Untold lives blog

12 October 2023

Mapping the Dining Culture at Holland House, 1798–1806

Holland House, Kensington, was one of the most important cultural sites in Regency London.  The cosmopolitan circle established in 1799 by Lord and Lady Holland advocated political and religious liberty, and the couple made their home a kind of alternative ministry for liberal culture and politics during decades of Tory rule, receiving European authors and politicians who they hoped would spread reform at home and abroad.  The centre of exchange for this group was the dining room, where Elizabeth Vassall-Fox (Lady Holland) was chatelaine, hosting the leading figures of the day.

Holland HouseHolland House in Kensington by George Samuel - Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

A dinner book is a written record of who dined at a given location on a given night, and Lady Holland assiduously kept such books to document forty years of her salon.  The books also acted as a diary, noting when the Hollands and their friends dined elsewhere or went to the theatre, and marking holidays in the country and abroad.

Holland House dinner bookHolland House dinner book  - British Library Add MS 51950)

The Dined project has created a database of the first dinner book (British Library Add MS 51950) which covers dinners from 1799 to 1806.  The database can be searched by date and person, and manuscript images like the one above can be browsed.  You can see information about diners in the Index of People, and about the locations visited by the Hollands in the Index of Places, and what they did in the Index of Events.  Literary figures who dined at Holland House included the poet Thomas Campbell, the novelists Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis and Caroline Lamb, the travel writer Adélaïde de la Briche, and the philosophers Jeremy Bentham and William Godwin.  More important than any individual is the regular attendance of Henry Brougham, Francis Horner and Sydney Smith, three of the founders of the Edinburgh Review (arguably the most significant periodical of the 19th century).  The dinner books also bear witness to the period’s great events including the battle of Trafalgar and the Acts of Union with Ireland, and the death of national figures such as Nelson and Pitt.

While famous diners and events present themselves on almost every page, the books also chronicle the Hollands’ family life.  Lady Holland records her children performing scenes from Shakespeare in Christmas 1805, and is a stickler for recording birthdays, illnesses, and anniversaries, and even on one occasion notes that her mother is coming to babysit.  Browsing the books also illuminates the long-forgotten names who dined beside famous figures such as the Duchess of Devonshire, Fox, and Sheridan.  Few will now remember such figures as Richard ‘Conversation’ Sharp, the celebrity hatter who dined at the house, and organised a meeting between the Hollands and John Horne Tooke; or Don Roberto Gordon, the Hispanicized Scottish vintner who was distantly related to Byron, and who, following dinners in 1800 and 1801, convinced the Hollands to visit him in Jerez in 1803; or Serafino Buonaiuti, the opera librettist at the King’s Theatre who kept the Hollands’ library and later wrote for the Literary Gazette.  It is the presence, and the opportunity to recover, these characters and their stories that make the dinner books captivating to explore.

Will Bowers
Senior Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century Literature and Thought, Queen Mary University of London

 

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