The beautiful collection was left to the museum by the banking heir on his death in 1898. He had inherited part of the collection from his father, Baron Anselm Rothschild, and originally displayed it at his country home, Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire.
The bequest is being presented anew from next Thursday in a purpose-built gallery which was once a library used by novelists Charles Dickens and William Thackeray. Fitted out for an undisclosed sum by the Rothschild family, it has been designed by architects Stanton Williams.
Bold, black cabinets hold glittering rock crystal, pure gold, diamonds, emeralds and miniature carvings in boxwood that, under the terms of the bequest, have to be shown together in one room.
Most items date to the 16th and 17th centuries, but there are a few funerary handles from the third century BC in superb condition that look just like bronze door knockers.
The collection also included masterfully faked 19th-century pieces, so fine that it is hard to tell the difference, particularly among the flamboyant Renaissance jewels, some shaped like mermaids and other fantastic creatures with baroque pearls for their torsos. Ferdinand enjoyed wearing them to fancy-dress parties.
He also liked people to gasp at the intricate detail of his superb possessions. On his death he was keen that they should be seen by a wider audience. The miniature carvings in boxwood are certainly worth a look under a magnifying glass.
Take the Boxwood Tabernacle. A prayer aid, its top opens in four petals to show the Virgin Mary, while the middle section contains a tiny account of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection in mind-boggling detail.
The gorgeous Lyte Jewel is an exquisite enamel and diamond locket holding an equally brilliant miniature for James I, the first Stuart king of England, produced by Nicholas Hilliard in London in 1610.
The tale of the Rothschilds is a classic rags-to-riches story. They escaped the Jewish ghetto in Frankfurt to create an international banking dynasty.
By the end of the 19th century the family, whose surname is a byword for unimaginable wealth, controlled a rail network, a global mining industry and invested in art. Ferdinand became a British citizen in 1860.
Keen on provenance
Dr Dora Thornton, curator of the Waddesdon Bequest who has been involved in creating the collection’s new home since 2012, says: “Ferdinand was very keen on provenance, and bought from individuals such as Horace Walpole.”
He bought two superb majolica vases from Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, Walpole’s Gothic fantasy home. Made in Urbino, central Italy, the vases feature writhing snakes for handles and luscious figurative painting.
There are brilliant vessels in rock crystal, as perfect and magical as the day they were painstakingly carved out of single lumps of crystal 400 or more years ago.
The silver-gilt drinking cups shaped like animals must have amused Ferdinand. The portly boar, whose head comes off to reveal a cup, is an absolute charmer, while one of his companions, a deer, apparently still smells of cherry brandy.
- The Waddesdon Bequest at the British Museum opens on June 11.