top of page
  • bilorijournal

A Material and Historical Bibliographic Account of the McHenry-Harvey Edition of Holland House

Jake Rickman

A pile of old books
Illustration by Sefi George

There exists a most incredible and unusual text hidden away in a private archive in the United States which I believe to be a true object sui generis, at least as far as bibliographic, textual, and historical criticism may be concerned. As one of its first critical appraisers, I’ve taken the liberty of naming this twenty-nine volume object the McHenry-Harvey edition of Holland House (MHHH), and the history surrounding it is as wondrous and strange as the object itself. As a material text, it resists classification, falling somewhere between a grangerisation and a scrapbook. As a historical object, it provides a unique insight into the sensibilities and affectations of a certain transatlantic class of Anglo-Americans towards the end of the 19th century.

We might trace its origins to the year 1873 or 1874, when Princess Marie of Liechtenstein, the adopted daughter of the 4th Barron Holland, Henry Richard Fox, and Augusta Mary, Lady Holland, published a hagiographic account of ‘England’s most celebrated salon’, entitled Holland House, with MacMillan and Company in London(1). In her two-volume history, the Kensington manor, which was built in 1603, serves as a locus through which Princess Marie explores the lives of the several members of the illustrious Fox family who were Holland House’s residents, as well as their associations with many of England and Europe’s most remarkable historical figures. MacMillan published three editions of the work and today there are around 250 copies scattered around the libraries of the English-speaking world(2).

In 1880, a young George W. Vanderbilt, grandson of the infamous American shipping and railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, visited with his family a certain Mr James McHenry at his home on the Holland estate as part of the Vanderbilts’ yearly European tour. There he saw a unique, nineteen-volume edition of Holland House for the first time, describing it in his diary as ‘magnificent’(3). Eighteen-year-old Vanderbilt, who from an early age had been keen on books, was no doubt enthralled by the thousands of pages containing the portraits and letters of some of England and Europe’s most famous historical and literary figures from Catherine the Great to Samuel Coleridge.

Unlike McHenry’s Holland House, the two-volume MacMillan edition owned by the Vanderbilt family in New York certainly did not have a preserved lock of Lord Byron’s hair nor a preserved ticket to George III’s coronation. Flipping through the various volumes, Vanderbilt would have opened to the title page of any volume and read:

The History of Holland House with memoirs and anecdotes of celebrities connected therewith by Princess Marie Liechtenstein with engravings and photographs inlaid and profusely illustrated with fine and rare portraits views and other engravings autograph letters signatures manuscripts and printed matter appertaining to the work with supplementary volumes comprising the life of Sir Stephen Fox and other particulars gathered from various sources forming an historical literary and pictorial record of the mansion and its associations(4)

The collection Vanderbilt viewed at this point in 1880 was incomplete. The ten ‘supplementary volumes comprising the life of Sir Stephen Fox’ had not yet joined the nineteen initial volumes. In fact, they would not be completed until 1891, by which point McHenry had died bankrupt, with his reputation largely in tatters, and the collection in the possession of George W. Vanderbilt. MHHH has been kept, since 1891, in Vanderbilt’s private home, Biltmore House on Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, where today it is housed among the Biltmore Company’s archives.

My intention is to give a critical appraisal of the MHHH in hopes that my work will open up avenues of further research — for material and bibliographic studies and for historians of 19th century England and America. I ultimately hope to construct an adequate vocabulary so that we may be better able to critically evaluate the MHHH. Because of its intrinsic uniqueness and owing to its relative obscurity, this object is situated at the nexus of many different critical approaches and traditions, including the history of art and the book, Anglo-American history, literary and cultural studies, and material and historical approaches to bibliographic study.

This particular article intends to arrive at something approximating an answer to the questions which inevitably arise when confronted with this object. Namely, what exactly is it? What was its historical purpose? What historical insights does it offer up? As such, this appraisal will advance in two parts: first, I will describe the physical elements of the work in order to determine what function they serve the object. I will then provide a likely history of how the MHHH was constructed. This will provide a segue into the second section, because having historically situated the object, I will then explore the ways in which it encapsulates the ethos of a particular historical period for a particular class of transatlantic Anglo-Americans.

