Rich and strange

<strong>Walter Rothschild: the Man, the Museum and the Menagerie</strong>

Miriam Rothschild


This is a reissue of the late Dame Miriam Rothschild's 1983 biography of her remarkable uncle Walter. The Natural History Museum has published and retitled it, but commissioned no new preface to explain who Miriam Rothschild was or inform us that Walter Rothschild bequeathed the museum of the title, with its immense and unrepeatable collection of fauna, to this very same Natural History Museum (then part of the British Museum) when he died. As the book abounds in criticisms of the British Museum, for its treatment of Walter and its neglect of his collection, these omissions of courtesy may just exemplify that neglect, or they may be signs of pique. Either way, it's a missed opportunity.

Walter Rothschild is fortunate in his bio grapher. His niece was a most rigorous and painstaking scholar, an entomologist who is not an academic, and a Rothschild - a combination conducing to the greatest possible sympathy with Walter's singular predicament and allowing her to negotiate, as perhaps no one else could, a history in which most of the principal documents have been burned. Only a biographer with such credentials could have had the luck to discover the identity of his mistress - the "witty, aristocratic, ruthless blackmailer" who ruined Walter financially and for decades destroyed his peace - and the decorum to withhold it.

The personality of Walter is evasive in the extreme. He was first son of Natty, the first Lord Rothschild, the "pre-eminent Jew" of Great Britain and a man of consequence and influence such, as his great-niece repeatedly points out, as is barely imaginable today. Walter was not the heir Natty looked for, being stubbornly awkward, interested exclusively in natural history, phobically non-communicative and useless with money. The only extant letter from his schooldays asserts: "I have no news of any kind." Later, in middle age, so overwhelmed was he by the obligations of correspondence and the muddle of his finances that for two years he resorted to dropping all his letters, unopened, into laundry baskets and bolting the lid. Miraculously, he did no actual harm during the 18 years he turned up for work at the bank. Perhaps the bank was saved by the fact that his mind was not on banking affairs, but fixed upon the end of the day, when he could get home to Tring Park and work on systematising and swelling the immense collection of animals, living and dead, pinned, stuffed or pelted, that formed the display of his menagerie and museum at Tring.

In this work, unlike the other, he was start lingly vigorous and effective. His interest lay in the collection of whole orders of animals, with no gap unfilled, and he was perfectly suited to this. The mind that blanked at the thought of letters housed a prodigious memory that held the details of thousands of animal and insect species, and could recall the faintest distinctions of shading on birds' and butterflies' wings. To the annoyance of the museum professionals, he did not restrict himself to deep studies of a few genera, but ranged greedily over the zoological inventory of the world. A crate arriving at Tring might contain a stuffed gorilla beating its chest or a gross of finches' eggs, a pair of live zebras or one of the giant tortoises that he had rescued from extinction by simply buying the island of their origin, where they were hunted for the table.

He was particularly strong on flightless birds. In view of his own ponderous physique and lifelong residence in the nursery wing of his parents' house, one may be tempted to read this as an example of Baudrillard's remarks about how the collector collects himself. His biographer, however, has no patience with such frivolities. She regards Walter's character as unfathomable and has bent herself not to understanding, but appreciating him. She plainly perceives him as unappreciated - first by his father, then by the zoological Establishment which, expecting him to put his enthusiasm and his pocket at the disposal of its own work, was dismayed and resentful when he didn't; and finally by historians who have portrayed him as an accidental participant in the history of the Balfour Declaration, which was addressed to him. Miriam Rothschild wants to show him as a zoologist of genius, and an active campaigner for the Jewish homeland in Palestine.

She succeeds brilliantly in the first and slightly less brilliantly in the second of her aims. However, against the flow of her intended sympathy there is an opposing current that creates an in teresting tension between the author and her argument. For the whole weight of the Rothschild business, bank and family responsibilities that Walter let drop in his pursuit of "my museum" fell on to the plate of his younger brother, Charles, Miriam's father.

Charles rose to it: he looked after everyone and everything, but his health suffered and he killed himself in 1923, leaving a wife and five children behind in the nursery wing, with Walter. Miriam never recriminates, but she makes it pretty clear that, as with George VI, the burden of his brother's duties did for him. Her loss is the hidden subject of her book.

Nicola Shulman is the author of "A Rage for Rock Gardening: the Story of Reginald Farrer, Gardener, Writer and Plant Collector" (Short Books)

This article first appeared in the 12 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, 1968 The year that changed everything