The spirit of romance imbues the gardens of Ascott House. A motto in yew: ‘Light and shade by turn, but love always’ encircles a giant sundial of clipped box and yew. A yew heart adorns each end of the verse. A Victorian book about sundials reveals that the saying was composed by ‘Mr Bodley FSA’, who shared it with the Hon. Mrs R.C. Boyle, an illustrator and author of books about gardening. It was noted on a plaque in her manorial garden. In the Venus Garden there is a marble basin of water containing Thomas Waldo Story’s quite dramatic bronze fountain depicting the goddess Venus. She is standing on the back of a tortoise in a giant seashell drawn by a young Triton and two seahorses. Another bronze fountain by Story, topped with a statue of Eros, stands in the Dutch Garden. The Lily Pond is another loving sign, created so that the wife of a past owner could go skating in winter.
The most recent tribute to enduring romance is the garden enclosure ‘Lynn’, designed by landscape gardeners Jacques and Peter Wirtz to commemorate the wedding of the present occupants, Sir Evelyn and Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild. (The Wirtz team have created designs for the Tuilleries and palais de l’Elysée, in Paris, and Jubilee Park, Canary Wharf.) A plaque at the south end reads ‘Lynn, Life and Love. A Garden for All’.
Indeed, that warm sense of enthusing romance continues through the house. Inside, visitors whisper that they feel they could live happily there. For Ascott is not a grand historic relic; and its interior is not fussy or pretentious. It’s simply an unassuming yet elegant mixture of the period and the contemporary, where one could live comfortably, as the Rothschild family still does. Deep-seated sofas and armchairs, covered with textured fabrics and throws, family pictures, tabled piles of modern art books, and pots and vases of fresh flowers make one feel ‘at home’. One wouldn’t be surprised to see the remains of a fruit scone with a pot of jam on a side table. Nonetheless, touches of grandeur highlight Ascott’s charm, for the house contains a fine array of paintings and porcelain.
In the 19th century the great banking family, the Rothschilds, began colonizing an expanse of 40,000 acres for family homes in the Vale of Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire. Such examples are the National Trust’s Waddesdon Manor in the style of a French château, Eythrope (Jacobethan coupled with French Renaissance), Halton House (a melange of the Italianate, Scottish and Moorish and now an Officers’ Mess for the Royal Air Force), the ‘Jacobethan’ Mentmore (now a country club), Italianate Aston Clinton House (eventually demolished) and Tring (originally designed by Sir Christopher Wren and now a performing arts school). The Vale of Aylesbury appealed because it was regarded as good hunting territory and easily accessible from London.
In 1873, when Ascott was a small two-storey, four-roomed Tudor farmhouse, Mayer de Rothschild purchased it to serve as a hunting lodge. Soon after he gave the house to Leopold, his son. Leopold commissioned George Devey (1820–86), a pioneer of the picturesque English vernacular revival, to convert the house into a more substantial edifice. Eventually what emerged was a rambling, asymmetrical, half-timbered and gabled home of red-tiled roofs and brick chimney stacks with 30 bedrooms. It looks like an extensively restored Tudor house. (Devey’s partner James Williams carried on Devey’s work after he died.)
Devey was well known to Leopold as he was undertaking both design and renovation work for all the local Rothschilds. Indeed, his eye for what might seem quintessentially English foreshadowed the Arts and Crafts architectural movement associated with Norman Shaw, William Nesfield and Walter Godfrey among others. Jill Allibone, in her book about Devey, George Devey, Architect, 1820 – 1886, comments that his ‘contribution to domestic architecture was his observation of what traditional materials and methods of construction could contribute to the comfortable assimilation of a building in the English landscape’.
Devey had an acknowledged talent for drawing and painting watercolours; some of his work was displayed in the Royal Academy. It’s possible that his taste for the vernacular was inspired by one of his art masters, John Sell Cotman, who was known for his drawings of ancient and vernacular buildings.
