The Rothschild Family
Founded by Mayer Amschel, a coin dealer in the ghetto of Frankfurt, the present dynasty of the Rothschild family, started by his five sons, spread throughout Europe in the 1800s. The name Rothschild derives from the German for “red shield” and was first adopted as a family surname in the late 1600s. The family’s coat of arms of five arrows, representing the five brothers, was granted in 1822 by the Austro-Hungarian empire with its motto “Concordia, Industria, Integritas,” which means Harmony, Industriousness, Integrity, a slogan that has held it in good stead ever since.
Exbury Gardens stands as a testimony to the work of Lionel de Rothschild, a scion of the famous banking family, who between 1919 and 1939 spent a fortune to create one of the finest woodland gardens in the world. He once described himself as a ‘banker by hobby, a gardener by profession’. His passion was for rhododendrons, and in his day he was to become one of the most prolific breeders of this genus.
His achievement cannot be underestimated. From his purchase of the near derelict Exbury House from Lord John Forster, whose two sons had both died in the First World War, Lionel set about transforming the estate with single-minded determination. He was aided in this endeavour by his wife, Marie-Louise Beer, who he had married in 1912 and with whom he had four children, Rosemary, Edmund, Naomi and Leopold.
There was a basic structure of fine specimen trees, a legacy from the Mitfords who had been keen arboriculturists- they had owned Exbury from 1726 until the 1860s - on which Lionel could base his grandiose plans. Hundreds of men, mainly veterans returning from the Great War, were employed to clear and plant. Ornamental concrete-lined ponds with naturalistic rockeries were created with great care and the woodland soil was double-dug with the addition of spent hops from brewery waste. This gave perfect conditions for planting the collections of rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias and rare shrubs and trees that flowed into Exbury from plant-hunting expeditions that Lionel sponsored to remote corners of the globe. He created over 1,200 new hybrid rhododendrons that now bear the name of ‘The Exbury Collection’.
Not only did he rebuild Exbury House and but he also constructed ranges of brick and teak greenhouses and a water tower from which a network of pipes ran throughout the gardens. It was a horticultural spectacular that in today’s money would cost well in excess of £100,000,000!
Lionel died at the age of 60 in 1942, after which Exbury House was requisitioned by the Navy, to become one the principal planning bases for the D-Day invasion of Europe. Throughout his life his energy was as boundless as his enthusiasm and his achievement remains to be enjoyed by many thousands each year.
Edmund took over where his father left off. Having spent the Second World War fighting in France, North Africa and Italy, he returned to a neglected, run-down but not forgotten Exbury. His mother, Marie-Louise, or Mariloo as she was affectionately know to her friends, made sure her husband’s legacy was maintained through thick and thin with a skeleton staff of old gardener. Through her dedication in keeping the record of what her husband had done in his hybridising, she handed over the vital knowledge necessary to start the process of rebuilding the Gardens.
Edmund’s tenure saw the opening of the Gardens to the public for the first time in 1955, for one day only, causing a massive traffic jam! From then opening increased in frequency, initially week-ends in the flowering season, up until now when the Gardens only close for the winter.
He, too, continued hybridising and made sure Exbury put on spectacular displays at the Chelsea Flower Show right up until the 1980s, selecting his finest blooms for awards and prizes at all the RHS shows.
His lowest moment came when viewing the trail of destruction left by the Great Storm of 1987, which reduced him to tears. Hundreds of specimen trees were uprooted and the Gardens looked ruined. However, with his characteristic ‘never-say-die’ attitude he picked himself up, galvanised the workforce, marshalled his resources and had the Gardens cleared ready to open for Spring, when, on one day alone, Exbury had its largest number of visitors in one day, 9,998!
His achievement was to pull the Gardens back and ensure their future for generations to come. His children Kate, Nicholas, Charlotte and Lionel and grand-children, have all inherited the family passion of gardening.
In 2005 Edmund was awarded the ultimate accolade, the Victoria Medal of Honour, given by the RHS for outstanding achievement in the field of horticulture.
Lionel’s youngest son took over the burden of running the Gardens from his brother with the creation of a Charitable Trust that secured their financial future. He, too, was keen to put down his marker with the creation of the popular Rhododendron Line, Exbury Gardens’ Steam Railway that now runs around the top end of the Gardens.
Charlotte de Rothschild is an internationally renowned lyric soprano who specialises in Oratorio and the Art of Song – whether this is Lieder, Chanson, Folk, Art Song or Kakyoku (Japanese classical Western-style songs). She sings in 17 languages and was hailed as a pioneer in Japan, being one of the first foreigners to have recorded a complete CD of beautiful Japanese songs. You can visit Charlotte's website here..