As a material object, perhaps the best way to introduce it is through its affectation. Except for the fact that any encounter with the books now necessarily occurs in the archives of the Biltmore Company, it’s readily apparent that the collection does not lend itself to being sequentially read from cover to cover, volume to volume. All twenty-nine volumes are bound in Moroccan leather, their spines and inlaid lettering are decorated in gilding. This, in conjunction with its stature (each book is 12 ½” x 16 3/8” and not light on the lap), suggests the collection existed in its time as much as an object of display than it did for the contents it contained. Opening up one of its volumes, one is as likely to be met with one of the dozens of rare mezzotints embedded within or a signed letter of one of Europe’s distinguished historical figures than one is to come across a passage of Princess Marie’s historical text. Though clearly an ordering principle, the historical account is subordinate to the sum of the historical paraphernalia contained within. Where the text mentions Oliver Cromwell (Holland House and its inhabitants at the time were central figures in the Civil War), inevitably several prints and engravings of the Lord Protector will follow. The same is true for any other historical figure (or place) that might have had a central or passing proximity to Holland House in Princess Marie’s narrative.

In order to make sense of the text, I soon went to the subject index to try and take stock of the collection, which neatly sets it out in its entirety. Among the more colourful items which the index provides reference for are a lock of Lord Byron’s hair, a signed letter of Catherine the Great (in the original Russian and with an English translation), a correspondence between Prince Rupert and King Charles I written by Sir Nicholas with a postscript in the King’s hand, and manuscript letters of Napoleon (a Whig stronghold, the Foxes of Holland House were one of the few Bonapartists left among high society by the time Princess Marie had written her account)(5). Flipping through the various volumes, the sheer number of rare and unique artefacts relating to distinguished European and British figures might at first suggest that this is an encyclopaedic endeavour. But the more one spends with it, the more one realises that the contents affixed and assembled on the pages seem to have been included more by a frenetic drive to collect, curate, and display as much rare and unique material as possible than to reinforce or supplement the historical text which orders its display. In other words, the raison d’être of the MHHH is to exude a sense of History. It is not an attempt to ‘write’ (a) history.

Taken as a whole, I would characterise it as a very self-aware object — aware of its relationship to history, and aware of its own air of self-importance (self-aggrandizement, even). I would even go as far as to say that it is an object of proto-modernism in the sense that it offers a conception of history that is not merely a restatement of historical facts, perhaps in service of some teleology or another, but a kind of play on historiography itself. I am speaking broadly here, but I have in mind Nietzsche and his wider historiographic project when he proclaimed that “History belongs above all to the active and powerful man.” Here we have an object that is more interested in the charisma and intrigue that might emanate from the assemblage of paraphernalia directly relating to some of history’s most distinguished cast of characters than anything else. History itself is its subject, not historical fact. One cannot but appreciate the irony at play here, given that the residents of Holland House in the early 19th century and their coterie would have necessarily been some of the biggest exponents of Whig history(6). Yet strangely, for an object that contains such a wealth of material (literally, as we will see) that exists more to impress its viewer than to instruct, it offers very little context as to its own creation, which is why I’ve not termed it a properly modernist object. To make sense of its creation requires an archivist’s approach more than a critic’s.

Using historical material stored in Biltmore Company’s archives, as well as other historical documents, I have identified three principal individuals responsible for the creation of the MHHH: James McHenry, an Irish-born American railroad speculator; Francis Harvey, an English bookbinder and purveyor of rare prints; and George W Vanderbilt, the grandson of American magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt who spent his inheritance curating for himself a distinct lifestyle. However, it should be noted that my interest in them is not biographical. Rather, I am instead interested in how we might generalise from them a certain insight into the Anglo-American cultural and (broadly-speaking) intellectual milieu of the latter half of the nineteenth century.

The MHHH began as a labour of love for James McHenry, who in 1862 purchased a piece of property off Addison Road on the Holland estate in West London(7). Given his prior associations with certain European luminaries like Queen Isabella and Napoleon III, the celebrated grounds where the recently widowed Lady Holland resided certainly suited McHenry’s propensity for extravagance and prestige. It would be a fitting location for what would become his ‘beautiful retreat’ known as Oak Lodge(8). In an 1889 letter to George W. Vanderbilt, he describes Lady Holland as his ‘amiable friend whose courtesies [he had] enjoyed for nearly 30 years’, suggesting that after his move he quickly developed a rapport with her(9). Given his proximity to the Fox family, it is likely he would have met Princess Marie before she first published Holland House in 1873 or 1874.

