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Meet the fantastic beasts of Waddesdon Manor

a detail photograph of a mechanical elephant adorned with gold and attended by figures

Hubert Martinet, Musical Automaton 1768?-1772 chased bronze, with gilt-bronze, patinated bronze, and polychrome oil paint, ornamented with white, red, green, blue and yellow paste, mother of pearl and glass covers, carved oak base. Waddesdon (National Trust) Bequest of James de Rothschild, 1957. Photo: Waddesdon Image Library

There are many fantastic beasts to be found at Waddesdon Manor, the former weekend retreat and repository of the Renaissance object d’art collection of Victorian banker and politician Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild. Here are ten of them

Triton supporting a Nautilus shell, the shell engraved by Cornelius Bellekin c. 1700, the triton c. 1800-30

a small desk sculpture of a silver figure holding a decorated shell

Cornelius Bellekin, Triton with a nautilus shell c 1700 {nautilus shell} c 1810-1830 {Triton and base} silver, gold, shell, ivory, ink and marble. Waddesdon (Rothschild Family). Photo: Waddesdon Image Library, Mike Fear

This triton (half-man half-fish) and his exquisitely engraved nautilus shell had been separated and were re-discovered in 2000 by one of Waddesdon’s curators, who spotted the complete object in a print recording the interiors of William Beckford’s house. Shell and figure were subsequently reunited.

It belonged to William Beckford, who had nine nautilus cups in his collection. It was then in the possession of the Duke of Hamilton and was sold in the famous Hamilton Palace sale in 1882.

Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild displayed this object alongside other curiosities, including a fruit made of amethysts and jade and an automaton of a carriage. Today the piece can be found in the Smoking Room display at Waddesdon Manor.

Musical Automaton, Hubert Martinet, c. 1768-1772

a model of an elephant decorated with gold figures on base of green and gold

Hubert Martinet, Musical Automaton 1768?-1772 chased bronze, with gilt-bronze, patinated bronze, and polychrome oil paint, ornamented with white, red, green, blue and yellow paste, mother of pearl and glass covers, carved oak base. Waddesdon (National Trust) Bequest of James de Rothschild, 1957. Photo: Waddesdon Image Library

The elephant automaton was one of Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild’s most admired treasures. It is operated by two keys inserted in the belly of the elephant and the base. The base plays a musical tune. The triumphal Emperor riding the elephant, and the four musicians on the base, move to and fro, while the paste flowers, designed to imitate diamonds, rotate, open and close. The elephant’s ears flap, tail and eyeballs swivel and he waves his trunk.

The automaton was made in London, rumoured to have been ordered as a gift for an Indian official, though this would seem unlikely. It was exhibited several times in London, the Netherlands and Paris before it was bought by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild. It was mentioned in an 1889 issue of the Bucks Herald newspaper describing the visit of the Shah of Persia, who asked to see it perform again and again.

It is on display in the East Gallery at Waddesdon and is turned on for some bookable tours. It even has its own twitter account…

Perfume fountain, the porcelain Kakiemon 1680-90, the mounts French c. 1720

 a porcelain fish with added decoration

Kakiemon fish mounted as a perfume fountain 1675-1725, porcelain and gilt bronze Waddesdon (National Trust) Bequest of James de Rothschild, 1957. Photo: Waddesdon Image Library, Eost and Macdonald

The original purpose of this fish-shaped porcelain bottle is not known, but it is thought to have arrived in France in the 1700s, where it was turned into a perfume fountain. No other fish-shaped bottle is known in Japanese porcelain of this date.

Japanese porcelain was hugely prized in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, and this is demonstrated by the use of mounts, which both transform the piece’s function and show that the porcelain is being treated as a precious material.

Today the bottle is on display in the Morning Room at Waddesdon Manor.

Sanchuniaton on his chimera, attributed to Charles-Germain de Saint Aubin, c1740-c1775

a drawing of a figure standing on the back of a creature with antlers and a tortoise like shell

Attributed to Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin, Voitures du tems de Sanchoniaton c 1740-c 1775 {nd} watercolour, ink and graphite on paper. Waddesdon (National Trust) Bequest of James de Rothschild, 1957. Photo: Waddesdon Image Library, Bodleian Imaging Services

This drawing depicts Sanchuniaton, a semi-mythical Phoenician scholar who lived in the thirteenth century BC, standing on the back of a green tortoise-like chimera.

It is in an album of caricatures and comic drawings by a French artist, Charles-Germain de Saint Aubin. Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild had a large collection of 18th-century books and bought this one in 1893 from the sale of G.-H. Destailleur’s collection – Destailleur was also Waddesdon’s architect.

This album is in the bookcases in the Morning Room, but you can browse through the whole volume online, and discover other fantastic beasts.

Inkstand in the shape of a lion, salt-glazed stoneware, c.1750

a photo of a porcelain lion rearing up and holding a column

Lion candlestick and inkstand stoneware. Waddesdon (National Trust) Gift of Dorothy de Rothschild, 1971. Photo: Waddesdon Image Library, Eost and Macdonald

This fierce and fantastic lion is actually an inkstand. The lion leans on the candle-holder, whilst an inkwell, a pounce-pot (for holding sand to sprinkle on wet ink) and holes for quill pens sit by his feet.

He was made in the Rhineland, a part of Germany renowned for its stoneware, which in the eighteenth century exported all over Europe. He usually lives in the Armoury Corridor, alongside several other (equally fabulous) ceramic creations.

