Patria Potestas

David Allen

  • Dear Lord Rothschild: Birds, Butterflies and History by Miriam Rothschild
    Hutchinson, 398 pp, £14.95, November 1983, ISBN 0 09 153740 1

One of the great, undercelebrated spurts in individual freedom to have occurred in recent years is the lightening of the age-old pressure on sons to go into the family business regardless of their suitability. Many lifetimes of misery have thereby been eliminated – and at the same time much avoidable inefficiency. For the tradition of equating proprietorship with management and treating both as heirlooms never had much logic, inasmuch as entrepreneurial (or, for that matter, professional) skills are by no means a matter of upbringing or heredity. What the tradition in effect provided was a convenient myth to justify and to sustain paternal striving: for many a concern, the building-up or maintaining of something to pass on to one’s sons – or, in default of sons, some other close relations – has been its principal driving-force. The stronger-willed the father, the less inclined he has always been to fight back that eternal temptation for parents to fashion their children in their own image. Moreover, the ability to hold out the promise of a well-buttressed livelihood – or, better still, a limitless horizon of wealth – in return for a mere modicum of labour has long been the ideal way of prolonging patria potestas into one’s offsprings’ maturer years.

The subject of this lively and penetrating biography, written by one of his nieces, was a prime example of the absurdity of that custom. Walter, the second Baron Rothschild, great-great-grandson of the fortune-founding Mayer Amschel, was manifestly without any talent at all for finance, had absolutely no need to earn a living and had a younger brother who possessed in full measure the very abilities in which he was lacking: yet his hidebound, autocratic father could conceive of no other possible course than to imprison him in the family banking hall for 18 pointless years. Victorian commercial dynasties which refrained from opting out of Trade exacted as their price of membership a subscription to the creed of daily toil. However opulent the surroundings in which their members passed their lives, they were not allowed to imitate the leisured classes and spend their days in mere enjoyment of their wealth. Without the discipline of the shafts, the heirs, it was evidently feared, would swiftly abandon their role of workhorses and the wheels of the family mills would cease to turn. The guarantee of a continuing prosperity was seen to be the grindstone.

Walter Rothschild’s imprisonment was all the more crass, criminal even, for the reason that he had already given abundant proof of exceptional ability in another, no less worthwhile field. This was zoological taxonomy. Unfortunately, at that particular stage of its development this was a branch of science that bore a confusing outward similarity to one of the favourite recreations of the age. Shooting and mounting birds and animals for study looked all too like shooting and mounting them as game. Unfortunately, too, the making of collections of one class of objects or another had long been a passion for which the family as a whole was renowned. As a result, it was Walter Rothschild’s further, unkind fate that his substitute career, in which he was to win fame and honour internationally, was dismissed by those whose opinions counted with him most as nothing more than a hobby. In their eyes, he would never be anything other than a renegade from banking, a disappointing idler who had let the family down.

As so often with naturalists, the flair for classification revealed itself extremely early. Even at the age of five and a half, we are told, he was noticing the differences between species. The abnormally sharp eyesight which was to make him a crack shot combined with a marvellous visual memory to give him a mastery of subtle distinguishing features. With the family fondness for detail and more than his fair share of its mania for collecting too, he might well have become an art connoisseur of equal distinction. Given a slightly different conformation of faculties, given a rather bigger twist in circumstances, and Rothschild at Tring might be the subject of the salon talk that is now devoted to Berenson at I Tatti. There is indeed an obvious parallel with Berenson: at the time the two of them were active, zoological research, no less than the study of Renaissance painting, had arrived at a stage where it offered unexampled scope to anyone with the necessary initiative and means to bring together under one pair of eyes a properly representative array of material to serve as a basis for much-needed critical comparison. The mechanisms of speciation were then, in the wake of Darwin and Wallace, at the centre of scientific debate, and attention had come to be concentrated on how species departed from the type in different sections of their range. Amassing good series of these geographical races provided collectors with a valid scientific pretext for what was otherwise too often a mere accumulating itch. The laborious task of delimiting and describing them provided museum experts in their turn with an equally worthy goal that could easily outlast their lifetimes. For such a period Walter Rothschild was the very man.

From as early as the age of seven, to become a taxidermist had been his ambition; and from then until the end of his life the steady enlarging and enriching of his own private ark had engaged his attention – and his fortune – at the expense of just about everything else. It was a mania that could have resulted in collecting just for collecting’s sake: but happily one powerful component of it was an urge to embrace nature intellectually. With great good sense he hired two able and industrious Germans to assist him, Ernst Hartert with the birds and the mammals and Karl Jordan with the insects and other invertebrates, and between the three of them an institution of the highest scientific repute was brought into being which in due course came to rival even the greatest of the national collections, both in the richness of its study material and in the volume and standard of its published work. As the product of one person’s single-minded acquisitiveness put to fruitful scientific ends, nothing comparable had been seen since the vast 18th-century cabinets of the Dowager Duchess of Portland and Sir Hans Sloane. And assuredly nothing like it will ever be formed again. Science by now has enough reference material of this kind; a different ethic reigns; nature in such abundant variety has already ceased to exist.

Yet there was evidently more to that compulsion than the motives that have been suggested thus far. For her Uncle Walter, the author very persuasively hints, the museum also served as an emotional escape-hatch – from the hated exile in the City, but even more from his intolerably overbearing parents. Where the father bitingly disapproved and growled, the mother bound him with ‘iron apron strings’, exaggerating his delicateness and to the end of her days insisting on treating him as a child.

His response was a protective vein of ‘egotistical ruthlessness’, wild extravagance, an inability to confide, a bad speech impediment and impenetrable silences. All of which seem, however, no more than the ordinary defence mechanisms of an ordinarily sensitive individual pounded into an exceptionally burrowing shyness. Yet Miriam Rothschild would have us believe that at bottom there was an incomprehensible enigma. She writes of ‘an almost schizoid streak’ and makes much of what she sees as his violent contradictions. But this seems to introduce a needless element of mystification: to me, at any rate, he comes over as altogether less baffling – as merely a rather extreme example of a naturalist of a by no means unfamiliar type. As the author is herself a naturalist of great distinction, one can only suppose that there are unexpected gaps in the range of her acquaintance.

The one great surprise of the book is that for more than half his life Walter Rothschild was in thrall to a ruthless blackmailer. For fear of the hurt that some foolishness in his past would bring to his mother were it ever to become known to her, he went on suffering in silence and went on paying out. The person responsible is discreetly left unnamed, but the veil is lifted to the extent that we learn that she was ‘a society belle’ and a peeress. She and her husband ended by destroying him financially, with the ultimate refinement of cruelty that he was forced into selling to America the birds which formed the cherished core of his collection. The rest, luckily, remained in his possession – and passed, in 1937, in the final year of his life, to the British Museum (Natural History), the largest single gift that has ever been made to that much-benefacted institution. It lives on today as a separate branch of the establishment at Tring, of lasting value not only scientifically but also as the physical embodiment of one man’s accumulating urge, the Burrell Collection of British natural history.

A final word of praise is due for the handsomeness of the book’s production and in particular for the astonishing profusion of fascinating plates. These range from Walter, a figure of Edward VII corpulence, astride a favourite giant tortoise to – even more remarkable perhaps – a portrait of one of his long-term pair of mistresses. Such a bounteousness of illustration hardly seems consonant with the comparatively modest price: have we the Rothschilds to thank yet again for giving us the benefit of a surreptitious subsidy?