We interview Pippa Shirley, Director of Waddesdon, about its history, what they want to offer today, and why this summer is an exciting one for the landmark
For those not familiar with Waddesdon Manor, can you offer a potted history of the venue?
Waddesdon is a Rothschild house. It was built in the 1870s by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild of the famous banking dynasty to display his extraordinary collections and entertain the fashionable world at his famous Saturday to Monday house parties. He commissioned a French architect to create a French château perched on a hill in the middle of Buckinghamshire, with formal gardens to match. When Ferdinand died, he left the Manor to his sister Alice, a great collector in her own right and also a highly knowledgeable gardener – the gardens reached their peak in her time. It’s her Centenary this year, so we’re hosting a programme of special exhibitions all about her. When she died in 1922, the estate then passed to her great-nephew James de Rothschild, and it was James who bequeathed the Manor to the National Trust in 1957. Now, it is run on behalf of the National Trust by the Rothschild Foundation, which is chaired by the present Lord Rothschild.
How long have you been Director for at Waddesdon and is it a privilege to work there?
Only just over a month! But I have worked here for 22 years, first as Head of Collections, and then my role expanded. I think the fact that I have been here for so long speaks for itself – there is nowhere else quite like Waddesdon. It encompasses so much and has so many facets – it’s a historic house, a museum, a great garden, and it puts on a wonderful programme of exhibitions and events throughout the year, including our very popular Christmas season. It also has a fantastic schools and education programme, and we have a working Aviary. It’s a lovely day out, and you can also shop, eat, buy and taste extraordinary wine…
What does a typical day for you look like?
There’s almost no such thing! I usually have a meeting or two, but then we might be working on a new exhibition or planning a new display, storage or conservation project. I might have a walk around with the Gardens team to think about environmental issues or changes to planting schemes. I often take visitors or groups around the Manor, which is always fun. Sometimes we host film shoots, which takes a lot of planning and supervision. And we collaborate with a wide range of partners in different sectors, so there’s always lots to talk about there.
Are you faced with any challenges right now in the running of Waddesdon?
To some extent, we’re still finding our feet after the pandemic and all the challenges that brought. It’s wonderful to be fully open again, but we’ve had to make lots of adjustments to our ways of working, and, although visitors are definitely happy to be back, the international situation and cost of living increases are both a concern – we’re not sure what impact they might have longer-term, and we’re very aware that we are a property that relies on people driving to get to us.
When it comes to programming events, what are you looking to offer?
We always try to reflect the uniqueness and the special quality of Waddesdon, and we like to surprise and delight our visitors, so that they feel they have been enriched, whether that’s a family who might have a lovely time exploring the grounds with one of our children’s trails, a tasting for people who want to know more about Rothschild wines or a special tour for visitors who are curious about our Dutch paintings. Or it might be the kind of event that makes memories – like Christmas – when friends and families come together for a shared experience. We want people to feel that Waddesdon is for them, and that they can form a connection with us, and that can take many different forms.
What can you tell us about the forthcoming Edmund de Waal exhibition?
We first worked with Edmund ten years ago on a series of installations through the Manor, which was very special. He’s a ceramic artist and author, and this new exhibition includes new work and two major pieces which are on their way to the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, which is under construction at the moment and will open early next year. Edmund’s work often explores the idea of belonging, loss and legacy and how collections and archives bring history alive, so he’s always been fascinated by houses like Waddesdon, which reflect family identity so strongly, and the exhibition is a response to our particular place. It’s been installed high up in the house, in one of the towers, as if it is floating above everything else.
Do you live locally to Waddesdon Manor?
Very locally! I live on the estate. I can’t quite see the Manor from my house, but I’m very close.
Waddesdon aside, if you had to pick 3 places you love visiting in Buckinghamshire, where would they be?
Claydon House – I love the mad Rococo 18th-century interiors. Discover Bucks (formerly the Bucks County Museum) – its galleries have just been refurbished, so it’s looking really good, and I love the way it tells local stories. I always come away having learned something new. They do really good contemporary art exhibitions and events too. Turn End House in Haddenham – it’s a beautiful contemporary house and garden, tucked quietly away so you almost have to look for it, but built by a pioneering architect, Peter Aldington, in the 1960s. It’s a calm, thoughtful place and a wonderful example of how cutting edge design can stand the test of time. It feels both timeless and startlingly modern.
With summer here, any outside spots you particularly like?
Wendover Woods. In bluebell time, of course, but at any time of the year. Wonderful views over the Chilterns, magnificent trees, cool and shady in warm weather, starkly beautiful in winter.
What else is coming up at Waddesdon over the summer?
Lots! We’ve got a great programme of outdoor theatre and cinema over the summer months, including Shakespeare, theatre for families, and a line-up of brilliant open-air film screenings against the backdrop of the Manor. We’re also venue for four fantastic music concerts on 2-5 July, starting with the one and only Michael Bublé. We’ve got all sorts of family events and activities over the summer holidays, and for garden enthusiasts, we’re offering guided tours of the private Rothschild walled garden at Eythrope, which is legendary in the horticultural world for it excellence and traditions. There are also wine events and tastings, and in September, we are hosting our annual Chilli Fest, which celebrates all things chilli, with lots of food to try, music, family fun and children’s activities. In the House, you can discover our new exhibition Alice’s Wonderlands, exploring the life and legacy of Alice de Rothschild for her Centenary, and come face-to-face with Thomas Gainsborough’s The Pink Boy (1782) – one of our most famous portraits, which has been newly cleaned and conserved and forms the centrepiece of a new display.