The Red Book of Baron Ferdinand Rothschild

Item date: 1897
Grant Value: £5,000
Item cost: $15,000
Item date acquired: 2016
Item institution: British Museum
Town/City: London
London borough: LB Camden

Thanks to the FNL and to the Rothschild Foundation, the British Museum has been able to acquire a copy of The Red Book, a record of the work undertaken by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild (1839-1898) at Waddesdon Manor, his neo-Renaissance mansion near Aylesbury. Copies of this private publication are extremely rare—this is only the sixth recorded. Dating from1897, the Red Book opens with an introduction by Baron Ferdinand, followed by a series of invaluable photographs detailing the various rooms and the collections displayed with such artistry within them. Particular attention is paid to the New Smoking Room, which Baron Ferdinand designed to display his ‘Renaissance Museu’, a treasury which had a special role in his mind as a collector. He bequeathed the contents of this room to the British Museum under the terms of his will, to be known as ‘The Waddesdon Bequest’. The Bequest has been on permanent display in the British Museum since 1899, and in June 2016, was redisplayed in a splendid new gallery in the old Middle Room of the British Museum, funded by the Rothschild Foundation.

The Red Book is almost an object in its own right as part of the Bequest. All research on the collection originates with it, as it provides so much information about how Baron Ferdinand appraised, arranged, showed and interpreted his treasury. The objects had a political and a social life within a room which was designed for enlightened corporate entertaining. Baron Ferdinand wrote thoughtfully about the way in which all collections were moving from the private to the public sphere, and he saw his family and the art market as drivers in that historical process. By leaving his collection to the British Museum he wanted this treasury, once the province of princes, to become free, public and permanent.

The Red Book takes a central role in the research for  A Rothschild Renaissance; Treasures from the Waddesdon Bequest (British Museum 2015) and in the digital programme  in the gallery itself and on the web. Images from the Waddesdon Manor copy appear in the videos played in the gallery which tell the life stories of particular objects, and in a longer video telling the story of the collection at Waddesdon. Having our own copy will make all kinds of new research and outreach possible. The Red Book will be catalogued and made available to scholars and students by appointment, and it will also be used in educational activities around the Bequest and the history of collecting in the 19th century, a subject which is growing in public and scholarly appeal.

This copy is probably the one given by Ferdinand Rothschild to the 5th Earl Spencer (1835-1910), who succeeded his father in 1857, and then passed by descent to the 8th Earl (1924-92) and was sold by his widow Raine, Lady Spencer at an unrecorded date. It was sold from the estate sale of Robert S Pirie (1934-2015), Sotheby's, New York, 3rd & 4th December 2015, as part of lot 1082 of around 200 volumes. Thanks to the Friends of the National Libraries and to the Rothschild Foundation, this copy now has new home as an integral part of the research and interpretation of the Waddesdon Bequest in its new gallery in London.

Baron Ferdinand Rothschild in the Baron's Room from the Red Book, 1897. © Trustees of the British Museum.
Baron Ferdinand Rothschild in the Baron's Room from the Red Book, 1897. © Trustees of the British Museum.
The New Smoking Room. © Trustees of the British Museum.
The New Smoking Room. © Trustees of the British Museum.