In June 1875, McHenry obtained from Francis Harvey the first twelve of the initial nineteen volumes of an extra-illustrated version of Holland House(10). That McHenry went to Harvey is not surprising given the two worked on at least seven other privately printed projects between 1872 and 1875, though it should be noted none of these works resembled the MHHH in form or ambition. Given Harvey’s expertise in rare prints, it’s likely all of the illustrations found in the MHHH were selected by him, or simply that McHenry gave Harvey an open remit to find as many relevant illustrations as possible. As for the sourcing of the various manuscript letters and other rare documents found in the collection, correspondences indicate it was more of a collaborative effort between the two men(11). Importantly, then, this was not just a project commissioned by McHenry, but that he was an active participant in its creation. Insofar as we might call this a grangerised object, and insofar as grangerisations complicate notions of authorship, it’s nonetheless clear that McHenry was an authorial figure in the creation of MHHH and not merely its patron(12).

In short, I believe that the MHHH initially served as a testament to McHenry’s proximity to the many individuals associated with Holland House. McHenry did keep some remarkable company, and it seems that this project sought to encapsulate or ensconce the perception he had of himself and the company he kept, which is in many ways similar to the motivation for Princess Marie’s original hagiography. It’s clear that McHenry and Harvey believed their work to be of historical importance in its own right, because they published twenty-five copies of the original subject index in 1882, almost five years after the initial nineteen volumes of the collection itself was created. McHenry was eager to show-off his work when he sent George W. Child, the owner of the Philadelphian newspaper The Public Ledger, a letter, saying that the list of contents in his ‘Specially Illustrated edition of Holland House’ would make it clear that it was more ‘important’ that the title suggested(13). At the same time, it was evidently a status symbol as much as an object worthy of historical consideration. McHenry paid Harvey for his services a total of £1,410, which is equivalent to well over £100,000 today(14).

Why then did such an expensive and noteworthy object come into the hands of a third party (George W. Vanderbilt)? The short answer is that McHenry fell into financial ruin sometime before his death, and rather than face the risk of having the collection realised as a consequence of the ongoing bankruptcy proceedings, he sold the collection to Vanderbilt in what may have been an illegal attempt to defraud his creditors(15). As to why Vanderbilt himself, there is the obvious fact that he was a willing bidder, eager to acquire the collection at a fair sum. But I think it would be unfair to discount the sentimental value McHenry likely attached to the collection. In more ways than one, McHenry recognised that Vanderbilt was the ideal person to assume ownership of the collection.

To provide some additional context, the Vanderbilt family was one among several others in the nineteenth century whose unparalleled wealth was owed to the explosion in American industry. But, as the grandson of the shipping tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, it has been argued that George Vanderbilt can be distinguished from other Gilded Age inheritors in a couple of key respects. In an appraisal that is worthy of further exploration in its own right, historians working for the Biltmore Company have described George Vanderbilt as something of a self-consciously Mediciean figure, eager to influence and foster the cultural development of a nation celebrating its centennial: like certain members of the early-modern Florentine family, George Vanderbilt sought to endear himself to the “common people'' through numerous philanthropic endeavours, including funding the construction of Jackson Square Library in Manhattan — one of the first public lending libraries built in New York — and the creation of a community centre for Asheville, North Carolina’s black community(16). Vanderbilt was also a patron of the arts and letters and a self-professed bibliophile, becoming one of the founding members of the New York bibliophile society known as the Grolier Club. The construction of the Old-World inspired Biltmore House in Western North Carolina between 1889 and 1896 marked the highest expression of his aestheticism, which today remains the largest private home in America and one of the most opulent remaining instantiations of the Gilded Age outside of New York and New England.

I would here like to reappropriate a “reading” of one of the rooms of Biltmore, the Banquet Hall, undertaken by a Company historian in an attempt to draw together certain strands related to the curation and assemblage of historic and artistic objects and the purpose it serves. Stepping into it from the house’s Winter Garden, the resemblance to the great halls of England such as Haddon Hall or Hardwick Hall is immediately apparent. But whereas for the English Medieval or Renaissance country home, the great hall, adorned in the family’s coat of arms, armour, and silver, served as the site where its Lord enacted the rites and ceremony of his position in front of his court, though similar objects are present in the Biltmore Banquet Hall, their function is purely evocative of the historical. Despite not being a properly noble family in the European sense, Vanderbilt commissioned a coat of arms for his family and had it carved throughout the hall’s stone and woodwork. The flags of the 13 colonies at the time of the American Revolution are festooned around the hall’s ceiling, interspersed with the banners of the European kingdoms existent at the time of Columbus’ colonisation of the Americas. The subject of the love affair between Venus and Mars is a conceit that is given expression throughout the room: first in a series of sixteenth-century tapestries on the North and South walls and again in a series of carved friezes by the contemporary Viennese sculptor Karl Bitter along the East and West walls in an overt homage to the Wagnerian opera Tannhäuser (whose name is carved into the stone which ensconces the organ chamber in the loft above the hall)(17). What can be said of this assemblage of historical and their effect?

