Take a Twelve Days of Christmas tour through the surprisingly festive collection of treasures at Waddesdon Manor
A partridge in a pear tree
For the first day of Christmas we look to Waddesdon’s Aviary in which we find two different types of partridge. The female crested partridge, Rollulus rouloul, and the female collared partridge, Arborophila gingica are both classified as ‘near threatened’. The Aviary takes part in important conservation breeding projects of endangered species. Looking after these rare and magnificent birds does actually involve feeding them small pieces of pear.
In Baron Ferdinand’s day, the Aviary would have been a great attraction for his late-19th-century guests during tours of the gardens. Following a custom established by rulers and the nobility from the late 1600s, owning exotic birds and animals was a sign of power, wealth and knowledge. The cast iron structure of Waddesdon’s Aviary, erected in 1889 and now beautifully restored, is similar to trelliswork pavilions designed for the gardens of Versailles.
Two turtle doves
The collection may not contain any turtle doves, but the material of this eighteenth-century Italian snuff-box makes it a perfect fit for the second day of Christmas. The lid of this turtle-shell box is decorated in gold, depicting two doves carrying a branch in their beaks and flying above plants, insects, a snake and a leopard. The latter two animals were often employed as chinoiserie motifs in eighteenth-century Europe. These organic symbols of the exotic would find company in the contemporary perceptions of the material itself.
‘Piqué’, which is the art of decorating turtle-shell with gold, was invented in Naples in the late seventeenth century and refers to the action of piercing the surface with tiny gold pins, often combined with larger motifs that are chased (hammered with delicate punches) to create a pattern. This box was probably made for snuff or patches, but was acquired by Miss Alice de Rothschild as an example of fine eighteenth-century craftsmanship. The Rothschilds as a family were the foremost collectors of piqué in the nineteenth century.
Three French hens
Three hens can be found pecking at cherries in this French eighteenth-century tapestry woven in wools and silks. The ‘French hens’ are being fed by a young boy, while two young women to the left collect cherries, one in a small wicker basket and the other in her apron. A young man standing on a ladder against a tree turns towards the women to hand them the fruit. In the air, although very faded, a bird flies off with some cherries. This detail, framed by a multitude of flowers, presents a charming view of a pastoral idyll.
The design for this tapestry is by Jean-Baptiste Huet, from a series woven at Beauvais in the 1780s. Although the calm summer scene seems like a distant memory during the cold, hectic days of Christmas, it can remind us of the old festive ballad, ‘The Cherry-Tree Carol’.
Four calling birds
‘On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me four colly birds’ was the lyric published in the 1780 version of the Christmas carol. Colly was a regional expression for ‘black’. Following many variants in the nineteenth century, in 1909 English composer Frederic Austen introduced the now most popular lyric ‘calling birds’ along with his melody.
These two panels from the Sleeping Beauty series by Russian painter, set and costume designer Léon Bakst, contain four ‘colly’ birds. A black bird first appears perched on a ledge, providing a sense of foreboding during the moment in which the princess pricks her finger on the spinning wheel. Three birds can be seen in the next panel following the majestic Good Fairy as she arrives to reassure the King of his daughter’s future.
Bakst, who designed for the Ballets Russes, was commissioned by James and Dorothy de Rothschild to decorate the drawing room of his London house. The choice of subject was left to the artist, and the seven panels were completed in 1922. They were finally hung in the dining room of their London house, before being installed in the Bakst Room at Waddesdon Manor in 1995.
Bakst based the faces of most of the characters on sketches he made of his patrons, their family and friends. Here, the housekeeper of James de Rothschild’s father, Madame Marion, guides James’s sister-in-law, Noémie, to her fate, whilst his sister Alexandrine’s cat lounges in front. The Prince on the medal in the second painting, is none other than James de Rothschild himself.
Five golden rings
On the 5th day of Christmas, my true love sent to me five gold rings…. or specifically four ancient treasures, made between 100-300 AD, and one eighteenth-century French ring.
The Waddesdon group of classical jewellery is thought to come from the Eastern part of the Roman Empire, and date from either the second or third century AD. In Baron Edmond de Rothschild’s inventory, it states that the group was brought to Paris from Palestine in 1897. The Baron had a life-long interest in archaeology and supported excavations in Palestine and in Egypt.
