Born in Paris, Ferdinand was a member of the Austrian branch of the Rothschild banking family [now extinct in its male line] and a great grandson of Mayer Amschel. He showed little interest in the family bank, but from early in life he discovered a love for works of art. This became an abiding passion and he was to become one of the great art collectors of his age.
Ferdinand’s relationship with his father, Baron Anselm von Rothschild, was distant, but he adored his English mother Charlotte and her death in 1859 was to him a tragedy. Shortly afterwards – perhaps because of her English connection – he travelled to London where he decided to stay, later becoming a British subject.
A further tragedy soon followed. In 1865 Ferdinand married his second cousin, Evelina de Rothschild, the daughter of Lionel. In the following year his wife of eighteen months was injured in a railway accident, following which she died while giving birth to a stillborn son. Ferdinand never remarried. He died at the comparatively early age of 59.
Ferdinand’s father died in 1874 leaving to him a very considerable inheritance. It was while hunting that Ferdinand first saw the magnificent views to be had from the top of Lodge Hill where Waddesdon Manor now stands. In 1874 he bought land in Waddesdon Village from the Duke of Marlborough, later saying of the site “it had bracing and salubrious air, pleasant scenery, excellent hunting, and was untainted by factories and villadom.” In her book REMINISENCES (pub.1922), his cousin Constance leaves an interesting account of her first encounter with Waddesdon’s “bracing and salubrious air”:
“On one cold dark day, in the December of 1874, my cousins, Ferdinand and Alice, son and daughter of Anselm de Rothschild of Vienna, invited me to drive with them to Lodge Hill, six miles beyond Aylesbury, a steep eminence about 600 feet above the level of the sea – really at that time a bare wilderness, where a farmhouse, a few miserable cottages, and some hedgerow trees were standing. The place under that grey wintry sky did not look attractive, and the roads were certainly not adapted for wheel travelling, excepting for that of farm carts.
“As we began to mount the hill our horse felt what would be required of him and sagaciously slackened speed, at last refusing to go any further; and this was not astonishing, as the wheels of the carriage were sticking fast in the mud. So we dismounted, and, youth being on our side, we managed to struggle on for a while, gaining some idea of the view to be obtained from the top of the hill, without actually arriving at its summit. Tired and somewhat disappointed, I exclaimed at last, ‘And is it here, Ferdie, that you intend building your palace? Is this to be the site of your future park?’ For it was to show me the ground that he had purchased from the Duke of Marlborough that I had been invited by my cousin to take that drive on that memorable winter’s day. And it was actually there on that bare hilltop that in 1880 the palace stood, in its park and grounds of over 3,000 acres, dominating a wide stretch of country, overlooking vast pasture-land and wooded heights. What labour, ingenuity, patience, long-suffering on the parts of owner, architect, builder, landscape gardener, that creation demanded it is not in my province here to relate . . . . Suffice it to say that the services of a very distinguished French architect, Déstailleur, were retained, who at my cousin's request drew the plans for a château of the Renaissance period, whilst the very ornate and carefully considered garden was designed by Lainé, who also hailed from the land of France.”
Between 1874 and 1889 architect Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleur  designed and built Waddesdon Manor based on the 16th-century French Château de Chambord. Running water and central heating were provided from the start, and electricity was introduced in 1889. In the following year a small passenger lift was installed for Queen Victoria’s visit, but she declined to use it, not trusting in the magic of electricity.