passed the Luton and Dunstable Hospital, a familiar place.