To a certain extent, three of the Roman rings have the general characteristics of the ‘typical’ style of the early and middle imperial era. Such features include the thick hoop in which the oval gem is embedded. The eighteenth-century ring, dated c.1775- 1790, has been attributed to Louis Nicolas van Blarenberghe (1716-1794) or Henri Joseph van Blarenberghe (1741-1826). The plain gold ring contains a miniature surrounded by a faceted silver border simulating diamonds. The painting depicts a group of villagers gathering to see a juggler balancing a sword on his nose.
Despite not knowing much about the origin of the Roman rings, this group testifies to the age-old tradition of adorning the hands with finger rings. Indeed, this accessory has been found in tombs dating back to c.2500BC.
This enchanting etching and engraving of the Goose game is one of the oldest examples of this traditional board game in the Waddesdon Collection, attributed to Valerio Spada, c.1650. Thought to have originated in Italy, the game is akin to the modern day game of Snakes and Ladders.
For hundreds of years, games have provided education and enjoyment, which still continues today with many families gathering around the table to play – especially at Christmas. Indeed, in the centre of the board, we see a family doing exactly that. Rather than a modern day instruction sheet, the pictorial imagery and the verse explain ‘why’ and ‘how’ the game is played. The poem likens the game to a pilgrimage. All players enter through a single gate but do not travel together. They encounter perils along the way and only one pilgrim will reach salvation. The pilgrim is visualised as a man riding a giant goose, appearing at the beginning and again at the end, with his back to the players, entering through the gate. The rise of printmaking allowed printed games to spread through all social classes, alongside playing cards and lottery tickets.
This book of hours was illuminated by the Simon Bening Workshop, c. 1525, in Bruges. Bening was renowned for his command of colour and his ability to represent landscapes. This border, which illustrates the month of May, renders with precision the civic, architectural scene in the background and the canal in the foreground. As the rowing boat and the swans appear to glide seamlessly across the pages, the water ripples realistically around them. The coherency of the border across the two pages suggests that the illustrations were carefully planned in advance, perhaps by the master himself. The activities presented here were associated with the festivities of spring.
A book of hours was a Catholic private devotional book designed for lay people who wished to incorporate monastic ritual into their daily life. Indeed, this very popular type of hand-produced book has been described as a cathedral that could be held in the hands. Their size and beautiful illustration often reflected the personal, intimate use by a particular patron. Its minute detail, masterful craftsmanship, use of gold and jewel-like colours render this object a very special treasure to receive on the 7th day of Christmas.
Eight maids a-milking
This scene of country life depicts a group of people who appear to be from different backgrounds. The milkmaid can be seen in a red dress kneeling before a brown cow. She passes a glass of milk to a well-dressed lady accompanied by a gentleman in blue. The smallest child on the left is in direct contrast to the young girl in the left of centre who wears a pretty blue and white dress and white shoes.
The scene presents contrasts of rich and poor but still maintains a rosy view of rural life. This was an object made for a person much wealthier than the milkmaid depicted and can therefore be situated in a specific eighteenth-century context of the aristocracy and royalty idealising the life of the rural working classes, particularly the milkmaid. Marie Antoinette’s penchant for dressing as a milkmaid and churning butter at her ‘pleasure dairy’, a pseudo rustic hamlet at Versailles, is well-known. Unlike the actual dairy at Versailles, the furnishings at Marie Antoinette’s pleasure dairy were made of expensive white marble and the room was fitted with a sumptuous set of gilded porcelain. As the American minister to France Gouverneur Morris accusingly wrote during the 1789 Revolution, ‘Royalty has endeavoured to conceal itself from its own Eye, but the attempt is vain. A Dairy furnished with the Porcelaine of Sévres is a semblance too splendid of rural life’.
Nine ladies dancing
This wonderful table centrepiece incorporates fauns and nymphs dancing in a temple crafted from a mixture of precious materials. These include the rock crystal of the columns, the lapis lazuli architrave and the alabaster at the base of the dome, overlaid with mother-of-pearl scale work. The central acorn is gilt bronze. This combination suggests an important commission.
