Monday, October 22, 2012

Holland House

Holland House in it's heyday (courtesy of Wikipedia)
As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I find ruins very atmospheric and romantic, but some are just plain sad.  One such, to my mind, is Holland House, in Kensington, west London.

I often walk my dogs in what is now Holland Park, the former grounds of this once magnificent mansion, and every time I look at what is left of the house, I can’t help but feel that it’s a shame it is no longer complete.  It must have been absolutely lovely in its heyday!

Built of brick, with stone and stucco decorations, at the beginning of the 17th century for Sir Walter Cope, it was originally called Cope Castle, but the name was changed by Cope’s son-in-law, Henry Rich, who inherited it.  Rich, a courtier and soldier, was the younger son of Robert, 1st Earl of Warwick, and was made Baron Kensington and Earl of Holland by James I.

He made improvements to the house and completed the internal decorations.  Apparently there was a very fine entrance hall and a large drawing room (called the gilt-room) above that with lovely views of the back garden.  There was also a big library, although this may first have been a greenhouse or conservatory as it was said to be up to 90 foot long but only 17 feet wide with lots of windows.

Unfortunately Henry Rich was beheaded in 1649 for trying to help King Charles I during the English Civil War and the house was then used as headquarters by the Parliamentarians under General Fairfax.  One source states that the gilt-room was later haunted by Rich who “issued forth at midnight from behind a secret door and walked slowly through the scenes of former triumphs, with his head in his hand” – spooky!

The front of the house now (just a facade with nothing behind)
The mansion was restored to the ownership of Lord Holland’s widow and children, then rented out to various people.  (Lord Holland’s son succeeded his cousin as Earl of Warwick and thereby united the two earldoms, but later the line became extinct).  In 1768 it was bought by Henry Fox, who was made 1st Baron Holland.  He had been renting the place since 1749.  Fox, a politician, eloped with a Duke’s daughter – Lady Caroline Lennox – and the couple were married in Fleet prison in 1744.  (You can read about Lady Caroline and her three sisters in Aristocrats by Stella Tilyard – a fascinating book).  Their second son, Charles James Fox, was also a celebrated politician, notable for being pro the American War of Independence and a supporter of the French Revolution, but against slavery.

Under the 3rd Baron Holland and his wife, the house became one of the country’s most celebrated political salons and attracted some of the greatest names of the age – people like Byron, Talleyrand and Mme de Stael.  Lord Macauley apparently said the house “can boast of a greater number of inmates distinguished in political and literary history than any other private dwelling in England”.  It was also virtually the headquarters of the Whig party (almost always in Opposition) during the first 30 years of the 19th century.  It sounds like just the kind of place a Regency hero might like to visit and as it wasn't too far out of London, it would have been easily reached.

The title Lord Holland became extinct on the death of the 4th Baron in 1859 and passed to a distant cousin, whose family continued to own it into the 20th century.  However, during World War II, in 1940, the building was unfortunately badly hit during a particularly long bombing raid and almost totally destroyed.  It later came to be owned by the local authority and the grounds were made into the park it is today.

Although sad, the remains of the house are not totally wasted – parts of it are used as a youth hostel and the rest as the backdrop for the open air Holland Park Theatre, where they stage operas every summer.  The former Orangery is also used as an exhibition space, as is the Ice House, and the so called Belvedere is now a restaurant.

Waterfall in the Japanese Garden
When you walk in the park, you can clearly see how grand the grounds of Holland House must have been.  Parts of the park have been kept quite wild, which makes it feel as though you are not in the middle of London at all, but almost in the country, as it would once have been (Kensington being a small village on the way to Hammersmith).  The daffodils and bluebells are stunning in spring time!  My favourite part now, however, is a recent addition – the Japanese garden – which is truly beautiful and very peaceful.  I think the former owners would have approved of that.

Christina Courtenay


Erin Kane Spock said...

In the suburbs of Southern California, there is a distinct lack of inspirational environments for historical pieces (unless they're Westerns). I do, however, let myself be moved by sunsets and mountain views, then turn to my computer to virtually travel through Europe (as Eddie Izzard says, it's where history comes from).

Christina Courtenay said...

I like the sound of the sunsets and mountain views Erin, sounds wonderful!

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Lovely post, Christina. I once went to an outdoor concert there. I can't remember exactly where it was but I do remember than it was interrupted by harsh cries from a couple of peacocks who were parading outside!

I love the picture of the Japanese Garden. I must pay it another visit.

Christina said...

Oh yes, the peacocks, how could I forget those?! I love watching them strut around as if they own the park, but their cries are very harsh as you say.

Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory said...

Loely post, Christina and beautiful pictures. So nice to think of this romantic place being available to Londoners.

Christina said...

Thanks, Melinda :-) Yes, it's great that they've found another use for it and so many people can enjoy the grounds now.