The tour to Waddesdon Manor was a delightful prelude to the New Horizons conference itself. Waddesdon Manor, located in Buckinghamshire, 40 miles southwest of London, has just completed a four-year, $15.3 million restoration program. The project took so long not only because of the daunting stonework, roofing, electrical, and plumbing tasks facing the workmen, but also because every piece of the fragile collections had to be packed up and stored before work could begin, and then, of course, unpacked and put back in place.
We bookbinders had no time to see the rest of the Renaissance-style chateau, designed by the French architect, Gabriel Hippolyte Destailleur, as a showplace for the Baron de Rothschild's magnificent collection of 18th century works of art and furniture. Nor was there time to see any of the 17th century Dutch and Flemish masterpieces, the 18th century English portraits, the porcelain, carpets, cabinets, and other elegant furnishings, nor the newly opened wine cellars housing one of the finest collections of Château Lafite-Rothschild in the world. We were there to see the books! After coffee and biscuits, we were ushered into the Morning Room, reportedly built ten years later than the rest of the house (in 1889) because the Baron found that his guests had no place to write their letters in the morning. As lavishly furnished as the rest of the Manor, it also contains the Rothschild library. Giles Barber, curator of the collection, and librarian with the Taylorian Institution in Oxford, was to be our host. His field of expertise ranges over 18th century literature, art, and history.
The Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild had married, but his wife was killed in a train accident less than a year after their marriage. The Baron's sister, Alice, devoted her life to her brother after this tragic incident and became sole heir after the Baron's death in 1898. They were jointly responsible for building and maintaining the Manor and all its contents. When sister Alice died in 1922, the estate passed to their great-nephew, James de Rothschild, who continued adding to the works of art. Upon his death in 1957, the Manor passed to the National Trust.
At that time Graham Pollard began cataloguing the superb library of about 800 volumes. Pollard died rather suddenly, however, before finishing the task, and Giles Barber has been completing the catalog ever since. Fortunately, the Grolier Club's account books contain many of the transactions, and so it's been possible to trace the provenance of many of the books. Rothschild was after fine books, 17th and 18th century visually appealing books rather than a working library, so he chose only the finest: fully illustrated, association copies, mosaic bindings, all-over bindings, books with arms or signatures, donor's copies, etc., all in first-class condition. (Since we couldn't see much of the structure of these books, we could only judge them by their covers).
Barber's expertise in 18th century books is broadly based and far-reaching. He has a hands-on appreciation gained by working in the Bodleian Library. But he also has scholarly interests, for example, in printing history, in how the book trade affected different styles of binding, in how government regulations, decrees, and unions controlled different aspects of binders' lives, in which artists designed and which artisans made the bookbinding tools, in how one's social status determined the type of book or binding he'd receive, and in how particular styles of bindings relate to other 18th century art. These issues of the book trade, bookbinding history and art history are all interrelated in complicated but important ways. Barber has clearly been making an in-depth study of each book in this collection while compiling the catalog. He knows just when the binders stopped using individual tools and moved toward use of the blocking press (and the 19th century).
Barber showed us many beautiful and interesting books from the collection, remarkable for their bindings. The core of the collection consists of illustrated 18th century French books, but there are also first editions of 17th century works, several manuscripts, and a number of English books. Many of the armorial bindings had a distinguished provenance, no doubt, but for bookbinders, the mosaic bindings by such masters as le Monnier, Derôme, and Padeloup were probably the most appreciated. One of these, with a mosaic pattern of inlaid flowers across both front and back boards is also Barber's own personal favorite in the collection.