Who was Alice de Rothschild?
Alice Charlotte de Rothschild was an interesting but lesser known member of the great Jewish dynasty of financiers, collectors and philanthropists. In many respects a typical Rothschild, with her pan-European heritage and interests in collecting, landscape and gardens, Alice had a powerful and independent personality which has left its mark on Waddesdon Manor.
Alice was born in Frankfurt in 1847, the youngest child of Anselm and Charlotte von Rothschild. Later moving to Vienna, Alice might have expected her life to follow that of other Rothschild girls, marrying a cousin from another branch of the family. But the early death of her beloved mother, when Alice was only 12, meant that her youth was spent shuttling between different relatives.
This unsettled existence produced a self-reliant, determined character. Alice never married and was particularly attached to her brother Ferdinand, joining him when he settled in England.
They were neighbours on Piccadilly in London, and later she came to live with him in Buckinghamshire where she witnessed the building and furnishing of Waddesdon Manor from 1874, a house she was to inherit on his death in 1898.
Life at Waddesdon
Waddesdon was created both for entertaining the political and social elite, and to display Ferdinand’s extraordinary collections. These were made up largely of French eighteenth century paintings and decorative arts.
Alice was also a collector in her own right, in some similar areas to her brother, but her interests also included pipes, match boxes, and sixteenth and seventeenth century arms and armour. These were assembled to furnish the Bachelors’ Wing at Waddesdon, the part of the house used by male guests during house party weekends.
A challenging hostess
She was a generous, perfectionist and sometimes challenging hostess. Guests, who included the novelist Henry James, described the delicious food, the conversation and the occasional alarming encounter if any of the household rules were inadvertently broken, such as smoking outside of the Smoking Room.
Waddesdon’s first curator?
Alice had a self-imposed mission to preserve and protect her brother’s creation. Her housekeeping regime, which became known as 'Miss Alice’s Rules', are today understood as preventative conservation as practised across the National Trust.
Furniture was protected from light, porcelain cleaned in silence, nothing touched unless absolutely necessary. Even King Edward VII was told to keep his hands off the furniture, and her friend Queen Victoria referred to her, only half-jokingly, as 'the all-powerful'.
Perfection and innovation
Alice’s at times alarming personality also had a softer side. She was deeply loyal to her staff and tenants, often following their progress, providing resources in the village, and ensuring their welfare.
Gardening was also one of Alice’s passions. She carried a weeding tool everywhere, and her letters brim with horticultural expertise on everything from soil types to plant diseases. She pioneered new gardening techniques, such as three-dimensional carpet bedding, and ran her estate with great skill, introducing innovative methods of animal husbandry and raising prize-winning stock.
She also responded inventively to the agricultural pressures created by World War I - a conflict which caused her great distress as it fractured her dispersed European family.
Alice died in 1922, in Paris, an independent perfectionist to the last.