An Opening in a Holland House Dinner Book

image of an open manuscript book

Contributor: Will Bowers

Location: British Library, London.

Description: This opening occurs in the first of the dinner books kept at Holland House, Kensington, in which Elizabeth Vassall-Fox (Lady Holland, 1771-1845) recorded who dined at the house between 1799 and 1845. The coterie that gathered at this Jacobean mansion, then on the outskirts of west London, kept alive the flame of Charles James Fox, the uncle of Henry Richard Vassall-Fox (Lord Holland, 1749-1806). The group continued Fox’s desire for reform, especially his fight for the emancipation of slaves and Catholics, his opposition to European wars, and his support of global freedom movements. The international dimension of these concerns meant the house was a kind of alternative foreign office for liberal culture and politics, receiving European authors and politicians who it was hoped would spread Foxite principles aboard. The centre of exchange for this group was the dining room, in which Lady Holland played the chatelaine, entertaining the leading cultural figures of Romantic culture. Her eight assiduously kept dinner books, which Leslie Mitchell neatly describes as ‘catalogues of talent’, document forty-five years of the salon. (Mitchell, 35)

Like many historical records, the dinner books are of mundane appearance: bound in hard-wearing vellum, filled with some 77,000 names and the occasional curt aside. They maintain a uniform format (measuring 31.5 cms x 9 cms) across all eight books. They also operate a uniform recording system: diners are listed in no apparent order before dinner takes place (those who failed to attend are deleted the following day), and those who stayed the night are marked as ‘slept’. These books also acted as a kind of coterie diary, noting when the Hollands dined elsewhere or went to the theatre, marking holidays to the country or longer trips abroad, and also including rather more cryptic lines such as that at the top of the left page—“Monday returned to Stratton street”—which suggests a visit to the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire at their Mayfair home. Mundane and cryptic they may be, yet within them is one of the most comprehensive records of Romantic sociability, evidence of an age in which, as Lord Holland put it, ‘Private dinners, tavern suppers, convivial meetings, perhaps, intemperance itself, constituted a large portion of the ways and means of public men’. (Holland, 354) Holland’s list of different eating situations and his use of the term ‘public’ raises the question of how we classify the dinners at Holland House. What began as small gatherings of a few university friends in 1799, soon expanded to regular dinners for a dozen people by 1805, and often of more than twenty by the time of the Regency. These were events: not closed like a private dinner or as public as a tavern supper but quasi-official gatherings of reforming upper-middle and upper-class minds from across Europe. The dinner books act as a means of revealing these ephemeral events to researchers, but also acted as means for the Hollands themselves to monitor and codify their coterie. The names jotted in these books are a who’s who of British Romantic literature—including Lord Byron, Francis Jeffrey, Caroline Lamb, Mary Russell Mitford, Thomas Moore, and William Wordsworth—of three generations of politics—including Henry Brougham, Charles James Fox, Earl Grey, the Prince Regent, Lord John Russell, and Richard Sheridan—as well as a number of those ‘influencers’ scarcely remembered today, but central to the character of the period, such as John Allen, Richard ‘Conversation’ Sharp, Sidney Smith, and John Whishaw.

Holland House was one of many important salons in Romantic London, but it differed from gatherings at Devonshire House or at John Murray’s on Albemarle Street in one crucial way, and this difference was often commented upon by guests. Aaron Burr, the former Vice-President of the United States, and the man who shot Alexander Hamilton, noted in a letter of September 1808, ‘I dined at Holland House on Monday last. I like much their establishment, which, however, I should judge not to be altogether English’ (Burr I 44). Burr is perceptive: guests at dinners at the house were often leading figures in European literature and politics, including Etienne Dumont, the friend and translator of Jeremy Bentham, who procured the American his invitation, and whose name appears three times on the dinners recorded in this image. Other prominent French diners included Jérôme-Marie Champion de Cicé, the controversial Archbishop of Bordeaux, Germaine de Staël, and Talleyrand, but it was Spanish and particularly Italian guests that characterised the set. Lord Holland had travelled widely in Spain, wrote a critical study of the dramatist Lope de Vega, and regularly invited the writer Joseph Blanco White to dinner and to act as tutor to his son. The Italian presence was more deeply felt, and its representatives included Antonia Canova, Ugo Foscolo, and Giuseppe Pecchio. A love of things and ways Italian was in part why the coterie existed in the first place: during their Florentine courtship in the 1790s, the Hollands had attended and learnt from the salon of the Countess of Albany and Vittorio Alfieri. They even created their own rival salon on the via Mattonaia, which dined three times a week and welcomed Jacobin radicals, university professors, and writers. The Hollands brought back furniture and paintings by Francois-Xavier Fabre from Florence, but they also brought back an Italian mode of sociable dining that made Holland House not ‘altogether English’.

The dinner books are small part of a vast Romantic collection: the 937 boxes that comprise the Holland House papers (BL Add MS 51318-52254), given to the British Museum after the house was nearly destroyed in the Blitz, and the land given to the nation as Holland Park. But the books themselves also represent a relatively ignored form of Romantic collecting: dinner books were kept by all manner of place, from Livery companies and Royal Academy dinners to private houses and radical clubs, and, if we can find a suitable methodology, present an opportunity to go beyond anecdote and table talk, to reveal how Romantic social networks established and exchanged cultural ideas over the dinner table.

Date: Saturday 18 May 1799 – Friday 11 April 1806.

Creator: Elizabeth Vassall-Fox (Lady Holland)

Subject: Holland House Coterie, Whig Salons, Romantic Sociability.

Object type: manuscript dinner book / ledger

Format: ink and pencil on paper, in a notebook bound in vellum.

Language: English

Publisher: British Library

Catalogue number: British Library Add MS 51950


Burr, Aaron. The Private Journal of Aaron Burr, ed. Matthew L. Davis. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1838.

Lord Holland, ‘Miscellaneous Recollections’ [1826], Further Memoirs of the Whig Party, ed. Lord Stavordale. London: John Murray, 1905.

Mitchell, Leslie. Holland House. London: Duckworth, 1980.


For a specially commissioned soundscape inspired by this exhibit, see below.

Composed by Lente Verelst. Performed by Laura Serra (piano), Rosalind Dobson (vocals).

To play the video of the complete suite, ‘Romantic Sounds’, click here.