Culture » Art & Design » The Rothschilds
When Sir Evelyn de Rothschild was going over the plans for his new London house, a renovated 19th-century artist’s studio once owned by John Singer Sargent, he decided that there were a few modern conveniences he could live without. Air-conditioning, for one, seemed unnecessary, since the British had been doing fine without it for hundreds of years. And Sir Evelyn didn’t see the need for adjustable faucets in the bathrooms. He preferred old-style taps—separate ones for hot and cold water.
But his strong-willed American wife, the former Lynn Forester, who’s been known as Lady de Rothschild since the two were married seven years ago, had very different ideas. “Can you imagine building a new house with hot and cold taps?” she says. “So that your hands burn on one and freeze on the other?”
A recent tour of the house, now completed, revealed a climate-control system in good working order and faucets that magically dispense water of variable temperature. Among the other apparent signs of Lynn’s modernizing influence: a Bill Viola video piece commissioned for the living room (it hangs directly above a Louis XVI commode); a Donald Judd on the dining room wall; a state-of-the-art screening room; and a gym, with a mirrored ceiling for Lynn’s stretching sessions.
But then there’s the Renoir sculpture in the breakfast room, and Sir Evelyn’s collection of Bugatti elephants in the traditional book-lined study. In fact, the home is a fusion of the 19th and 21st centuries (a brand-new structure now adjoins Sargent’s original one) and a fitting emblem of the Rothschilds’ merger, itself an unpredictable mélange of the New and Old Worlds. “The ultimate love nest” is how the vivacious Lynn, 53, describes the house. With her and Sir Evelyn’s children from previous marriages fully grown, she says, “We could really build this house for us.”
“I think it’s come out pretty well,” adds Sir Evelyn, tall and dapper in a dark bespoke suit. “But I don’t want to boast.”
Lynn, who still sounds like a schoolgirl with a crush when discussing her 76-year-old husband—“Isn’t he gorgeous?” she asks at one point—emphasizes that Sir Evelyn’s tastes are not as traditional as people often assume. “He’s a very forward thinker,” she says. “It’s the only reason he could have been attracted to me. I’m not exactly old-school.”
It was Sir Evelyn who first noticed the Chelsea studio when a friend of his lived in it years ago; Lynn recalls him telling her in the late Nineties, shortly after they’d met (through their mutual friend Henry Kissinger), that it was “the only house he cared about in London.” When it came up for sale shortly afterward, they saw that many of its original features—carved classical pilasters, a balcony on the main window—had been altered, hidden or removed entirely.
The man brought in to rectify the damage was David Mlinaric, the recently retired decorator who for years was the favorite of the British establishment. (He helped Lord Jacob Rothschild, Sir Evelyn’s cousin, restore Waddesdon Manor.) Mlinaric remembers first seeing the space in the early Sixties, when he was new in London and happened to have his own studio next door. The main room, with its soaring vaulted ceiling, had been subdivided into smaller spaces and done up in “pretend Georgian” style, says Mlinaric; later, Italian architect Gae Aulenti undertook a more severe, minimalist renovation. The Rothschilds’ goal was to restore Sargent’s design to its original glory while doubling the overall living space by building a modern addition on the lot next door.
As the project hit snags that caused months of delays (the original architects and contractors were eventually replaced), the Rothschilds began seriously collecting contemporary art. As with all of Lynn’s undertakings, this was not something done halfheartedly. Today, in the house’s showstopping living room—Sargent’s former painting studio—there are five Luc Tuymans paintings (two more hang in the entrance hall), plus a Cy Twombly diptych and two Barbara Hepworth sculptures.
When you’re a Rothschild and you buy seven works by the same living artist, one perk, evidently, is that the artist will agree to hang the works himself: Tuymans came from Belgium to determine where everything should go. (Mlinaric, naturally, didn’t agree with all of Tuymans’s choices, though as Lynn recalls, “I told David he had no say in this matter.”) Viola, a friend of the couple’s, adapted his own piece for the living room. Part of a series that began as the backdrop for The Tristan Project (2004), a multimedia production of Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde, the video is a slow-motion underwater scene depicting Isolde reuniting with her lover in death. Artwise, Lynn says, her deal with Sir Evelyn is that “we only buy what we both agree on. The 19th-century sculpture in this house is more Evelyn than me. But it’s so Evelyn, that I, you know, love it.”
