Gold, gems, Murano glass: the Waddesdon Bequest, now on display in a brand new gallery at the world-renowned British Museum, is a priceless collection of extraordinary Medieval and Renaissance objects. The collection was the passion and pursuit of two generations of the 19th century Rothschild family: Baron Anselm von Rothschild and his son, Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild.
The “rags to riches” rise of the Rothschilds is a tale touched by legend. Starting out in the Frankfurt Ghetto, the Rothschilds went on to become one of the world’s most powerful families – and all in the space of only two generations.
With money to spare, the collection the Rothschilds assembled is princely. With so much splendour on display, we’ve put together a list of the top five highlights of the Waddesdon Bequest to enjoy next time you’re staying with us at The Montague on the Gardens, just around the corner from the British Museum.
Holy Thorn Reliquary
Look closely at the Holy Thorn Reliquary, created around 1400, and you’ll see a delicate Latin inscription, which (for those of us unfamiliar with Latin) loosely translates to: “This is a thorn from the crown of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” And suddenly you understand why this object is truly one of the great treasures of the Waddesdon Bequest: the Reliquary is thought to contain a thorn from the crown worn by Christ at the crucifixion. Plus, studded with rubies, pearls and sapphires, and decorated with depictions of the saints and the Last Judgement, it’s a stunning work of art, regardless of its religious significance.
The Lyte Jewel
Not a jewel, per se (although it is covered in them), but rather a 16th century locket with a miniature secreted within. A clue to the identity of the person depicted can be gathered from the initials on the locket’s cover: “IR” stands for “Iacobus Rex”, or King James I of England. Painted by renowned miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard, this diamond encircled and encrusted locket takes its name from Thomas Lyte, who was given the “jewel” by James I – just a simple thank you gift from the King of England.
The “Cellini” Bell
Once owned by Horace Walpole – author of “The Castle of Otranto”, which is said to have been one of the inspirations for Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” – the “Cellini” bell, made from silver and decorated with intricate figures, started out in Nuremberg around 1600 before making its way, over the centuries, into the Waddesdon Collection.
A Native American riding atop a jewel-encrusted sea horse (or “hippocamp”) is the subject of this incredible gold pendant from the 19th century – reason enough to take a look at this piece in the Waddesdon Bequest. Add to that the fact that the piece is covered in 13 Colombian emeralds, not to mention pearls, and this becomes one appealing piece of jewellery.
Turquoise Glass Goblet
Not your average goblet, the Waddesdon Bequest’s glass goblet was created in the 1490s out of incredibly rare Venetian turquoise glass. It would probably have been used to celebrate a momentous occasion, like a marriage or an engagement (judging from the lovers painted on the bowl), but its exact meaning and purpose has been lost over the centuries. Whatever the occasion was, thankfully this delicate piece of glasswork was treasured and protected in the years that followed, allowing it to make its way into the possession of the Rothschilds, and now the British Museum.
Once you’ve explored the treasures of the Waddesdon Bequest, take a leisurely stroll back to The Montague to enjoy a decadent dining experience at The Blue Door bistro, perhaps even a cigar on the terrace, before retiring to your elegant guest room for the evening and some well-deserved rest.
Header image © British Museum