Seeking a Lock of Lord Byron’s Hair?

General / People / Places / February 22, 2012

These days we usually turn to the Cato Institute, the Brookings Institution or the Pew Research Center when trying to validate a particular point of view.

But back in 1880, before radio, television or (gulp!) the Internet, there really was only one such matrix for modern ideas.

It was based outside of London, and it tracked events and artifacts of British history for five earlier centuries.

It was called Holland House.  It served as a gathering place for more than 200 years of some of Britain’s most famous thinkers, leaders and philosophers.

And soon, the books that chronicle its history will be on display as part of a new exhibition at Biltmore Estate called “The Vanderbilts at Home and Abroad,” set to open April 7, 2012.

In the exhibit are Holland House volumes (scrapbooks, really) with letters, prints, etchings and drawings spanning British history from the mid-1500s through the late 19th century, including correspondence from Lafayette, Napoleon Bonaparte, Queen Elizabeth I, and Lord Byron.

To bring text to life, the books are punctuated with locks of Byron’s hair, Napoleon’s autograph, and Queen Elizabeth’s signature and seal, among exquisite other items.

“It’s an exceptionally rare set of volumes,” says Darren Poupore, chief curator at Biltmore.  “Originally it was a two-volume set, and then it was re-bound into 29 volumes with rare documents and etchings to illustrate the stories within.”

Alas, Holland House itself was bombed during World War II, though the grounds and foundation do survive today.

So we’re fortunate that a wealthy young George Vanderbilt, visiting  Kensington, England in 1880 and forming a friendship at Holland House with James McHenry – an American railroad tycoon responsible for expanding these volumes – could appreciate their value. 

Tomorrow: The story of Vanderbilt, McHenry and how the books found their way to the mountains of North Carolina.

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/

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Michael Welton
I write about architecture, art, and design for national and international publications. I am the author of "Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand" (Routledge, 2015), and the former architecture critic for the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C.




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