When a tourist attraction has been open for a long time, one of the challenges for those who own and manage it is to find new reasons for people to visit. This is presumably a major issue for the National Trust, whose five million members eagerly make use of their membership whenever they can.
In 2019 one of the Trust’s most famous properties in Buckinghamshire, Waddesdon Manor, will be celebrating 60 years of opening to the public. As Trust members, we’ve visited many times over the years, usually to goggle at the extraordinary, relentless procession of exquisite, expensive taste displayed within the house. We do enjoy the gardens too – and remember fondly a mynah bird called George, who lived in the Aviary and who might favour you with a range of comments, from the accurate but unimaginative “Waddesdon Manor” to the more colourful “You’re an old stinker!”
This Christmas, as part of a special Carnival programme, Waddesdon is looking a bit different from normal, and it’s all to do with light shows. The Stables are illuminated (the work of the Guildhall School), as is the front of the Manor itself, and there’s a light trail on the paths around the Aviary. Any aficionado of horror films knows how the atmosphere of a place can change at night; that’s certainly the case here. The magnificence of the grounds turns to mystery and it’s all quite eerie, even with the large number of visitors around (and the younger children seemed to be having a whale of a time). If you’re in the areas between now and 2 January, we recommend a visit. You can also pre-book tickets for visits to the house – but, for once, the grounds are the star.
There’s always plenty to see at Waddesdon Manor, perhaps the most famous Rothschild house in Britain. At the moment, in addition to the many and various splendours on show all year round, there’s a special exhibition about the Aldobrandini Tazze, a collection of twelve standing cups which depict the lives of various Caesars of ancient Rome.
Each standing cup or tazza comprises a statuette of a Caesar, with four episodes from his life, based on The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius (born c.70AD). The narratives are almost wholly positive, in praise of the Caesars – though the Nero tazza shows him singing despite an earthquake and a fire, a version of the old saw about “fiddling while Rome burnt”. Perhaps the creators thought this scene depicted a virtuous devotion to the arts – or maybe it was an early example of “The show must go on”…
More conventionally, the four scenes on the tazza for Vespasian (pictured above) show him putting an end to the rebellion in Judaea in AD 67-68; receiving a stray dog (who has brought him a human hand – how thoughtful) and an ox who bows to him while he is breakfasting; miraculously curing a blind man and a lame man; and returning to Rome in triumphal procession in AD 71 after military victory over the Jews.
At least five of the tazze entered various Rothschild collections, although their collective presence in this exhibition is the first example of all twelve being together on public display for over 150 years. But the real mystery is this: who made them, when, where, for whom and for what purpose? The Waddesdon exhibition suggests a hypothesis relating to a late 16th century Roman cardinal, Pietro Aldobrandini, and the Habsburg prince Archduke Albert VII of Austria. You’ll have to visit the exhibition, which is on until 22 July, to find out more. Whatever the answer to the mystery, the Silver Caesars together are a magnificent example of Renaissance art.
In the village of Halton, just outside Wendover, sits a historic house which opens, Brigadoon-like, just once a year, as part of a national initiative called Heritage Open Days. Despite having lived in the area for the past 25 years and more, we had never visited Halton House until earlier this month.
It’s well worth a visit. Halton House represents the junction of two eras: the late Victorian and Edwardian years, a time of leisure and affluence, at least for some; and the First World War and the more egalitarian times which followed. Alfred de Rothschild had the house built in three years (1880-3) as somewhere to relax from his banking work in London and as a suitable place to entertain his friends – who happened to include the Prince of Wales. From the outside, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Alfred was trying to emulate his brother-in-law’s efforts at nearby Waddesdon Manor, with sandstone turrets suggesting a French chateau as inspiration. Inside it’s more eclectic and attracted some criticism from contemporaries.
All eras end. War came and Alfred offered the estate – which covered over 3,000 acres – to Lord Kitchener as a training venue for troops. The new School of Technical Training emerged here as a training body for the Royal Flying Corps, known later as the Royal Air Force. The RAF bought the estate from Alfred’s nephew, his heir after he died unmarried in 1918. It has been known as RAF Halton ever since, with the house serving as the Officers’ Mess. Apparently there is some prospect that the RAF will leave the site in a few years time, and no doubt there is a good case for building some much-needed housing on part of the estate. Hopefully Halton House will survive, as a reminder of the history and heritage of Halton.