Although he sat for nearly 20 years as an MP, Robert Stayner Holford (1808-92) was better known as one of the most distinguished art and plant collectors of his time. Once reputed to be the richest commoner in England, a contemporary described him as ‘a collector with an eye for quality and the means to indulge it without stint’. His grandfather had amassed an immense fortune from the New River Company, which had constructed a canal to supply London with fresh water, and in 1838 Holford inherited around £1 million from his uncle, Robert Holford.
An Oxford law graduate, Holford now had the wherewithal to became one of the country’s most distinguished art connoisseurs, and built an outstanding collection of old masters, including paintings and etchings by Rubens, Van Dyck, Poussin and Rembrandt. He housed his art collection and library of early printed books in his London residence, Dorchester House, an Italianate palace in Park Lane which was completed in 1856, and is now the site of the Dorchester Hotel.
Holford, however, devoted even greater attention to the creation of a showcase Victorian garden on the family estate at Westonbirt, Gloucestershire, and in 1838 had begun to lay the foundations of what would become the National Arboretum. Over many years he financed plant-finding expeditions to all parts of the world, and his collection of specimen trees eventually extended over an area of 600 acres.
The son of George Peter Holford, a successful barrister and MP, Holford followed in his father’s footsteps and entered Parliament in 1854. He sat for East Gloucestershire until 1872. Although he took far less of an interest in parliamentary life than in his plants, he was, in spite of his rather bohemian appearance, a staunch Conservative, albeit one who was prepared to take an independent line on certain issues, such as Palmerston’s prosecution of the Crimean War, and Gladstone’s proposals for the exhibition scheme at Kensington in 1863.
Holford died at Dorchester House in February 1892, and was buried in Westonbirt churchyard. Soon after his death his engravings and etchings were sold for the unprecedented sum of £28,119, and the bulk of his art collection, which by then included paintings by Botticelli, Tintoretto and Titian, was auctioned by Christie’s in 1927, when it fetched more than £573,000. Holford’s most tangible legacy, however, remains his prestigious arboretum at Westonbirt, which was further expanded by his son, Sir George Holford (1860-1926), and came into the possession of the Forestry Commission in 1956.
Further reading: S. Piebenga & S. Toomer, ‘Westonbirt Arboretum: From Private Nineteenth-Century Estate Collection to National Arboretum’, Garden History, xxxv (2007), 113-28.
For details of how to access Holford’s biography on our preview site, see here.
Images of Robert Stayner Holford and of Westonbirt via http://www.forestry.gov.uk/forestry/infd-6xdcwv/6xdcwe, reproduced under Open Government Licence