"Reading The Red Book: Ferdinand de Rothschild and the Country House Album"

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: History Faculty


This dissertation examines The Red Book, a photographic album produced by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild (1839-1898) of Waddesdon Manor, his country house built in 1877. Images from this album are often reproduced and used to illustrate histories associated with this house, but the album itself as a discrete object has never been analysed before. In 1897, Ferdinand de Rothschild commemorated the twentieth anniversary of his Buckinghamshire estate and 'labour of love' with the publication of The Red Book. Produced in multiple copies, the album consists of twenty-seven collotypes dedicated to views and aspects of Waddesdon Manor. My project will analyse the relationship between the self-fashioning of Ferdinand de Rothschild, a scion of the Austrian branch of the Rothschild banking family, and the photographs of his own house that he commissioned and collected for this album. The thesis will argue that such an examination offers insight into both the modern Jewish experience in Europe and the role played by photographic representation in its articulation.
The Red Book provides a visual tour of the forms and functions of Waddesdon Manor, producing a narrative account of the house as both a ritualistic and reflexive space. When mediated through the topographical framework of the album, photographic depictions of the property become self-conscious expressions of Ferdinand de Rothschild's own history, identity, and legacy. The Red Book is also product of a wider material culture of country- house albums executed by the Rothschild family, Jewish estate owners, and landed aristocracy in post-emancipation Europe. Juxtaposing themes of creation and preservation in photography at and of country houses uncovers how the culture of album production and circulation was employed to document, display, and circulate the images of houses. This practice can therefore be understood as an integral aspect of identity construction for nineteenth-century elites. A close reading of The Red Book offers a new approach to understanding the significance of country-house photography, going beyond the usual appreciation of its efficacy as a documentation of buildings and interiors to see such photographs as signs redolent with memory and meaning.
The temporal, spatial, and hermeneutic aspects of the album will shape the direction of this project. Through the reoccurring themes of representation, identity, and agency, my dissertation will be organized around particular aspects of the commemorative country-house album. Using the form of the album to decipher its function, I will situate The Red Book as a distinct piece of material culture within the multiple registers of the photographic album and exploit its diversiform characteristics to illuminate the ethos of its creator. A close reading of The Red Book will produce two central threads of inquiry: an examination of the volume as a narrative of Ferdinand's own identity and as evidence of the wider context of the material history and visual culture of the country house and its photographic representation.
Identifying how the social and interior self is condensed into the narrative structures of a photograph album will provide insight into both Jewish experience and photography at country houses. More than a sum of its parts, I will use The Red Book in its totality to construct a topoanalysis for Ferdinand de Rothschild's vision of his property as suggestive of what he valued most in his home and the ideals he desired to express about himself. Mediating the complexities of historic actors against wider cultural and social contexts, this dissertation will demonstrate that subjectivity is decipherable through the careful examination of photographic representations of houses, opening the understudied genre of country-house photographic albums to the possibilities of wider critical appreciation.




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