Grand Designs

Historians record George IV (1762-1830) as a debauched king, an undutiful son, a bad husband and a callous father. His reign, 1820-30, is remembered not for politicking but for profligate spending on art and furnishings. The object of his attention was Windsor Castle, a cold and drafty block of stone, where his mother had lived out her years on one floor while his father went mad on another.

Hugh Roberts, overseer of the Royal Collection, picks up the story in For the King's Pleasure: The Furnishing and Decoration of George IV's Apartments at Windsor Castle (Thames and Hudson, $175). By delving deep into archives and decorators' records, he pieces together the elaborate domestication of the country residence. Without reservation, he calls the project "one of the greatest, and certainly costliest, schemes of royal building, furnishing and decoration ever undertaken in England." But the results, presented in 488 photographs and richly colored period renderings, have paid off over time. Windsor is one of Britain's most popular tourist destinations.

George IV was 57 when he inherited his title and property. Beginning in 1824, he threw his energy -- and Parliament's money -- into the private apartments. (He didn't live long enough to revise the state rooms.) Jeffry Wyatville, the Duke of Devonshire's architect at Chatsworth, spruced up the exterior. Nicholas Morel and George Seddon signed on to make furnishings. Craftsmen worked around the clock, and budgets, paid out in allotments of 100,000 pounds, were regularly exceeded. The populace and the Chancellor of the Exchequer were upset about the overruns, but work continued.

The king and his advisers proved adept at 18th-century French and English, late Empire and Gothic Revival styles. Stone-encrusted furniture, silver and gilt table decorations, torchieres, chandeliers, fine porcelain, silk velvets and tapestries were made. A bathtub enclosure was constructed of costly pietra dura, then used for only a year. A 440-foot-long picture gallery required the acquisition of Dutch and Flemish masterpieces and dozens of bronze and marble busts. As Roberts puts it, the king "regarded any day in which he hadn't purchased a work of art as a day wasted."

The king took up residence in 1828, and died two years later. Parliament rendered a harsh verdict: "an extravagant waste of Public Money." The book counters that verdict with a staggering visual array of marble swirls, giltwood carvings, painted porcelain, patterned wall coverings, gilded frames, lion heads, claw feet, hardstone birds and more. Much of the furniture remains in its original setting, and the apartments are opened for viewing each fall and winter. Visitors, and now readers, can decide for themselves the worth of it all.

Home Is Where the Art Is

The 19th-century Rothschilds are remembered for profiteering during the Battle of Waterloo. In Waddesdon Manor: The Heritage of a Rothschild House (Abrams, $65), Michael Hall shifts the focus to aesthetics. His main character is Waddesdon Manor, the elegant estate created by Ferdinand Rothschild, a baron and member of Parliament. The Buckinghamshire house, which was begun in 1874, resembles a Loire Valley chateau, which is just what the baron ordered. Stone turrets, gray mansard roof and formal parterre were designed by a French architect.

Hall writes that Rothschild houses have more often been analyzed as expressions of wealth than of artistry. "Since they were the homes of the nouveaux riches," he writes, "historians have been more interested in what they cost than in what they looked like." The book provides a bit of both. Ferdinand was the great-grandson of the family's first banker, Mayer Amschel Rothschild, who lived in a 14-foot-wide house in Frankfurt's ghetto. Ferdinand's grandfather founded a bank in Vienna, but as a Jew could not own property. He had a townhouse in Paris, where the future owner of Waddesdon Manor was born. Ferdinand's generation was able to build grandly, and family members helped each other design and collect.

Ferdinand filled his house with 18th-century French furniture, Beauvais tapestries, Se{grv}vres porcelains and Bouchers in gilded frames. He also had a soft spot for Renaissance silver, Venetian glass and Limoges enamels. And he collected English portraits and Old Masters that rival those at Windsor Castle. He hung George IV's portrait by Thomas Gainsborough in his best drawing room.

Hall supplies a thorough record of the difficulties and costs involved in the construction of Ferdinand's estate on a hilltop. To soften the windswept site, for example, Ferdinand transplanted a forest of full-grown trees.

Sadly, the baron was a childless widower plagued by health problems for years. He is said to have consumed only water and cold toast, while serving guests banquets of consomme{acute}, crayfish, pullet, veal, beef and fruits from his orchard. Toward the end of his life, he wrote with foreboding that a future generation might not be able to maintain his "labour of love." Within two generations, and after two World Wars, heirs signed the house over to the National Trust in return for tax breaks.

Rule Britannia

Design and the decorative arts reached their apex in Victorian England. The nation's craftsmen produced beautiful goods for export, and its treasure-filled country houses became a model for well-heeled households around the world. (Biltmore, the Vanderbilt mansion built at the turn of the last century in North Carolina, is thought to have been inspired by Waddesdon Manor.)

How Britain achieved this status is the story told in Design & the Decorative Arts: Britain 1500-1900 (Abrams, $75). The book was written by Michael Snodin and John Styles, staff experts at the Victoria & Albert Museum, as a companion to the recently renovated British Galleries. Nearly 1,000 images of furniture, ceramics, metalware, textiles, graphics and industrial design make this book a tour de force. An engaging text identifies the tastemakers, trend-setting habits and style movements in pre-Georgian, Georgian and Victorian times.

During the period in question, decoration reflected political and economic might. The book ends with the death of Queen Victoria and the advent of 20th-century modernism. That was the end of the British era. As Christopher Wilk, chief curator of the British Galleries project, writes in his foreword, "This movement, with its many manifestations, was a development that Britain, of all the major world powers, was to find the most difficulty in accommodating." *

Linda Hales is The Post's design critic.

The house that Ferdinand Rothschild built and, at right, a section of the Crimson Drawing Room in the Private Apartments of Windsor Castle, refurnished by King George IV.