Devey made use of local expertise, leaving the particulars of construction to established local builders who had been putting up cottages all their lives. Allibone contrasts Devey’s perspective and approach with that of his contemporary the architect Philip Webb, who was also interested in traditional building crafts, but who made detailed drawings of every mortise and tenon joint and insisted that the builders build accordingly. Interestingly, unlike many other Arts and Crafts architects, Devey did not design furniture or fittings (though possibley some plasterwork and panelling), and he was not involved in church reconstruction or design. This could be why the unassuming Devey is relatively unknown and unappreciated.
In the 1930s the ‘palace-like cottage’, as Mary Gladstone once described Ascott House, was inherited by Anthony, Leopold’s son. He and his wife, Yvonne, reconstructed the house to make it more manageable and simplify its ornamentation, which reflected the taste in vogue for less of the fanciful and overbearing detail associated with Victorian architecture and interiors. This involved demolishing the stables, entrance arch and kitchen wing and removing the balustrade parapets, loggias and some bow windows. Inside, the former schoolroom and housekeeper’s room were joined to create the dining room. The library was opened up to create a large inner hall. The billiard room was remodelled to create the Library. Plain plaster replaced moulded ceilings. Dark carved oak gave way to lighter, simpler joinery. Fireplaces of Neo-Georgian design replaced the large Jacobean and inglenook ones. They did leave the enchanting frieze in the common room, inscribed with proverbs such as ‘He lacks most that longs most’.
In 1949, Anthony de Rothschild donated the house and grounds to the National Trust on condition that the collection was left in situ and the family retained the right to live in the house. Anthony’s son, Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, and his wife, Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild, have made a few relatively minor changes, such as commissioning the interior designer Renzo Mongiardino to repaint the dining room walls in trompe l’oeil to resemble blue and white Dutch tiles, and renovating the gashouse to create an artist’s studio. Mark Alexander was the first to take up temporary residence.
The extensive collection of artwork and furniture, amassed by Lionel, Leopold (the ‘builder’ of Ascott) and Anthony de Rothschild is indeed outstanding and discriminating. Yet what we see doesn’t exhaust our senses. Possibly the viewing experience is comparable to visiting a discerning regional collection in uncrowded surroundings.
In the areas open to the public (such as the outer hall, and hall room, the dining, common and porcelain rooms) are works by familiar artists, notably Thomas Gainsborough (The Hon. Thomas Needham and a dazzling Supposed Portrait of Lady Mary Bruce, Duchess of Richmond) and William Hogarth (Miss Woodley), Joshua Reynolds (Miss Heyer as Hebe) and George Romney (Sarah Ley, Mrs. Tickell). There are stunning Dutch landscapes by the brothers Isaack and Adriaen van Ostade and Aelbert Cuyp and three sporting pictures by George Stubbs. The atmospheric painting by J.M.W. Turner, Cicero at his Villa at Tusculum, is especially impressive, as are the sculptures by Auguste Rodin, notably the ‘reductions’ such as The Thinker and Eve.
Anthony de Rothschild initiated the collection of Chinese ceramics. It includes glazed pottery in vivid colours from the Han (206BC–220AD), Tang (618–907) and Liao (907–1125) dynasties. When Anthony de Rothschild purchased these ceramics they were relatively inexpensive and not very fashionable. Much more in vogue at the time were the fahua wares that he obtained: mainly turquoise and purple glazed ceramics dating from the mid to late Ming dynasty (1368–1634). They are believed to be form the most representative collection of such wares in the world.
The furniture at Ascott is a mixture of English 18th-century pieces, collected by Anthony and Yvonne de Rothschild, and French pieces, said to exemplify the ‘family’s favourite form of interior decoration’. The recent publication, J.M. Robinson’s Ascott, includes clearly detailed information.
While each year nearby Waddesdon Manor attracts some 300,000 visitors Ascott House draws only 15,000. Perhaps this is because it is less enterprising – there is no shop or restaurant – and there is less to explore. But its intimate and quintessentially English air makes visiting a unique, personal experience, one that nestles in your memory, unlike many such sojourns associated with vast estates open to the public. If you come in the summer, there might be a cricket match being played on the estate, for which there is a separate entrance.
This article first appeared in Cassone: The International Online Magazine of Art and Art Books in the February 2014 issue.