It’s not very often the men in suits upstage a Roman antiquity.
I was invited to the special opening of “Predators and Prey: A Roman mosaic from Lod, Isreal” at the splendid Rothschild mansion of Waddesdon Manor in leafy Buckinghamshire, a short train journey north west of London.
The reason we were there was kept under wraps until the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson arrived, which gave me the opportunity to enjoy a cup of coffee in the stables courtyard and gossip with colleagues.
For those of you not familiar with the Buckinghamshire phenomena that are the Rothschilds, some context. Hailing from Germany, the Rothschilds became one of the richest and most powerful European families of the 19th century – they acted as bankers to monarchs and governments, built palaces and castles and collected fine and decorative art. As one does. The English side of the family built their country houses in the Vale of Aylesbury – perfect for visiting each other and hunting. And why not. Nathan, founder of N.M. Rothschild in London, first rented the 17th century house at Tring in 1833 and whose son found time to establish one of the best collections of stuffed animals England has ever seen – now the fabulous Natural History Museum Tring that boasts amongst its treasures, Mexican dancer fleas in Gallery 3. Over the next few decades, the houses of Nathan’s widow and sons were constructed or bought in and around Aylesbury. By the end of the 19th century, there were seven houses in the Vale of Aylesbury: Aston Clinton, Tring, Ascott and Eythrope and the palatial Mentmore Towers, Halton and Waddesdon. Each was constructed in a different architectural style, drawing on influences from the Elizabethan era, the 17th century, and the fashion for cottage-style houses in the late 19th century.
Great supporters of archaeology with connections in the Near East, it seemed a logical step to offer to display the splendid series of Roman mosaic floors that were accidentally discovered during local road works in Lod, Israel (Lydda in the Ancient World). They were reburied after some conservation until final excavation in 2009 by the Israel Antiquities Authority. Found in the remains of what was probably a large villa, the main mosaic panel measures roughly eight metres in length and is in three sections. It demonstrates fine workmanship, with beautiful border designs and images of exotic wild animals from across the Roman Empire including; lions, elephants and giraffes, as well as various local fish in an elaborate Fish and Ships scene. Dated to around 300 AD, it is enigmatic not only because it juxtaposes animal hunting scenes with a marine scene, but also because no human figures or deities are displayed.
The “greatest speaker in the world” is how Boris Johnson was introduced and very quickly established his credentials with a series of insights into why the Major of London was on a day-release in the depths of leafy buckinghamshire. It must have made a change from opening skyscrapers and low-cost housing developments in east London. Having a stab to, at who the mysterious and wealthy owner of the villa could be – Hedgeious Fundis or possibly Oligaricious Maximus brought 2000 years of history straight into the present. It’s not often a man in a suit (who seem to plague our industry and turn up at the opening of an envelope), upstages the star of the show with a broad knowledge and worldy wit that is unusual for a politician and ended his short presentation with the rallying cry “Let’s put the grout back into Britain!”. Get it?
This caused a colleague to remark: “Just image Prince Charles on the throne and Boris Johnson at no.10…..” that in itself would make a marvellous blog don’t you think?
Stranger things have happened!
A slightly surreal, but very enjoyable morning at the wonderful Waddesdon Manor. Now my third or fourth visit, they have a really good programme that supports contemporary artists that sits so comfortably in the fine surroundings and would recommend a visit and if you go this summer, you will be able to enjoy the Predators and Prey Roman Mosaic.
For more information on what’s to see and do in the local area VisitChilterns.co.uk will inspire your visit plans.