Gâteau at the château: Lord Rothschild’s latest folly
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Waddesdon, the faux-French château built by a grieving Rothschild in the Buckinghamshire hills, always had an element of confectionery to it. Now it has the real thing. Next month, the estate unveils Wedding Cake, a ginormous 12m pink, green, blue and yellow fantasia constructed from 25,000 handcrafted ceramic tiles. It is adorned with cherubs, dolphins, birds and saints (all ceramic too), and boasts working water features and a canopy of LED-lit “stars”. Couples will be able to get married inside it, and climb the cake’s three tiers to take in the view. Even considering the family taste for the opulent and the refined (the famous “goût Rothschild”), this is quite something. But what is it? A folly?
“Yes!” says Joana Vasconcelos, 51, the Portuguese artist who conceived it, although she is relaxed about the terminology. But Jacob, fourth Baron Rothschild – custodian of the Waddesdon Estate and the man who commissioned the cake – is more exacting. “It shouldn’t be a folly, it should be something stronger than that,” says the 87-year-old, who bought a book on Georgian follies just the other day. “Shall we start saying it’s a temple?”
The cake – or temple – is many things: a new attraction for Waddesdon, which is owned by the National Trust but still run by the Rothschild Foundation; another avant-garde architectural commission by “Lord R”, as everyone here calls him – a collector and arts philanthropist who funded the building of the very stern and modernist Flint House on the grounds too; and a continuation of Vasconcelos’s own oeuvre and concerns. She has impressed Venice, Versailles and elsewhere with her supersized comments on female domesticity and desire.
Most of all though, it is the apogee of the relationship between the artist and the baron, who clearly adore each other in a chalk-and-cheese way. Vasconcelos, in a big pink jumper festooned with a pink butterfly brooch, nicely complements Lord R, smart in a pale blue shirt and aquamarine V-neck, when they convene in Waddesdon’s Dairy. (Typically for Waddesdon, the Dairy is hardly a shed with a milk pail but a hefty three-wing brick mansion on the estate’s outskirts; a Reynolds hangs in our meeting room.) This is their third collaboration of sorts. The first was when Vasconcelos offered her Pavillon de Thé sculpture (a massive wrought-iron teapot) for a 2012 exhibition in Waddesdon’s gardens. “That was when I first saw her work properly and really fell in love with it,” says Lord Rothschild.
Next, he asked her to create Lafite, two hulking candlestick sculptures that are made from bottles of his family’s signature Château Lafite. These have stood in the Park since 2015. So when Vasconcelos told Lord Rothschild about her idea for a cake sculpture, there seems to have been a certain inevitability to it.
“I told him I had an impossible project,” smiles Vasconcelos. “I call them ‘impossible projects’ – the things that I would like to do, but to make them you need to find the right collection and the right place. You have the idea, but it has to be materialised by somebody who understands it, who says, ‘I can see it too.’” She knows this especially having just worked on Dior’s AW23 womenswear show, where she designed the entire set in the Jardin des Tuileries – a surreal tentacular installation made from feathers, fabric, sequins and more.
“I was thinking of these big collectors, these big names of culture, which you are a part of,” she says to Lord Rothschild, “and Monsieur [Bernard] Arnault too. You don’t do these big objects out of nowhere. There’s a history behind it… you need to engage with the personality – we need to understand each other in order to make such a big project and make it right. Not many people in the world can do that.” It’s like Leonardo with the Medici, she says, or the Guggenheims with various modernists. Lord Rothschild sits beside her, listening but a little embarrassed. “Enough about me!” he eventually cries.
The affection seems just as well, as the cake has taken longer to make than expected, and its construction is down to the wire. The delays were caused by the pandemic, the logistical hassle of getting each individual piece handmade, the back-and-forths between Buckinghamshire and Vasconcelos’s vast Lisbon studio (the cake is also a tribute to Portuguese baroque). “We had some hiccups and problems,” she shrugs. “It’s like a crafts piece – like knitting with ceramics.”
“She’s got a fantastic temperament,” rejoins Lord Rothschild, “but this has been going on for over four years. Did you ever lose heart?” he asks her. “No!” she cries, almost shocked. Did he? “I had ups and downs. I didn’t lose heart.”
When Vasconcelos was asked to be the first woman to open the Venice Biennale in 2005, she gave them A Noiva (The Bride), a white sculpture, which is in fact a chandelier made from 14,000 tampons. When she took on Versailles in 2012, she created a vast wedding ring made from car trims, its “diamond” made of whisky glasses. The cake, for her, concludes a matrimonial trilogy. Only two people, she points out, can make their way to the very top of the edifice, on winding parallel staircases – but it needn’t be a traditional bride and groom.
“You can have two women, two men, people who don’t know each other… You’ll have an awkward situation where you go up and somebody else goes up and – pop! – you meet there. And that’s like today, where people go on Tinder and get married.” Lord Rothschild offers another angle. “Two people – old people like me – when they saw it said, could they renew their vows in it?”
The temple also fits nicely into the wider Waddesdon story. First and foremost “because we’ve got a huge collection of porcelain here”, says Lord Rothschild. “Meissen, Sèvres et cetera. So you could excuse it by saying it’s an extension of the collection.” But beyond that, he says, “I mean, it’s a pretty crazy place altogether, isn’t it?”
Waddesdon was built in the 1870s-1880s as perhaps the ultimate distraction from grief by Ferdinand de Rothschild, whose wife Evelina had died in childbirth. “He was a deeply melancholy man and had this fantasy of gathering together features of the châteaux of the Loire to create Waddesdon,” says Lord Rothschild of his ancestor. Ferdinand filled the mansion with gilt and Gainsboroughs and, as said, piles of Sèvres. “I mean, it’s almost as mad as the cake, isn’t it? There’s a link of eccentricity and romance and, actually, beauty.” Does he think Ferdinand would have liked the cake? “Umm…” A two-second pause. “I think he would.”
As to his own contribution to the estate, he persists in being modest. “My weakness and strength is that I’m carried away by her,” he says, nodding to Vasconcelos. The Cake has been “much the most challenging” thing he has commissioned. Does legacy cross his mind much? “No,” he replies swiftly. “Not really. I mean, I’m proud that it’ll be here – is that part of legacy? I suppose so, in that context.” Vasconcelos, of course, is more vocal. “In 100 years, people will say, ‘The Rothschilds had made a wonderful ceramic collection here – but then Jacob Rothschild was even crazier than everybody else, and he made a wedding cake!’” Lord R, as ever, nods amiably, still processing his latest folly.
Wedding Cake opens at Waddesdon, Buckinghamshire, on 8 June. Available for booking until 26 October