When Camille Silvy opened the lens on his camera on 22nd September 1861, he was 27 years old. He had opened his studio at 38 Porchester Terrace, in Bayswater (between Notting Hill, Paddington and Hyde Park) three years earlier. The young French photographer had become noticed for his talent as a portraitist and the two demanding customers, whom he had just had pose for him, were reasonably certain of being treated in the same way. In fact, in the small albumen prints which Monsieur Silvy will have given them, the two men’s features, both some years younger than the photographer, still appear well cut. The same two gentlemen portrayed together were photographed by the same Camille Silvy each on their own. Real service. These full-length portraits (the originals are in London’s National Portrait Gallery) show the brothers Nathaniel Mayer (seated) and Alfred Charles de Rothschild, scions of the famous banking family which had its origins in Frankfurt on the Main. Our attention is not so drawn to Alfred Charles (1842-1918), but more to Nathaniel Mayer (1840-1915), called “Natty”. He was the first son of Lionel de Rothschild and his wife Charlotte, who also came from the Rothschild family (but from a Neapolitan branch of the dynasty). Natty was also the first Baron of Tring, in the county of Hertford (1885), meaning the first member of a Jewish family to enter the House of Lords. Although he had not graduated, (just like his brother Alfred Charles he had abandoned his studies at Trinity College, Cambridge, before taking his finals), Nathaniel Mayer de Rothschild succeeded in building up the bank established by his great-grandfather and in moving it towards the 20th century, giving rise to the myth of a dynasty which is still famous throughout the world of finance and in the jet set.
He was reserved, even to the extent of being shy and diffident, and little inclined to a worldly life. “Natty” cultivated an understated kind of elegance which was very sophisticated. Politically and socially engaged, Baron Rothschild was a student of Benjamin Disraeli but he kept a “low profile” with regard to his mentor, even though he was one of the richest and most influential men of his time. He was certainly recognised as a point of reference for the Jewish community across the world but this position did not change his distinguished behaviour, although always rigorous and sober. The photographs by Silvy, despite Natty’s being only 20 years old, bear witness to the fact that he was little more than a boy made to look older by his black beard. His clothing (the jacket buttoned at the top and his shapeless trousers) and his accessories (the watch chain, top hat and umbrella) concede very little to coquetry.
However, Natty did not disdain good quality in his clothes and he shopped at the best tailor’s shops in London. This is borne out by one of the samples preserved in the historical archives of the Vitale Barberis Canonico wool mill. Nathaniel Mayer de Rothschild is mentioned more than once by his tailor (probably Henry Poole) who created the “tome”.
And also other members of the Rothschild clan, including one or two Misses, were happy to trust in the same capable hands in the Savile Row shop. The light-coloured garments worn by Natty in the 1861 photo are reminiscent of the 2¾ yards of Fancy Milled Elysian* in beige/grey used on 10th September 1860 by Tailor Poole after buying it at the renowned fabric shop of Landon & Holland (previously East, Landon & Holland) in Old Bond Street. Or of the White Milled Melton** which the same Mr Poole sourced from the same wholesaler on 26th September 1860, to then use a yard of it on the following 21st November, perhaps for those light-coloured trousers worn with such nonchalance by Nathaniel Mayer de Rothschild, even though the cut of those days was anything but figure-hugging.
*The Fancy Milled Elysian was the “fancy” version of a milled fabric used to create overcoats, called “Elysian”, meaning a thick, heavy fabric generally made of wool with a long nap, woven diagonally and with an undulating motif on the surface.
** The White Milled Melton was a milled fabric with a diagonal weave in pure wool, very warm, finished in such a way as to give the fabric a fully-felted look able to hide the weave.