Rothschild family archive gets a fittingly sumptuous new home

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The name Rothschild is arguably the most powerful in the world of high finance. The family operates in a rarefied, aristocratic and largely private realm of mega-investments and major shareholdings in international banks. As you read this, Nathaniel Rothschild is concluding a deal to turn a £100m investment into a new £1bn gas and oil company, in 11 days.

But now, at a centre for the Rothschild Foundation and Archive at the family's historic home, the Waddesdon Manor estate in Buckinghamshire, the inner workings of this great dynasty between 1839 and 1957 have become available to the public in a new complex of buildings at Windmill Hill designed by Stephen Marshall.

They include a large archive store, and seminar and meeting rooms. Marshall, whose other projects have included the sculpture gallery at Roche Court, Hampshire, has created a refined modernist courtyard on a hilltop site overlooking the Vale of Aylesbury. Beautifully crafted in oak, brick and glass, the restrained forms are the opposite of the grossly splendid and literally gilt-edged 19th-century architecture of Waddesdon Manor.

The financial ascent of the Rothschilds began in the late 18th century in Germany and extended to lending banks, industrialists and governments vast sums of money. Such was the family's power that, according to Niall Ferguson, historian and author of The Ascent of Money, the Rothschilds decided the outcome of the Napoleonic Wars by putting their financial weight behind Britain. Today, the family's core businesses have assets worth nearly €30bn, but the value of their network of financial holdings runs into trillions of dollars.

But is that more interesting than the chance to sit down in a stylish Eames chair at a large oak table and pore over the personal papers of a family whose wealth and influence makes even outlandishly rich fictional characters such as Orson Welles' Citizen Kane and F. Scott Fitzgerald's omniscient Jay Gatsby look like barrow-boys? Academics, and the casually inquisitive, can now riffle through the papers of Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild (1839-98), his sister Alice (1847-1922), James Armand de Rothschild (1878-1957) and his wife Dorothy, and the current head of the family, Jacob, 4th Lord Rothschild. The Windmill Hill archive also holds papers relating to the Palestine Jewish Colonisation Association, founded by Baron Edmond de Rothschild in 1924 to settle displaced Jews in self-supporting agricultural communities.

The archive is a treasure-trove of the fine detail of lives ensconced in ultimate privilege. There are menus and recipes, including for lunch when Queen Victoria visited Waddesdon Manor in 1890. Alice de Rothschild's letters to her head gardener, George Johnson, can be seen, along with her flower arrangement instructions; and there will surely be a queue of feverishly whimpering vinophiles desperate to sniff out spectacularly grand wine-lists.

The family described by Niall Ferguson as "the world's banker" has chosen to reveal its difference by exposing something of its history, charitable work, and cultural and environmental projects.

Windmill Hill reading-room and archive, at Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire, is open Monday to Friday

Rothschilds at a glance

* The founder of the Rothschild fortune, Mayer Amschel Rothschild, a goldsmith and money-lender, settled in the Jewish ghetto in Frankfurt in 1744.

* The British branch of the business was founded by one of Mayer's sons, Nathan.

* Nathan's grandson, also Nathan, was the first Jew to sit in the House of Lords, as Baron Rothschild in 1885.

* In 1996, Amschel Rothschild, under pressure to work in the family bank, hanged himself in a London hotel.

* Nathaniel Rothschild, who was in the Bullingdon Club at Oxford University with the Chancellor, George Osborne, was the family playboy until 1996, when he suddenly developed an appetite for making money.