A woman of substance: the unconventional Alice de Rothschild
A French-style chateau owned by a banking heiress in the English countryside hardly seems the place to ponder women’s lib and the democratisation of society after a brutal European war. But Waddesdon
Manor, Alice de Rothschild’s sprawling Buckinghamshire estate, tells a story of inevitable change in a period not unlike today, one marked by conflict, infectious disease and shifting supply chains. Like its chatelaine, Waddesdon is a period piece with 21st-century resonance.
The manor has a new exhibition to mark the centenary of Alice’s death. On
display are the typical preoccupations of a privileged woman. Exquisite items testify to Alice’s taste in art; her talent for canny acquisitions of Sèvres porcelain, early English earthenware, Renaissance tin-glazed ceramics, Staffordshire pottery of Tipu’s tiger eating a man and a Savonnerie carpet commissioned by Louis XIV for a gallery in the Louvre.
A pocket dictionary in German, English and French, by the 19th-century educator Friedrich Ernst Feller, shows her facility with languages. An excellent horsewoman, she is pictured riding. Letters demonstrate horticultural knowledge, ranging from soil types to plant diseases. There are records of her meticulous housekeeping, with strict injunctions on how to polish porcelain (in silence), arrange flowers (no higher than the bottom of the painting under which the vase stands) and protect furniture (keep it out of the light). The National Trust now enshrines “Miss Alice’s Rules” as the essential principles of conservancy.
But as the American feminist poet Adrienne Rich has said, no woman is really an insider in the institutions fathered by masculine consciousness. Alice does not figure in the Rothschilds’ wall of stars. That has a clear pedigree.
Read on at https://www.theneweuropean.co.uk
Alice’s Wonderlands is open Wednesdays to Sundays until 30 October Rashmee Roshan Lall is a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce and has written for The Independent, The Guardian, The Economist and The New York Times