In 1977 the sale of a country house and its contents - Mentmore Towers in Buckinghamshire, England - divided the opinion of the nation. The 7th Earl of Rosebery, faced with death duties, offered the former Rothschild house and its collection to the nation for £2 million; the offer was refused and the subsequent sale of the house and its collections became a cause célèbre in the heritage world. One of the items was purchased for New Court, where it remains today, a tangible link to a vanished world.
Displayed on the ground floor of New Court is ‘The Mentmore Dresser’. Described as “Item 940 A Rare German Burr-Maplewood Kneehole Dressing-Table inlaid in brass and pewter, with the Rothschild crest and motto ‘Concordia Integritas Industria’, 3ft. 5in. wide (104cm) circa 1840” it was sold in the Mentmore sale on Friday 20 May 1977, purchased for £7,000, equivalent to £37,000 today. Its former home, Mentmore Towers, was the grand country estate in Buckinghamshire built in the 1850s for Baron Mayer Amschel de Rothschild (1818-1874), the son of Nathan Mayer Rothschild (1777-1836), founder of the London Rothschild business.
The Rothschilds at Mentmore
In 1836, Nathan’s widow, Hannah (1783-1850), bought a few acres of land at Mentmore for her sons so that they could take healthy exercise away from the city. In 1850, one of their sons, Mayer Amschel, bought the Manor of Mentmore for £12,400. Mayer Amschel, or 'Muffy' as he was known, was born in New Court on 29 June 1818. After university in Cambridge, Leipzig and Heidelberg, he followed a traditional Rothschild apprenticeship, but was never to play a great part in the business, preferring to spend his time on equestrian pursuits.
In 1850 Mayer commissioned Joseph Paxton (best known for designing The Crystal Palace) and his son-in-law George Stokes to build him a house. The resulting plans, while Jacobean in style, incorporated the most modern features, including a huge central grand hall with glazed roof, plate-glass windows and central heating. Mentmore Towers stood four-square on a slight rise with towers at each corner and was the largest of the English Rothschild houses. Mayer, his wife Juliana, née Cohen (1831-1877), and their only child, Hannah (1851-1890), took up occupation in 1855. Visiting in 1872, Lady Eastlake said that it was “like a fairyland when I entered the great palace and got at once into the grand hall -40ft by 50, and about 100ft high hung with tapestries, floored with parquet and Persian carpets.” Mayer established a stud farm at Crafton, near Mentmore, and was a member of the Jockey Club. One of his most successful horses, Hannah, won three major races in 1871. Mayer became High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire in 1847 and was elected Liberal MP for Hythe in 1859. He died on 6 February 1874 leaving Mentmore to his only child, Hannah.
After her father’s death, Hannah became one of England's wealthiest heiresses. An orphan by the time of her marriage to Philip Archibald (Archie) Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery on 20 March 1878, she was given away by the then Prime Minister and family friend, Benjamin Disraeli. Archie, found her “very unspoilt, very clever, very warm-hearted and very shy... I never knew such a beautiful character.” She meticulously catalogued the collections at Mentmore in memory of her father, to whom she had been devoted. The environs of the Mentmore estate were endowed with numerous bequests; schools, meeting rooms and houses bore her initials. In the Jewish community she was a generous, though often anonymous benefactor, but took a public interest in the school for the deaf and dumb founded by her mother. She was president for Scotland of the Queen Victoria Jubilee Institute for Nurses, taking a keen interest in general in the development of the nursing profession. She died of typhoid fever on 19 November 1890 at Dalmeny House, her husband's Scottish seat.
The great sale of the Mentmore collections
Following the death of the 6th Earl of Rosebery in 1973, the Rosebery family were faced with huge death duties running into millions of pounds. The family offered the contents of Mentmore to the nation in lieu of inheritance taxes, for a rock-bottom price which could have turned the house into one of England's finest museums of European furniture, objets d'art and Victorian era architecture. The possible purchase of Mentmore for the nation through the government's National Land Fund was the desire of Roy Strong, the Director of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, who hoped that Mentmore would become a ‘branch’ of his museum devoted to 19th century decorative arts. The Labour government of James Callaghan refused to accept the offer, stating that in the then-current economic climate, the nation could not afford it.
After three more years of fruitless discussion, the executors of the estate sold the contents by public auction in one of the major sales of the century, and the vast collection was dispersed. Everything was sold, from old master paintings to teaspoons from the old Servants’ Hall. In total the estate made over £6 million. Among the paintings sold were works by Gainsborough, Reynolds, Boucher, Drouais, Moroni and other well-known artists, and cabinet makers, including Jean Henri Riesener and Chippendale. Also represented were the finest German and Russian silver and goldsmiths, and makers of Limoges enamel. Sir Francis Watson, former Surveyor of the Queen’s Works of Art, writing in the introduction to the sale catalogue claimed “There can be no doubt whatever that the art collections at Mentmore were amongst the most outstanding of their kind anywhere in the world. To the works of art assembled by Baron Mayer de Rothschild, his son-in-law, Lord Rosebery, added considerably … Such a collection is unlikely ever to be brought together again.” Some of the pieces from Mentmore were kept by the Rosebery family and taken to Dalmeny House, their home near Edinburgh which has been the family seat since 1662. Those visiting Scotland in June or July can tour the house when it opens to the public.
The sale of Mentmore has been described as a turning point for the preservation movement in the UK. There was a public campaign to ‘SAVE Mentmore for the Nation.’ The sale led to a House of Commons Expenditure Committee inquiry and by 1980 The National Heritage Memorial Fund had been set up to replace the previous failed scheme to save national treasures which it does to this day – recent purchases include Charles Dickens’s desk and chair, Lawrence of Arabia’s dagger, robes and kaffiyah for the National Army Museum, and the earliest depiction of Henry VIII’s lost palace of Nonsuch.
The sale of Mentmore Towers
Mentmore Towers itself was purchased in 1978 by The Maharishi Foundation in the UK for £240,000 for use as a headquarters and college. It was the headquarters of the Natural Law Party and campus of Maharishi University of Natural Law. By 1997, the movement was seeking a larger facility and placed Mentmore on the market for £10 million. It sold two years later for £3 million, to a consortium who had hoped to turn it into an exclusive hotel and resort. After a series of stalled development plans and legal challenges, Mentmore remains unused and empty. It has since been placed on the English Heritage ‘Heritage at Risk Register’ as the house needs urgent work on the roof and chimneys. There is concern that weather will penetrate to the interiors, considered among the finest examples of Victorian design and craftsmanship.
Apart from the beautiful dresser on display at New Court, The Rothschild Archive holds a small amount of original material concerning Mentmore Towers. Among the collection can be found a white vellum-bound volume, 1883, itemising the collection at Mentmore of Mayer de Rothschild, by his daughter Hannah; Mentmore estate photographs, c.1860-c.1900; estate receipts and invoices, 1856-1873, documenting Mayer's love of all things equestrian; and a copy of the original Mentmore estate building contract, 1851. The Archive also holds publications relating to the ultimately unsuccessful campaign to ‘save’ Mentmore, and copies of the 1977 sale catalogues.
A short ten-minute film documenting the ‘Sale of the Century’ in 1977, available through the Associated Press (AP) archive, gives an insight into the splendour of the house and its contents. View the film here »