For Sir Evelyn, who notes that he was brought up in some “very conventional” rooms filled with great art and objects, the house offered a rare chance to create something from scratch. “When you inherit, you’re very lucky to have a wonderful backdrop of art,” he says. “But you sometimes want to add to it, and you can’t, because it’s complete and there’s nothing you can really do except preserve it.”
Any lavishness in this house is underplayed, says Mlinaric, since the decor needed to be “very simple” so as not to swallow up the subtle forms and muted colors of Tuymans’s paintings. And what of the famed goût Rothschild, that intoxicatingly exotic style that influenced decades of interiors? “It’s here, isn’t it?” says Mlinaric, pointing to a priceless Chinese porcelain vase and a French Deco tray. “But it’s very pared down.” The home’s newer wing, which contains the kitchen and master bedroom, is even more understated, all smooth surfaces and clean lines. “We were trying to reduce all the time so the house didn’t have an enormous amount of fancy stuff in it,” Mlinaric says. His biggest purchase: a rare 14-piece set of English Regency dining chairs, originally from Longleat House in Wiltshire. “Most people who live to this standard have a good set of dining room chairs, but half of them are copies,” he says. Reproductions wouldn’t cut it for the A-listers—Clintons, Blairs, Kissingers—who tend to turn up at Lynn’s dinner parties.
Dressed in a Valentino suit for this morning’s photo shoot, Lynn comes across as a cheerful and energetic package of sleek, polished blondness—like Diane Sawyer with a perma-grin. You’d never guess that she was at a dinner in Paris until very late last night and in India on business the day before, or that tonight she’s having 30 people over for a Hillary Clinton fundraiser. Before she met Sir Evelyn, she was a wealthy woman in her own right and a classic New York workaholic, having made millions with several telecom ventures (though her last cellular company, FirstMark, tanked during the 2001 dot-com bust). Her friend Sherry Lansing, the former Paramount honcho, who has vacationed in Africa with the Rothschilds, observes that Lynn’s energy and optimism never flag. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Lynn depressed,” Lansing says. “That constant effusiveness and enthusiasm are real.”
Of course, in London’s elite social circles, where friendliness and ambition are viewed with more suspicion than in Lynn’s native New Jersey, her nonstop sparkle has inevitably ignited a fire or two. Last spring, when she organized a New York fundraiser for an organization she chairs, American Patrons of Tate, virtually every heavy hitter in the art world turned up; Lynn also convinced her friend Prime Minister Tony Blair to host a reception at 10 Downing Street for some of her VIP American buddies, including Ron Burkle, Sid Bass and other billionaires who’d written checks to the Tate for at least $25,000. To Lynn’s surprise, the British press slammed the event as an act of self-promotion, particularly for Blair, who was about to leave office and was alleged to be networking for his next job.
“It was the most absurd example of just how bad the British press is,” says Lynn. “This was an incredibly generous act of the prime minister, to thank a group of Americans who don’t have to support art in Britain. He hosted them at no cost to the taxpayer—the Tate paid for the wine and cheese served. And the press assumed Blair was doing this for himself, which was so ludicrous. It’s not like he couldn’t see any one of those people any time he wanted.” The New York dinner raised $1.5 million in cash for the Tate, plus more than $5 million worth of art.
Despite that dustup, Lynn, who was recently deemed “Britain’s most influential political hostess” by the Sunday Times, insists she hasn’t had much trouble making the transition from New York society to London’s. (The couple divide their time between the two cities.) “I don’t think about it that much,” she says. She certainly has no intention of toning down her Yankee exuberance in an attempt to fit in. “That would be so awkward and so unattractive,” she says. “I’m just so American. I always believe the glass is half full. And I believe that anything is possible. Work hard, play by the rules and take chances—and don’t worry about losing, because you can pick yourself up and start all over again.” Another rather un-British characteristic she’s been said to possess is an unembarrassed taste for all the trappings of extreme wealth, from private planes to chauffeured cars. “Is that said about me?” Lynn asks. “I hope not. I mean, I’m just who I am. I don’t think being rich is that important. I think not being boring is really important.”