Panelling in the Green Boudoir, originally from the hôtel Dodun in Paris, c.1725-30

a detail of a dragon decoration in gold on a gilded ceiling decoration

Detail: Overdoor panel 1725-1730, oak, paint, varnish and gold. Waddesdon (National Trust) Bequest of James de Rothschild, 1957. Photo: Waddesdon Image Library, Eost and Macdonald

This dragon features in the chinoiserie panelling in the Green Boudoir at Waddesdon. He sits alongside various other fabulous creatures, including a smoking monkey and a tea-drinking cat.

It came from a Parisian town house called the hôtel Dodun. The panels were bought by Baron Ferdinand, who created the Green Boudoir to fit the panels. Today you can see this dragon is flying high above the doors.

Floats on the River Arne in Florence, published by Pierre Giffart, Paris, c.1664

a print showing people on fantastical floats resembling sea creatures on the river

Pierre Giffart, Le magnifique carousel 1664, Waddesdon (National Trust) Bequest of James de Rothschild, 1957. Photo: Waddesdon Image Library

These prints depict fantastical beasts that are actually floats from the wedding festivities of Cosimo II Duke of Tuscany in 1608.

Land and water floats, chariots and machines were popular from the 16th to the 18th centuries, appearing in many festivals, including royal entrances, carousels, marriage festivities and even theatrical performances. The moving platforms were elaborately decorated to express the theme of the event; a perfect combination of ingenuity and fantasy.

This specific print can be found in Le magnifique carousel, a series of prints, from Waddesdon’s book collection. The Christmas decorations in one of the bathrooms in the manor are inspired by these floats.

Pendant in the form of a reclining centaur

a pendant resembling a centaur made from porcelain and gold leaf on a gold chain,

Pendant c 1575 {body} c 1830 {upper sections, tail and chain} gold, enamel and freshwater pearl. Waddesdon (National Trust). Accepted by HM Government in lieu of inheritance tax and allocated to the National Trust for display at Waddesdon Manor, 1963. Photo: Waddesdon Image Library, Mike Fear

When this was acquired by Baroness Betty de Rothschild, she believed it to be a Renaissance jewel. We now know that the pendant is actually a skillful 19th-century confection, though the base is likely to be original.

Scholars have suggested the Waddesdon centaur was made in Central Europe, England or Italy. Baroque or freshwater pearls ingeniously incorporated into bodies of figures and animals became popular in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Artists began using misshapen pearls and combined them in intriguing and inventive ways – as heads, stomachs, helmets or bodies. Forgers in the early 19th-century were also attracted to this aesthetic, and this example is likely to be one of these. The first Duke of Buckingham and Chandos is also known to have bought forged Renaissance jewels during a grand tour of Italy in 1829, most probably in Florence.

This pendant is currently on display in the Smoking Room at Waddesdon Manor

Vase à têtes d’éléphant, Sèvres porcelain manufactory, c. 1760

a pink percalin vase with eighteenth century painted figures and two sculpted elephants at the top

Manufacturer Sèvres porcelain manufactory, Vase c 1760, soft-paste porcelain. Waddesdon (National Trust) Accepted by HM Government in lieu of inheritance tax and allocated to the National Trust for display at Waddesdon Manor, 1990. Photo: Waddesdon Image Library, Mike Fear

The elephant head vase, which originally had candle-holders in the elephants’ trunks – is one of the iconic shapes produced by the Sèvres manufactory.

It was designed by Jean-Claude Chambellan Duplessis, who was responsible for many of the Sèvres manufactory’s most innovative and daring shapes in the rococo style. It was probably part of a set of 5 vases bought by Louis XV in 1760.

There are seven different elephant head vases at Waddesdon, and this one will be on display in a new location from next season.

Lion-shaped Ewer, c.1580-1600 (mounts c.1600-1800)

a lion shaped vessel on a metal stem

Ewer 1580-1600 {mounts c 1600-c 1800}, clear glass, opaque white glass and silver. Waddesdon (National Trust) Bequest of Dorothy de Rothschild,1988. Photo: Waddesdon Image Library, Mike Fear.

It looks completely improbable but this object had a practical function. The lion’s tail is in fact a spout.

Glass of this type was invented in Venice. By the 17th century, several commentators noted the fashion for Venetian drinking vessels made in the most elaborate forms: as ships, birds, bells, horses or even as a church. Trick glasses designed to fool drinkers and spectators were also popular. Glass made in this latticino style was quickly made elsewhere in Europe, including the Low Countries and in Spain. This makes it difficult to locate where each piece was manufactured. Baron Ferdinand acquired it for his ‘Renaissance Museum’ at Waddesdon.

This striking beast can be found perched above the fireplace in the Smoking Room.

Although Waddesdon Manor is now closed for the winter, some rooms, beautifully decorated for Christmas, will reopen from 11.30am – 6pm, Wednesday – Sunday, November 10 2018 – January 2 2019.

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Waddesdon Manor - National Trust

Nr Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire

Waddesdon Manor is a magnificent French Renaissance-style château housing the Rothschild Collection of art treasures. The garden is renowned for its seasonal displays, colourful shrubs and mature trees. There is a fully-stocked Rococo-style aviary, a superb cellar of wines, licensed restaurants, gift and wine shops. Events are organised throughout the…

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