In 1874 Empress Sisi made a special visit to Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild at his Leighton Buzzard home. The Austrian-born baron had been bankrolling Sisi’s sister Queen Maria Sophia of Naples after she and Francesco lost their throne. The records of how much Ferdinand de Rothschild gave were probably among those destroyed after his death.
Empress Sisi’s visit to Ferdinand de Rothschild, a Jew, raised eyebrows among the anti-Semitic courtiers at the Viennese and English royal courts but not with Queen Victoria, or Emperor Franz Josef.
Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild was born into the great banking dynasty in 1839 where his father Anselm Salomon de Rothschild headed the family bank in Vienna. Ferdinand did not join the bank and left Vienna to stay with his mother’s family who owned N. M. Rothschild & Sons of London. Baron Ferdinand and his English cousin Evy fell in love and they married in 1865. Tragically she died in childbirth a year later. In her memory Ferdinand founded and supported the Evelina Hospital for Children in Southwark.
Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild’s memorial is Waddesdon Manor, the great ‘French chateau’ he built and furnished in the Buckinghamshire countryside. The Times obituary said: ‘Baron Ferdinand was fond of country life, and shared the ordinary tastes of a country gentleman. He hunted and bred fat stock, he made Waddesdon a model village, and he liked yachting.’ Baron Ferdinand had used his money to build up a fine collection of paintings, fine French furniture, books and treasures.
In 1885 Baron Ferdinand was elected to Parliament and Waddesdon weekends were filled with royalty, political leaders and other friends. He was particularly close to Edward, Prince of Wales.
Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild died in 1898. The tributes at his funeral came from all classes, from the Princess of Wales to the busmen of London. Each year he had sent a brace of pheasants to every London bus driver and conductor. On the day of the funeral many sported the baron’s racing colours. He also gave an enormously-valuable gift of Renaissance and early treasures to the British Museum. Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild’s gift occupies a room of its own in the museum.
Waddesdon Manor is now owned by the National Trust and still generously backed by Lord Rothschild.