This past fall, eager to revisit a famous literary exploration of the newly arrived American abroad, Lynn organized a reading group to discuss Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, in which the naive heroine, Isabel Archer, learns some hard lessons about the Europeans’ wily ways. “I thought it would be fun to go back and see what we really think of Isabel Archer now that we’re no longer 21,” Lynn says. Barry Humphries (aka Dame Edna Everage), Tatler editor Geordie Greig and what Lynn calls an “intimidating” group of professors and scholars re-read the book and gathered in the Rothschilds’ new living room to discuss it. Lynn’s verdict: Isabel was “presumptuous about what she could expect from life,” she says. “And frivolous. Of course, it was a different time. I believe in working, and in pulling your own weight. And that wasn’t really a 19th-century high-society notion.”
Lynn herself spends very little time as a lady of leisure. Not long after Sir Evelyn retired from the Rothschild bank in 2003, the two founded their own business, E.L. Rothschild. Their first venture was an agricultural concern based in India, where the couple saw the greatest growth opportunities. “In terms of business, I’m on fire there,” says Lynn, who with Sir Evelyn spends a week in India every month. “It’s 7 a.m. until midnight, every day.” Having sold the farming business to Del Monte in September, they’re now looking at opportunities in Indian luxury goods, while expanding their charitable interests, including an orphanage that Sir Evelyn built in southeast India in honor of his wife’s 50th birthday. According to Sir Evelyn, who sold his remaining shares in the family bank in 2007, reportedly netting more than $250 million, Lynn makes an exceptional business partner due to her energy and her contacts. “And she’s a very, very good saleswoman,” he says. On the personal front, Lynn has helped engineer a reconciliation between Sir Evelyn and his high-profile cousin Jacob, Lord Rothschild, after the two were estranged following a dispute at the bank. Lynn says that if she played peacemaker, she did so unwittingly, since she wasn’t aware of the bad blood. (“Evelyn doesn’t like to talk about anything unpleasant,” she says.) As Lynn explains it, she knew Jacob before her marriage—they’d served together on the Gulfstream board—and she began sending invitations to him, which eventually brought the two men back together.
Currently Lynn is putting her political instincts to work for Hillary Clinton. A longtime friend of both Hillary and her husband (the Rothschilds spent the first night of their honeymoon in the Lincoln bedroom while Bill was president), Lynn, who was formerly married to New York politico Andrew Stein, is now one of Hillary’s chief backers. She says she’s convinced that as the election nears, voters will begin seeing a truer, warmer side of the candidate. “Remember, for eight years the Republicans completely demonized her and created this horrible caricature,” Lynn says. “And she couldn’t fight back against it because she didn’t have a forum.”
Lynn herself continues to charge ahead in London, getting her own message out. One major new addition to the Rothschilds’ social calendar is the Christmas sing-along that she hosts annually at Ascott, Sir Evelyn’s ancestral estate in Buckinghamshire. Previous attendees say it’s quite a sight to see Lynn at the microphone, leading Queen Noor, Howard Stringer, Cherie Blair and various Labour Party bigwigs in renditions of holiday classics. “We do everything from ‘Silent Night’ to ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,’” says Lynn. “We really raise the roof.”
Meanwhile, at the London house, visitors are often surprised by one novelty in the garden: an unusual modern fountain that erupts somewhat suggestively. Every few seconds, a single stream of water spurts out sideways, forming an ecstatic arch. (“The neighbors think it’s rather rude,” Mlinaric notes wryly.) The Rothschilds discovered the piece not at some exclusive art fair, but at a Berlin agricultural convention that they attended in 2005. “We suddenly saw this extraordinary fountain, going out over a whole lot of mangoes,” Sir Evelyn recalls. “We’d never seen a fountain like that, so we found out where it came from and who made it. And that’s how we got the idea of putting it in the garden.”
After a pause, he adds, “I think it’s rather original.”