There is nothing unique in the use of artistic and historical objects to signify and project social status. Nor necessarily is there anything unusual in the nineteenth-century design and construction of Old-World inspired mansions in the New World (one need only visit Newport, Rhode Island to see this is the case). But to extend the line of appraisal formulated by Biltmore historians referenced above in outline, I would argue that the manner and form in which Vanderbilt sought to curate and assemble such artistic and historical objects largely operates to capture History (evoking again my early suggestion of “proto-modernism”) as if it were an object that itself had been acquired or inherited, and which, having done so, must then be displayed. Like the Banquet Hall, the Library also embraces the eclectic melange of Old-World styles found elsewhere in the House: the fresco on the ceiling is work of the Italian Baroque painter Giovanni Pellegrini; the furnishings are in the style of early nineteenth-century English revivalism, and the carvings and busts echo French neoclassicism. By the time of the completion, it held over 20,000 books, virtually all of which are still housed there today(18). Before the construction of Biltmore had broken ground, McHenry was clearly aware of Vanderbilt’s project when he wrote to him in 1889 to negotiate the sale of the MHHH, saying that. Holland House will ‘prov[e] worthy of [Vanderbilts] Library’, which at the time of the letter was in the early stages of construction(19).

I would tentatively argue that there was a similar logic of ‘proto-modernism’ that underpinned the construction of the Biltmore House as there was for the creation of the MHH. Specifically, this logic operates through the way in which objects of self-evidently historical and artistic value were curated and assembled in a self-referential manner, where the effect is its own affectation. This is why the MHHH was such an attractive object to Vanderbilt and why McHenry transferred it to him. Much more work needs to be done to situate this within its historical context, but briefly: while Vanderbilt might be distinguished from McHenry in many respects (i.e., Vanderbilt as an American centenarian Medici), they both belonged to an emergent international, bourgeois (as opposed to properly aristocratic or noble) class who nonetheless saw themselves as inheritors of History itself. There was a sense of inheritance (or, alternatively, entitlement) of History (as an object) which found its expression in different forms and mediums(20). In other words, the MHHH as a textual, creative project embodies in miniature what could be described (not unproblematically) as George Vanderbilt’s lifework. (Or is this notion too modernist, too generous to apply to another product of the Gilded Age?)

To return back to the MHHH as an object, in the plainest of terms it might be appraised as a project not dissimilar to scrapbooking in that McHenry used Princess Marie’s hagiography as an ordering principle to display the various historical objects whose referents he felt a sense of proximity, among figures whose place in history he believed he had inherited and even influenced(21). But insofar as it shares similarities with other historical scrapbooks, does it offer up the same value(22)? As a text in general, to what extent can the project be termed properly “creative” (as opposed to merely indulgent)? And even if it is arguably creative, does it possess any “literary” value (as opposed to mere material value)? Even more tangentially, in what other ways and mediums does this logic find additional expression aside from the MHHH and Vanderbilt’s Biltmore House? Supposing the MHHH is properly termed a creative project, can we apply this notion in the thoroughly modernist sense of characterising one’s life as a project of creation, as in Vanderbilt’s case? If so, to whom else might this extend?

Having asked many questions and possibly answering none, I hope to have proven what I believe to the final conclusion: that this unique McHenry-Harvey edition of Holland House offers itself as an object worthy of further study. So doing will provide deeper insights into the Anglo-American cultural and intellectual milieu of the later nineteenth-century, as well as insights into the nature of texts and the book.


(1) See the subtitle to Linda Kelly’s Holland House: A History of London’s Most Celebrated Salon (London: Tauris, 2013)

(2) I have identified 246 copies of three various editions held in two volumes among libraries in the United Kingdom, United States, Australia, Canada, Ireland, France, Netherlands, New Zealand, Switzerland, Germany, and Liechtenstein. I also found references to the third edition being bound in a single volume. I have no doubt there are further uncatalogued copies in more private libraries.

(3) George W. Vanderbilt, ‘1880 Travel Journal’, 15 May 1880, 7, Biltmore Archives, Asheville, North Carolina.

