When 17-year-old George Vanderbilt, youngest son of William Henry Vanderbilt, traveled to England in 1880 with his mother and father, one stop that was de rigueur was at Holland House in Kensington, just outside London.
There, American financier and railroad tycoon James McHenry would give the lad at tour of the home owned by Lord and Lady Holland. For decades, the home had been known a vortex for all kinds of 19th-century notables, including Wordsworth, Samuel Johnson, Lord Byron – and even Napoleon.
“Lady Holland befriended Napoleon when he was exiled to Saint Helena,” says Darren Poupore, chief curator at Biltmore, the home in North Carolina’s mountains that Vanderbilt would later build and fill with treasures found at Holland House. “She sent Napoleon books and wine while he was there – they became friends by writing during his six years in exile.”
Vanderbilt had just read Marie Litchenstein’s 1874 volume on Holland House, and McHenry revealed his own laborious efforts to turn her two volumes of text into 29 elaborately documented scrapbooks of historic memorabilia.
Three years later, when Vanderbilt turned 21, McHenry presented him with Napoleon’s chess set, now prominently on display in the Biltmore library.
“The chess set started Vanderbilt’s fascination with Napoleon,” Poupore says. “Then he would acquire from McHenry the entire exceptionally rare set of 29 volumes, documenting 500 years of British history.”
Inside the royal-blue leather-bound books with gold trim, McHenry had inserted between thick matted frames a series of letters from the likes of Mary Queen of Scots, Frederick the Great, Phillip II of Spain and Catherine the Great.
“He sold the volumes to George Vanderbilt in sets,” he says. “The first batch was in 10, then nine, and the last was in 10.”
The complete collection of 29 volumes, bound by Riviere & Sons, is today the most important manuscript collection at Biltmore.
That’s quite a statement, considering that George Vanderbilt amassed a collection of more than 25,000 books to be housed in his library there.
For more on Holland House, go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holland_House,_London
For more on Biltmore, go to http://www.biltmore.com/