What Devonshire House was to the late eighteenth century, Holland House was to the early nineteenth century. And then some. Holland House has been called the closest thing England ever had to a continental salon. For Holland House, in the first 40 years of the nineteenth century, referred not only to the house built in 1605 but to a gathering place of the era’s movers and shakers.
Holland House was built in the seventeenth century by Sir Walter Cope and was originally called Cope Castle. The baronet’s gracious, turreted three-storey structure was placed upon a hill surveying his vast parkland in what is now Kensington.
Though only two miles from the present Marble Arch of central London’s Hyde Park, that part of Kensington was considered “country” even later in Regency times. In fact, the 3rd Lord Holland (whose 40 plus years of dinners made Holland House internationally famous) always rented a house in the city during Parliamentary sessions. (Three miles through bustling London with its hundreds of toll gates was an arduous journey well into the nineteenth century.)
Sometime after Sir Walter Cope’s death, the house passed to the first Earl of Holland, whose title became extinct. However, the title was revived by eighteenth-century politician Henry Fox (1705-1774), who became the first Baron Holland after purchasing the house. Enormously wealthy (until his sons squandered his money gambling), Fox eloped in 1744 with the Duke of Richmond’s daughter, Lady Caroline Lennox, who was 18 years his junior.
The most famous of their three (spoiled) sons was Charles James Fox, who was elected to Parliament before he was 21 and led the Whig party until his 1806 death. After the early death of Charles James Fox’s older brother, Stephen, the Holland title passed to his young son, the 3rd Lord Holland (1773-1840). It is he who brought prominence to Holland House. He enjoyed an especially close relationship to his uncle, Charles James Fox, who had no legitimate children.
Having succeeded to the title while still a boy, the 3rd Lord Holland fell in love with Sir Godfrey Webster’s wife while traveling in Italy before his twenty-first birthday. After her divorce, she and Holland married in 1797—but not before the birth of their first child, Charles Fox, named for the uncle Holland idolized throughout his life. (Her first husband kept the children from that marriage.)
Likely because as a divorced woman, Lady Elizabeth Holland (whose journal review can be found on my website) could not be received in polite society, she began presiding over dinners at her new home with other “Foxite” Whigs. These dinners grew to include the most interesting men of the era: important Tories, visiting Europeans of prominence—including heads of state—and some of the greatest writers of the nineteenth century.
The massive home was filled with portraits of nineteenth-century notables who exchanged portraits with the Hollands, which was a custom of the day. (The exchanged portraits were typically copies of portraits by more well known painters.)
Lady Holland kept “dinner books” for 40 years—virtually a People magazine of early nineteenth-century England.
Sadly, the Holland title went extinct when the 3rd Lord Holland’s son and heir died childless in 1859, nineteen years after succeeding his father. He left Holland House to his widow, urging her to keep the historical structure and its priceless contents intact. Upon his widow’s death 30 years later, she left Holland House to the 5th Earl of Ilchester, a member of the Fox family. She had turned down opportunities to sell it or its contents in respect of her late husband’s wishes.
The wealthy Lord Ilchester had previously worked out an agreement with the last Lady Holland to give her a generous annuity and to be responsible for the upkeep on the house until her death. Also, he agreed that when he took possession of the residence he would keep the house and its immediately surrounding property as she left it.
That Lord Ilchester’s son, the talented author of the two-volume history of Holland House, came into possession of Holland House on his mother’s death in 1935. Little did he know when writing the saga of Holland House that German bombs would destroy it in 1940, two years after his second volume was published.
Only one of the rambling mansion’s wings was not destroyed, and this is now a youth hostel. (There I am checking it out in the photo, above right, on my recent trip to England.) Also, an original arcade and orangery remain. These structures are surrounded by a beautifully landscaped 54-acre park which is maintained by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and which is now close to the center of bustling London.
The 6th Lord Ilchester sold the ruin and land to London City Council in 1952.
I have not been able to learn if he was able to save the house’s treasures or the dozens of portraits it held.
One treasure that will always be preserved for posterity is Lord Ilchester’s painstaking research about Holland House.