(4) Princess Marie H.N. Liechtenstein, The History of Holland House…collected and arranged for James McHenry ESQ by Francis Harvey, vol. 1, c. 1875-1882, BH8-24853, Biltmore Archives

(5) See Will Bowers, “The Many Rooms of Holland House” in Re-evaluating the Literary Coterie 1580-1830, eds. Will Bowers and Hannah Leah Crummé (London: MacMillan), 164, where ‘Lady Holland was a strong admirer of Napoleon long after it was fashionable to be one.’

(6) Again, see Bowers, ibid.

(7) ‘The Holland estate: To 1874,’ in Survey of London: Volume 37, Northern Kensington, ed. F H W Sheppard (London: London County Council, 1973), 101-126 British History Online

(8) The Anglo-American Times, ‘The Late James McHenry,’ 3 July 1891 and The Sun, ‘Obituary’, 27 May 1891

(9) Correspondence to Vanderbilt from McHenry, 25 Sept 1889, 3.9/4, B1, F1, Biltmore Archives

(10) Vanderbilt from Harvey, 7 June 1892, 3.8/1 B1, F16, Biltmore Archives

(11) Vanderbilt from McHenry, 28 September 1889, 3.914 B1, F1, Biltmore Archives, wherein an 1889 letter they discuss the status of the ten volumes of correspondences that were being prepared: it is clear that McHenry was excited to find more material to add to the supplemental correspondences, exclaiming, that he ‘found some papers on Holland House that may well be added to the volumes’

(12) For more information on ‘grangerizations’, see Jill Gage, “With Deft Knife and Paste: The Extra-Illustrated Books of John M. Wing’ in RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage, 9:1. We may contrast this work with other grangerisations

(13) This letter is included on a tipped-in page at the beginning of the copy of the List of portraits held at Drexel University. The copy itself was donated to Drexel by Childs, as indicated by a note on the reverse front cover. (The Drexel Library reference number for this copy is 914.2 qH26 2914.) In addition to this index and the two held at Biltmore, there is one held by Yale University, another by the New York City Public Library, and a third held by the Bodleian in Oxford.

(14) These figures are given in the 7 June 1892 letter from Harvey to Vanderbilt as referenced in note 10.

(15) In an obituary in the Philadelphia Times dated 27 May 1891, McHenry was described as reckless spender and a ‘squanderer of funds’. Correspondences between the law firm of Bircham & Co. to Vanderbilt dated 30 April 1895 suggest that a client of the firm was a creditor to McHenry who was promised in an estate sale, among other items, ‘The History of Holland House 19 Vols’

(16) Regarding the notion of Vanderbilt as a Medici-like figure, see Ellen Rickman, ‘The American Renaissance at Biltmore Estate: George Vanderbilt as Collector’ (unpublished), c. 2000, Biltmore Company

(17) Ibid.

(18) Biltmore Company Museum Services, Complete list of GWV’s books, electronic, Biltmore Company

(19) Correspondence from McHenry to Vanderbilt, 4 January 1889, 3.8/1 B1, F16, Biltmore Archives

(20) From the perspective of the historian, I think there is much more to say in regards to a motif only barely touched upon in this present evaluation, but which arguably could be said to have begun with the Third Lord and Lady Holland at Holland House. Specifically, I am thinking of the coterie associated with the House and what literary historian Will Bowers describes as an attempt to cultivate a cultural circle that was broadly European and “both a ‘social light’ and an intellectual resource from Romantic London (Bowers, ‘The Many Rooms of Holland House’, 159, 174). One might ask what similarities exist between this circle, Whig history, and my present attempt to appraise the animating logic of “proto-modernism” that underpins the projects of McHenry and Vanderbilt.

(21) The obituary on McHenry in The Sun (27 May 1891) notes that he was personally involved in attempting to restore Princess Isabella of Spain to the throne, as well as engaged in the politics surrounding Napoleon III’s exile from France.

(22) Questions raised here include how it might be situated in a wider context of non-traditional forms of “writing”. Ellen Garvey’s study on American scrapbooking notes that those most engaged in scrapbooking are often individuals in positions of “relative powerlessness” and thus “did not respond to their world with their own writing.” This raises interesting questions about the material value and historical preservation of personal objects. Ellen Gruber Garvey, Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 4

Jake Rickman is currently undertaking a Graduate Diploma in Law at the University of Law in London. He previously obtained a Master of Studies in English and American Studies at the University of Oxford and a Bachelor of Arts from Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. His research project on the McHenry-Harvey Edition of Holland House is part of a wider interest in 19th-century bibliographic studies. He also works in 20th-century American literature with a particular focus on Thomas Pynchon.


bottom of page