February 2022: Melanie Aspey on the Rothschild Legacy in Horticulture

The talk was given by Melanie Aspey, a CABAHS member who has been the Rothschild archivist for 28 years. Providing photographs and documentation from the Rothschild archives, she said the Rothschilds are best known for banking, their art collections, philanthropy and wine, but many of them have also had  a keen  interest in horticulture reaching back to Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1812), the founder of the dynasty, who lived in the Frankfurt Jewish Ghetto.

After the defeat of Napoleon, thanks to their support for the allies, the Rothschild family was able to lobby for the retention of the right for the Jewish Community to buy real estate outside the ghetto. Mayer Amschel’s son, Amschel, considered that building a house would be too ostentatious, but a garden would better serve their needs. Instead he established a garden which he subsequently opened to visitors and for charitable purposes. He spent vast sums on plants, some of which (and Melanie showed one of the plant sale receipts from the archives) he imported from England. Later taken over by the Nazis and bombed by the allies, the garden fell into disrepair but parts have recently been renovated.

Mayer Amschel had five daughters and five sons who moved to and set up businesses though out Europe and placed agents throughout the world. Through the 19th and early 20th centuries a number of Rothschilds took a keen interest in horticulture and created  spectacular gardens and their agents were able to help facilitate their horticultural requirements.

Mayer Amschel’s son Nathan moved to England and in 1835 he acquired a country estate Gunnersbury, in west London. Lived in later by his son Lionel who became a liberal MP, it was later occupied by Lionel’s youngest son Leopold from the early 1880s and it  remained in the family until it was sold in the 1920s. This became a  centre of elite social life. The Japanese ambassador was so impressed with its Japanese garden  he said “Marvellous. We have nothing like it in Japan”.

Leopold’s brother Alfred acquired his own estate, Halton in the Vale of Aylesbury where at one point there were seven Rothschild estates. Alfred was more interested in show than horticulture and occasionally demanded that all the flowers in his garden should be pink. Leopold gradually spent more time at their Buckingham estate, Ascott which was eventually given to the National Trust.

Leopold’s niece Beatrice, having no children, bequeathed her Villa Ille de France with its magnificent garden at Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat to the French state in memory of her parents.

Charles Rothschild, the son of the first Lord Rothschild, and a near contemporary of Beatrice, developed a passion for irises and orchids at his Tring Park estate. He is recognised as the father of nature conservation in Britain buying Woodwalton Fen, now part of the Great Fen Project. Consulting with local natural history societies he campaigned for the  need for government  action to protect sites of crucial importance and  of scientific interest from developers. Charles’s daughter Miriam carried on his work and turned over their house in Northampton to wild flowers. She encouraged  the Prince of Wales to commit to organic gardening.

In Austria, Nathaniel von Rothschild developed the Hohe Warte garden as a home for rare plants. The family also owned large tracts of land in lower Austria which were later to be recognised as a wilderness area.

Nathaniel’s sister Alice, a keen horticulturalist, ended up as the companion of his brother Ferdinand after the death of his wife. Ferdinand bought Waddesdon Manor which she later inherited and which is now a National Trust property.  She wrote constantly to her gardeners to discuss what she wanted them to do.

Lionel Rothschild, calling himself ‘a gardener by profession, a banker by hobby’, acquired Exbury Gardens, now Exbury Gardens and Steam Railway, in 1919. Which he turned into a haven for rhododendrons and azaleas. 

Rhododendron yakushimanum (known as “Yak”)

Lionel was a generous  funder of plant hunters. He shared the seeds and plants they brought back with other gardens such as the Royal Botanic Garden. He was an enthusiastic and skilled hybridiser of rhododendrons  and gave some to gardens of friends and charities and selling them at cost to associations such as the Roads Beautifying Association. Exbury Gardens nowadays has become a charity with an education and conservation remit.

These gardens are well worth a visit and Melanie has provided a handout and information about accessing these gardens which will be circulated to members.

Melanie giving her talk to 70 CABAHS members in the Long Gallery


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