Posted 17 June 2021

Behind the scenes

Top ten must-see pieces in Waddesdon’s collection

Don’t miss some of the most impressive objects during your visit with our top ten must-see pieces on display at Waddesdon.

Built in the 1870s by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, Waddesdon is full of art treasures. His collection of English and Dutch paintings and French decorative arts is amongst the finest in the world and has been added to by subsequent generations of the Rothschild family.

1. Musical elephant automaton (1774)

April – May 2023, the elephant is currently undergoing important conservation work so will be off display until later this spring. Follow the Elephant’s Twitter account for updates below!

This much-admired object was probably made in London by the French clockmaker Hubert Martinet around 1774. It plays four tunes and when wound its trunk, ears, eyes and tail move. Records show that, when the Shah of Persia stayed at Waddesdon in 1889, he was so enchanted with the elephant that he asked for it to be played over and over again. This year it has been selected as one of the 125 Treasures from the Collections of the National Trust in a new book.

Find this marvellous gilt-bronze elephant in the East Gallery and follow the elephant on its very own Twitter account @WMElephant

Watch a film of the elephant in action >

2. Chest of drawers (1778)

This chest of drawers was supplied to Madame Élisabeth (the youngest sister of Louis XVI) when, at the age of 14, she was granted her own suite of apartments at Versailles.

Made by Jean-Henri Riesener, the marquetry panel in the centre is veneered with a trophy in a variety of woods against a background of sycamore that was originally stained grey. On the left is a vase of green-stained burr wood,  imitating jasper.

See this chest of drawers made by the celebrated cabinetmaker Jean-Henri Riesener in the Red Drawing Room.

Watch a 3D animation of how the chest of drawers is constructed >

3. Sèvres pot-pourri vase (1762)

Sèvres Manufactory, Pot-pourri vase, 1761. Photo: Hugo Maertens National Trust, Waddesdon Manor.

This vase in the shape of a ship is arguably the most famous model made by the Sèvres manufactory. It also has particular significance to Waddesdon as it was Ferdinand’s first important purchase as a collector at the age of 21. It is believed that twelve of these vases were made between 1757 and 1764, although only ten are known to survive today, of which Waddesdon owns three.

Find this rare vase displayed in the Grey Drawing Room (spot the other two on display in the Baron’s Room and the West Gallery).

Read more about this ship vase >

4. Mrs Abington as The Comic Muse (1764-1768; 1772- 1773) by Joshua Reynolds

Mrs Abington (c1737 - 1815) as The Comic Muse

Waddesdon has an impressive collection of British portraiture, with paintings by Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. This portrait is of Frances Abington, one of the most celebrated actresses on the Georgian stage, and is one of several that Joshua Reynolds painted of her. In this portrait she is depicted in the guise of Thalia, the ancient Greek muse of Comedy. In performance, she appeared for the first time as The Comic Muse in David Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee Pageant at Drury Lane in October 1769.

See this and other full-length portraits by Reynolds in the Grey Drawing Room.

Read more about this portrait >

5. Porca Miseria by Ingo Maurer (2003)

Chandelier made of broken porcelain and pieces of cutlery titled Porca Miseria

This astonishing chandelier, made of broken porcelain and cutlery, was commissioned for the Blue Dining Room in 2003. German lighting designer, Ingo Maurer, and his manufacturing team dropped the ceramics on the floor or smashed them with a hammer and then arranged them.

Porca Miseria roughly translates as ‘Oh my Goodness’ in Italian, and the energy of the piece makes it particularly popular with visitors.

See this explosive piece in the Blue Dining Room.

Read more about the chandelier >

6. Apollo triumphant over Python (1699)

Jean Raon; Apollo Triumphant over Python, 1699; Waddesdon (National Trust) Bequest of James de Rothschild, 1957; 6150.1

This statue by Jean Raon is perhaps the finest of all the gardens sculptures at Waddesdon, its delicate surface particularly well preserved. It was probably intended for the gardens at Versailles, whose sculptural pantheon was central to the cultivation of Louis XIV’s image of himself as Apollo.

As told by the ancient Roman writer Ovid, the tale of Apollo’s triumph over the monstrous Python is a bloody one. However, in this sculpture, Raon underplayed its violence, focusing instead on the masterful serenity of the god after the struggle.

See this conquering god on the Aviary Lawn.

Discover more about this sculpture and more with a digital trail >

7. Meissen nanny goat with suckling kid (1732-34)

Come and discover the animals and birds made by the Meissen porcelain manufactory in the eighteenth century.

This goat is one of nearly 70 different life-sized animals and birds commissioned in 1730 by Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, for a porcelain menagerie at his Japanese Palace in Dresden. Designed by Johann Joachim Kändler, it was made at the Meissen porcelain factory between 1732 and 1734. Its size demonstrates an unprecedented feat in porcelain production.

See this goat and kid on display alongside a model of a turkey in the Breakfast Room.

Read more about this piece >

8. Beauvais tapestry The Fountain of Love (1755-1778)

The Fountain of Love, Beauvais Tapestry

This tapestry is one of two in the Dining Room and was made at the Beauvais manufactory to a design by the influential 18th-century artist, François Boucher. Probably woven for King Louis XV, these celebrated tapestries are from the ‘Noble pastorale’ series, first woven at Beauvais in 1755.

‘La Noble pastorale’ was the last of six tapestry series designed by Boucher for Beauvais. It included five core subjects – ‘The Fountain of Love’, ‘The Flute Player’, ‘The Fisherboy’, ‘The Birdcatchers’ and ‘The Lunch Party’, of which Waddesdon has three.

Discover this scene hanging in the Dining Room.

Read more about the tapestry >

9. The Bacino di San Marco with the Churches of San Giorgio Maggiori and Santa Maria della Salute, Venice (c. 1755-1770)

Francesco Guardi, The Bacino di San Marco with the Molo and the Doge's Palace, Venice

This oil on canvas by Francesco Guardi shows a view from the Piazzetta of San Marco. On the left are the island and church of San Giorgio Maggiore, and, on the right, the church of Santa Maria della Salute.

This painting hangs next to another scene of Venice, and they are the largest known works by Guardi. They are early examples of the real and idealised views of Venice with which he made his reputation.

See this view of Venice and its companion in the East Gallery.

Read more about this piece >

10. The George III dinner service (1775-1824)

George III silver on the White Drawing Room table

This royal silver service was commissioned by George III in the 1770s probably for use in the summer palace at Herrenhausen in Hanover. It was made in France by the fashionable goldsmith Robert-Joseph Auguste and was originally intended to accommodate 72 diners.

The service was extended first by Franz Peter Bunsen and again in the early 19th century by Franz Anton Hans Nübell to reflect the change in dining fashion from service à la Française to service à la Russe. Waddesdon is the only place in Britain to display such an outstanding, French-inspired service.

Be our guest and see some 120 pieces from the service set out in the White Drawing Room.

Discover more about this service >

With more than 15,000 works of art in the collection, there are many more important and significant items. Some highlights include a burgonet (helmet) of the Emperor Charles V, a 16th-century Book of Hours and a Savonnerie carpet which was commissioned by King Louis XIV for the Long Gallery at the Louvre.

Many objects are not displayed because of their fragile nature, but you can search online to discover more.

Explore the collection

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