Some of the marble on the base is amongst the rarest to be found in Rome. It comes from fragments taken from S. Maria degli Angeli dei Martiri, a basilica built inside the ruins of the Roman Baths of Diocletian. Not only was the artist manipulating ancient materials, but the design of the work is clearly indicative of an interest in the art of ancient Rome. We can see this in the classically-inspired Corinthian capitals with acanthus leaf, as well as the harmonious proportion of the temple structure. This order and symmetry recalls much earlier Renaissance re-imaginings of ancient architecture, such as Bramante’s Tempietto in San Pietro in Montorio c 1502, as well as perhaps gesturing towards the dome of the ancient Pantheon. The merriment of the dancing mythological creatures also suggests a playful imagining of ancient stories.
Valadier was creating his table centrepieces very much in the context of the Grand Tour, a tour of Europe undertaken by young aristocrats, to learn about the art of Greece and Rome, and from which they often brought numerous artistic souvenirs.
It has recently been conserved and placed on display in ‘A Rothschild Treasury’.
Ten lords a-leaping
The prints here depict a ‘carousel’, elegant lords on horseback, galloping and leaping. In the seventeenth century the term did not refer to the merry-go-round, but to an equestrian display or tournament in which groups of riders, divided into quadrilles (troops) distinguished by their costume, competed to spear a ring or bring down a papier mâché head whilst at full gallop. These events were brought to Europe during the Moorish invasion of Spain in the 8th century, later establishing themselves in Italy and then France by the late 1500s.
Carousels reached their height of popularity in the 17th century during the reign of Louis XIV, after which they were no longer held. The first and most impressive was held in Paris in 1662, to celebrate the birth of his heir. It was commemorated by the publication of this festival book, Courses de Testes et de Bagues. It was lavishly illustrated with 104 plates and described in detail the costumes of the riders and horses. It was published in both French and Latin, so it could be circulated outside France. Louis XIV was particularly proud of this publication and had his own copy hand-coloured.
Eleven pipers piping
A bizarrely-dressed figure stands at the centre of the page facing left. This is not exactly the image of the piper conjured up by this Christmas song so why has the figure been depicted in such an odd fashion?
This page is taken from an album containing hundreds of drawings by members of the Saint- Aubin family. The illustrations reflect all aspects of popular culture, often in a humorous way. One possible inspiration for the subject matter could be the French libertine poet, Nicolas Vauquelin des Yvetaux (1567-1649), who was renowned for his eccentric dress. After exile from court, where he had tutored the young Louis XIII, he lived for most of the first half of the seventeenth century on the outer fringes of the Faubourg Saint-Germain in Paris, where his hedonism led to charges of atheism. The chroniclers Tallémant des Réaux (1619-1692) and Vigneul-Marville (c. 1634-1704) both recount that he and his mistress dressed up as shepherds and conducted a pastoral masquerade through their gardens, leading flocks of imaginary sheep. In this drawing, Des Yveteux is perhaps himself a sheep.
Alternatively, the animal face of the figure recalls Charles Le Brun’s (1619-1690) physiognomic study of the sheep and sheep-man from his well-known Conférence sur l’expression générale et particulière (1668). The size of the eye and the line of the nostril also make it resemble Le Brun’s study of the camel and camel-man – in which case the character’s striped headdress here may be intended to evoke Arabian dress. However, it is unclear if or how the artist knew Le Brun’s drawings comparing animals and men.
Twelve drummers drumming
This detail from a tabletop of an eighteenth-century French table (c. 1760) depicts two monkeys playing percussion. One beats his drum and plays a recorder while the other dances, tapping his tambourine high above his head. They are copied after two engravings, entitled Le Tambour de Basque and Le Tambourin by J. Guélard after designs by Christophe Huet (died 1759.)
This scene is made in marquetry, a decorative technique in which veneers (thin slices) of exotic and coloured woods are cut out into patterns or pictures, and stuck to a piece of furniture. The woods used include purplewood, holly, green- and grey-stained sycamore and boxwood. Unfortunately, eighteenth-century French marquetry bleaches and discolours in daylight, and so the colours would have originally been much more vivid.
Christmas at Waddesdon (inside and outside the house) continues until Sunday January 5 2020 (11am-6pm, Wednesday to Sunday). Follow the links below for more information.
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 an ornate Rococo-style Aviary housing rare and exotic birds, a superb cellar of wines, licensed restaurants, gift and wine shops.…