Skip navigation

Library & Archives

2 Posts tagged with the lionel_walter_rothschild_(1868-1937) tag
0

Walter_Rothschild_001312.jpg

 

 

This blog is written by Daisy Cunynghame from our Archives team to mark Explore Your Archive Week 2013 (www.exploreyourarchive.org)

 

Walter Rothschild (1868-1937), founder of the natural history museum in Tring (at that time titled the Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum) left that museum in his will to London’s Natural History Museum, including the extensive scientific specimen collections he’d amassed throughout his life.

 

One notable gap though was his ornithological material – Walter’s bird collection, which he began amassing from the age of seven, was widely considered to be the most comprehensive in the world, and as a Trustee of the Natural History Museum it was presumed (by him as well as us) that they would end up in our museum in South Kensington.

 

Unfortunately though, ultimately his finances precluded it. The economic crash of 1929 (possibly also compounded by a rumoured case of blackmail, supposedly a result of an affair with a lady of high standing) left him financially struggling and he sold his famed bird collection to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York when they were able to raise a substantially higher balance for the collection than we.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Natural_History_Museum_Tring_001313.jpg

 

 

 

Perhaps helping to shed a little more light on this, and definitely showing the more personal side to Walter’s decision, is the Museum Archive’s recently acquired small collection of Walter’s private letters.  Particularly interesting because he had asked that all his personal correspondence be destroyed on his death - a wish which was carried out, leaving very little of his own letters to be read.

 

 

 

In one letter in 1932 Walter wrote to Ernst Hartert, who had previously been one of his curators at Tring, that:

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is with a very heavy heart & with most of my life torn up, that I write these lines. Owing to the world economic conditions & the failure of many stocks & bonds to pay interest, not to talk of increased & increasing taxation, I / have been forced to retrench drastically. The 2 alternatives which faced me were either to dispose of one of my two scientific collections as a whole or else to see the museum broken up & sold piecemeal by auction. I could not face the latter alternative as my life’s work would have been annihilated. So I had to decide to dispose of that collection /for which I could find a purchaser as a whole, & that is the bird collection. I have disposed of the whole collection except about 200 skins & the 250 Struthionidae & of course the mounted portion, ie about 280000 skins & the contract as signed provides that the collection is kept together in a separate room as the Rothschild collection under a separate body of three / trustees. As the British Museum could not find the money; the collection has been purchased & presented to the American Museum. I know that you will feel as crushed by this blow as I do but the worlds collapse made it inevitable.

 

 

2013_53_Hartert_Sketchbook_1.jpg

The deal with the AMNH was protracted with negotiations with other museums, including ourselves, also taking place.  The complexity and controversy of the deal is demonstrated by him later when he mentions:

 

The economic conditions in America are in such a bad way that the millionaire donor has absolutely forbidden his name or the sum to become known at present for fear of reprisals for having spent such a large sum; so at all events for some months I cannot say anything. All I can tell you is that the sum is a third more than I expected to get & much more than I even could have got in Europe before the war even [sic]. 2013_53_Hartert_sketchbook_2.jpg

 

 

 

 

Almost as excitingly, in this little collection there is also a notebook of sketches of Claudia Hartert, Ernst Hartert’s wife, for his book ‘On the birds of the islands of Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire’.  The little volume contains sketches of eggs and birds, as well as bird feathers.

 

This collection was sent to us by the Dutch Art Museum in the Hague, who found the package when clearing out their basement.  Quite how or why the letters Walter wrote and Hartert’s sketches ended up in Holland is entirely unknown.

0

NaturalHistoryMuseum_035572_IA.jpg

 

 

 

There are numerous items in the Library & Archives collection that make me wish I could go back in time, and this great piece of printed ephemera is definitely one of them.

 

This is the front page of a letter written in 1899 to the Hon. Lionel Walter Rothschild (later Lord Rothschild) by Charles Harte, Impressario to Mademoiselle Paula.

 

It is a wonderful piece of advertising and enterainment history, and you can not help but become curious as to who Mdlle Paula was!

 

The letter is addressed from the Royal Aquarium, Westminster. This was built in 1876, located opposite Westminster Abbey, but demolished in the early 1900s to make way for the Methodist's Central Hall. As well as a theatre, art gallery, reading and smoking rooms, the building included a main hall featuring; palm trees, sculptures, tanks of curious sea creatures and an orchestra.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                                 TM1/151/25
                         (Image reference number 035572)

 

Looking through newspapers of the time, Paula performed at a number of locations around the British Isles 1890-1899, but the longer stints were spent on the bill at the Royal Aquarium.

 

Her performance is put in context when you look at the other acts listed on the bill alongside her during October 1890: Roches pack of fourteen wolves, the smallest monkey parachutist in the world, Professor Maxey the needle eater, Sol Stone the Great American calculator, and the Brothers Dunbar and their astonishing aerial act.

 

In the Pall Mall Gazette, on 29th January 1891, the following appeared advertising Paula's next show: '....with her fierce alligators, who was bitten last Saturday, hopes to reappear to-morrow [sic]'. Clearly a shrewd marketing ploy by her manager!

 

Later in January 1899, in 'The Standard' she is promoted as 'Paula Queen reptile conqueror of the world, subduing snakes, crocodiles and alligators'.                   

 

In the letter held in the Archives collection here at the Natural History Museum, Charles Harte, 'Impresario acting for Mdlle Paula, the famous reptile conqueror’ offers a living fifteen foot rare snake. He wishes to dispose of this ‘serpent’ in order to make more room for his Indian pythons, ‘more suitable for handling in Mdlle Paula’s performance’ and wonders whether Rothschild would like to add it to his collection.

 

It is amazing how one short letter can lead to such an interesting part of history.

 

For more information the Library & Archives collections and how to visit us, please go to Library & Archives.