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The Rothschild treasury

by
23 October 2015

Nicholas Cranfield visits the new gallery at the British Museum

The Waddesdon Bequest © The Trustees of the British Museum

Carved: a miniature tabernacle, 1510-25, which opens like a flower and comes apart to reveal minutely detailed scenes of the life of Christ

Carved: a miniature tabernacle, 1510-25, which opens like a flower and comes apart to reveal minutely detailed scenes of the life of Christ

THE tale "from rags to riches" is a commonplace in any society that espouses the cardinal sins of envy and greed as credal. Rarely are those who succeed as innocent as Cinderella, or even Aladdin.

Western capitalist communities have more recently taken up the pattern by exalting entrepreneurship while often criticising the individuals who have become successful, whether in pyramid-selling scams or on the football field. As we continue to see the gap between the rich and the poor widen, so in the UK we witness an ever smaller number of persons owning more of the nation’s wealth.

How many of them are really philanthropists, and why does the Government not do more to make it easier for individuals and families to make charitable gifts available for the general good?

The extraordinary story of the emergence of the Rothschild family from the cramped ghetto of Frankfurt to become the financial brokers of European kings within two generations in the 19th century is widely known. From the Judengasse, five brothers set out and established banking houses in Paris, London, Vienna, Naples, and Frankfurt. Each branch became wealthy at an almost incomparable level with anything before.

During the 19th century, they held 45 country estates across Europe, of which Waddesdon Manor, in Buckinghamshire, is the only collection to survive intact. When Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild died in 1898, he donated his treasure house, or Kunstkammer, to the British Museum, stipulating that it must always be housed together in one room.

He may have had in mind Turner’s bequest of all his paintings to the nation, yet to be honoured, and in turn he inspired Dr Ludwig Mond, in 1909, whose gift to the National Gallery of 42 Old Master paintings was conditional on their being displayed together.

Unlike Somerset House and the National Gallery, the British Museum has always honoured the terms of the outstanding Rothschild gift, and the treasures now on show have previously been sited in Room 45.

Now the architectural partnership Stanton Williams has enabled the museum to redesign one of Sir Robert Smirke’s original ground- floor rooms to house it, and to evoke something of the New Smoking Room at Waddesdon, where the Baron contained what was essentially a Renaissance museum. The solution is an apt one, although the refracted light from the upper windows can be distracting (as is the unhelpful projected video recreating something of Waddesdon’s interiors).

The architects have designed a number of wall cases and free-standing rhomboid glass cases allowing the whole collection to be seen at a glance as a treasury. In the first cabinet, on its own, is the Holy Thorn reliquary (photo, News, 12 June), beckoning the visitor to enter this glistering display of gold.

The choice of the collection was immensely personal, and Rothschild eschewed the antique, preferring to collect later medieval and Renaissance items, and Judaica.

The one exception, collected later in the Baron’s life, is the two Hellenistic silver handles from a lost urn dated to the last century before Christ. The busts of Dionysus and of Ariadne appear in highly moulded relief on one of the handles, and those of Persephone and Pluto appear on the other. The delicacy of each sculpted head attests to the sheer ability of Greek craftsman to redefine beauty.

It is said that they were obtained from grave goods found near the Black Sea coast town of Samsun, in Turkey. The city was anciently known as Amisos to the Greek settlers from Miletus, although it appears as Enete in The Iliad, and it served as a major port in the Roman province of Pontus. More recently (1995), an undisturbed Hellenistic tomb has been uncovered there, with grave goods thought to date from the time of King Mithridates. The Rothschild heads remain silent witnesses to a highly sophisticated culture, to which the hapless poet Ovid was exiled.

Of the medieval works in the collection, I was particularly struck by the supposed statuette of St Catherine from the workshop of Jan van Steffeswert (c.1465/70-1531), who was working around Maastricht in the first quarter of the 16th century. It stands just 93cm high, and weighs more than 10kg.

The woodcarver has depicted the crowned princess trampling her tormentor, the Emperor Maximilian, under foot as she holds an oversize two-handed sword (seemingly not the original). Her downward gaze admits of martyrdom — Maximilian had the last laugh in that sense — but the statue, which still bears traces of its original paintwork, would have inspired women to speak out against male oppression.

Another female martyr who refused to marry a pagan is commemorated on the reliquary casket of St Valérie (Limoges 1170/72), where the narrative is captured in champlevé enamel work in telling detail. A headsman is charged to lead the first martyr of Aquitaine to her execution, and, as his blade descends, she gracefully catches her own decapitated head. On the lid, an angel is seen bearing her head to the bishop as God’s arrow strikes the executioner dead. 

As part of his investiture as Duke of Aquitaine in St Étienne’s Cathedral in Limoges in 1172, Richard Lionheart had worn a ring of St Valerie, 18 years before he became the anointed King of England. It is likely that this casket reliquary (and another that can be found in the Hermitage) was produced around that time.

The jewel-like quality of so many of the articles on display, including the figures surrounding the relic of the Holy Thorn, makes the individual items of jewellery even richer to the eye. From the 1550s and 1560s onwards, Renaissance ladies wore increasingly extravagant pendant brooches comprising a wealth of gemstones. The Augsburg goldsmith Erasmus Hornick did much to popularise the architectural pendants that drip with diamonds, emeralds, beryl, rubies, and pearls.

Baron Ferdinand collected many such objets d’art and was sometimes in hock to 19th-century forgers as a result, although their own deceptive works of pastiche testify to real craftsmanship.

The most extraordinary story of forgery and theft is that of how the Baron came to own the jewel that contains one of the spines from the crown of thorns and the white Madonna that was made for Jean Duc de Berry sometime after 1392. Many members of the French royal family treasured the thorns that had been purchased in 1239 by St Louis of France.

They had also shared in his devotion, which had led to the building of the Sainte Chapelle in Paris. Jean had built a lookalike chapel at Riom (Puy de Dôme), when he became sovereign of the Auvergne (1388), and a second replica chapel four years later at Bourges, in which he wished to be buried.

During his lifetime, it seems that the reliquary was given away, and it came into the hands of the imperial Hapsburgs, where it was recorded in 1544. In the 1860s, it was sent for restoration to a well-known Parisian antique dealer, Salomon Weininger. He had a copy forged, which was returned to Vienna, and, by 1872, the original had come into the hands of the Rothschilds. Weininger’s forgeries led to a prison sentence in 1876, but the true reliquary was never returned to its rightful owners.

 

Visit the gallery The Waddesdon Bequest: A Rothschild Renaissance at the British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1.

Phone 020 7323 8299. www.britishmuseum.org

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