Aerial view of Waddesdon from the north
In 1874, Baron Ferdinand bought a farming estate from the Duke of Marlborough with money inherited from his father Anselm. He was familiar with the estate as he had seen it while hunting in the area. There was no existing house, park or garden, only a bare hill that had been stripped of its timber. The foundation stone was laid on 18 August 1877, and the site was quickly transformed.
The first house party was held in May 1880 with seven of Ferdinand's close male friends enjoying a grand fireworks display. When the main house was ready in 1883, Ferdinand invited 20 guests to stay. Before his premature death in 1898, on weekends between May and September Baron Ferdinand played host to many important guests including the future Edward VII, politicians and members of The Souls group. House parties usually involved 14 to 20 people coming to stay.
Guests commented on the level of luxury service provided by the 24 house staff. In 1890, Queen Victoria unusually requested to pay a visit. She was impressed with the beauty of the house and grounds as well as Ferdinand's ability to quietly manage the day's events. She was struck by the newly installed electric lights, especially designed to look like candles in the chandeliers, and it is reported that she asked for the room to be darkened to fully witness the effect.
Plan of Waddesdon's ground floor. 1:Vestibule; 2:Entrance Hall, 3 Red Drawing room; 4:Grey Drawing Room; 5:Library; 6:Baron's Sitting room; 7:Morning Room; 8:West Hall; 9:West Gallery; 10:East Gallery; 11:Dining Room; 12:Conservatory; 13:Breakfast Room; 14:Kitchen; 15:Servant's Hall; 16:Housekeeper's Rooms; 17:Site of further servants quarters (not illustrated); 18:Terrace and parterre; 19 North Drive; St:staircases.
When Baron Ferdinand died in 1898, the house passed to his sister Alice de Rothschild. She saw Waddesdon as a memorial for her brother and was committed to preserving it. She did add significant items to the collection, particularly furniture and carpets with French royal provenances, Meissen porcelain, textiles and armor.
Following Alice de Rothschild's death in 1922, the property and collections passed to her French great-nephew James A. "Jimmy" de Rothschild, who was married to an English woman, Dorothy Pinto. James further enriched the Manor with objects from the collections of his late father Baron Edmond James de Rothschild of Paris.
James and Dorothy hosted a Liberal Party rally at Waddesdon in 1928, where David Lloyd George addressed the crowd. During World War II, children under the age of five were evacuated from Croydon and lived at Waddesdon Manor, the only time children lived in the house. James and Dorothy also provided asylum for a group of Jewish boys from Frankfurt at Waddesdon.
Dutch and English paintings in the Morning Room
When James de Rothschild died in 1957, he bequeathed Waddesdon Manor, 120 acres (0.49 km2) of grounds and its contents to the National Trust, to be preserved for posterity. Dorothy moved to Eythrope and the Manor was never again used as a residence. It opened to the public in 1959 with around 27,000 visitors in the first year. Dorothy chaired the new management committee in close collaboration with the National Trust and took a very keen interest in Waddesdon for the remainder of her long life.
At Dorothy's death in 1989, Jacob Rothschild inherited her position and responsibilities. At his initiative, the Manor underwent a major restoration from 1990 to 1997, and the visitor attractions were enhanced, including the creation of the Waddesdon Wine Cellars.
Jacob Rothschild chairs the family charity handling Waddesdon’s management, the Rothschild Foundation. Waddesdon Manor operates as an independent organization within the National Trust.
From 2004 to 2006, the Baron's Room and Green Boudoir were restored to reflect Baron Ferdinand's original arrangements. In 2003 a burglary was committed involving the Johnson Gang, when approximately 100 gold snuff boxes and other items were stolen from the collection prompting the installation of new security measures.
Since 2004 there has been an exhibitions programme. Notable exhibitions include the Lod Mosaic in 2014. Waddesdon was one venue celebrating the work of Henry Moore in 2015.
New works of art have been acquired by the Rothschild Foundation to complement the existing collections at Waddesdon, such as Le Faiseur de Châteaux de Cartes by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, added in 2007.
There has also been a program of engagement with contemporary artists, beginning with Angus Fairhurst represented by Arnolfini in 2009. Works have been sited near the Manor and on the wider estate including by Richard Long, Sarah Lucas and Angus Fairhurst. In 2012, Christie's chose the Manor to exhibit sculptures by leading contemporary artists.
Between 2013 and 2017, Bruce Munro had a residency at Waddesdon Manor, beginning with the musical and light piece Cantus Arcticus in the Coach House Gallery in 2013. Winter Light (2013), with its distinctive wigwam type structures sited in the gardens of the Manor, was Munro’s first solo exhibition of his large-scale pieces; Winter Light returned in 2016–2017. In 2014, Munro developed his pod-like structures, adding elements of language in Snow Code, shown in the Manor. In ...---…SOS, Munro’s winter exhibition of 2015–2016, tents were lit up in tune with sound, in response to images of disaster relief.
In 2012, Edmund de Waal exhibited work in the Manor, creating a dialogue between his work and the historical interiors. In 2015, artist Joana Vasconcelos was commissioned to install two sculptures entitled Lafite in front of the Manor. In 2016, Kate Malone exhibited a collection of new work inspired by the people, gardens, collections and archive. Two portrait pots of Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild and Alice de Rothschild by Malone remain on display at the Manor.