Lors Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) says farewell to his beloved Isis before heading to America on the most recent episode of 'Downton Abbey.' / Nick Briggs/PBS / Special to the Citizen-Times
George Vanderbilt, left, with guests Adele and Jay Burden and his St. Bernard Cedric, in 1896. / Biltmore / Special to the Citizen-Times
With just a couple episodes left, suddenly “Downton Abbey” is feeling like fine Egyptian cotton sheets, smoothly weaving together more plot threads than ever on its way to next Sunday’s 70-minute first finale. (That’s followed on Feb. 23 by the 92-minute Christmas special, which airs in England six weeks after the season closer but plays without interruption as the final episode of the PBS run.)
With a nail-biting Dowager Countess illness story line (and some delicious Maggie Smith eye rolls), Lady Mary juggling two aristocratic suitors and practically mud-wrestling a third (a commoner!), Lord Grantham leaving for America to rescue his wife’s prodigal brother and the tension building downstairs on several fronts, the episode’s most compelling parallels to Asheville’s Biltmore House are not about the human dramas at all. It’s more about the animals.
Yep, this week we’re talking puppies and pigs.
We’ll get to the pigs shortly. The dogs must come first, as they do in many families.
“I thought it was great that ‘Downton’ showed Lord Grantham saying goodbye to his dog, Isis, and the close relationship he has with his pet,” observed Darren Poupore, chief curator for Biltmore. “It reminded me of George Vanderbilt’s beloved St. Bernard, Cedric.”
Visitors to Biltmore often pose with the sculpture of Cedric playing with young Cornelia Vanderbilt, George’s daughter, in Antler Hill Village, in front of the restaurant Cedric’s Tavern. The lifesize artwork was installed just months before its sculptor, Asheville artist Vadim Bora, died suddenly — and so now serves as a tribute to three lost locals.
“We have hundreds of photos in the archives that show Cedric and others of the family’s St. Bernards,” Poupore said. “They are everywhere. We have photographs of them in the library, sunning on the loggia, following Mr. Vanderbilt around the estate. They were a part of the family.”
Isis appears to be a solo act at the Abbey, but Cedric was the first of a long line of St. Bernards at Biltmore. Already George Vanderbilt’s companion before Biltmore House opened, Cedric moved to North Carolina in 1895 and followed his master’s lead: He settled down, found a partner and raised a family.
Cedric, his three puppies and their mother, possibly named Snow, also impressed the guests at Biltmore House. “The dogs are truly magnificent,” visitor Joseph Hodges Choate, the American ambassador to Great Britain, wrote to his wife in 1901. He especially loved “the baby, a very lovely one now 6 months old. She shakes hands with everyone and is very jolly and sociable.”
The Vanderbilts continued to raise St. Bernards into the teens and 1920s, giving them names such as Pearl, Hero, Gurth, Zenda (after a popular adventure novel of the time), Sascho, Salma and even Beavis.
“Cedric’s pedigree was admired to the point that Mr. Vanderbilt gave Cedric’s offspring to family and friends,” Poupore said. “In 1902, he gave a puppy named Balder to a friend who was a reverend in New York who had lost his faithful St. Bernard, and a few years later the Vanderbilts gave another puppy to their nephew, John Nicholas Brown.”
Brown named his puppy Cedric, after the late, great patriarch of the Biltmore St. Bernards. When Cedric died, someone — perhaps George or Edith Vanderbilt — wrote a poem in his honor in what was called the “Nonsense Book.”
“Everyone who stayed at Biltmore House signed the Guest Book,” Poupore said. “Those with a more creative streak added to Biltmore’s ‘Nonsense Book,’ a collection of whimsical sketches, stories and poems — especially limericks.”
The sonnet to Cedric was loving and colorful, evoking scenes from the estate and mourning the loss of a much-loved friend and companion. We only hope that Lord Grantham, through the magic of television, can be spared ever parting with his dear Isis.
And that Isis keeps out of the pig lot, newly established at the Abbey as part of Lord Grantham’s and Lady Mary’s efforts to make sure the farming operation turns a profit to sustain the estate into the future. George Vanderbilt had similar concerns at Biltmore.
“The whole idea of having a working estate started at the very start” of Vanderbilt’s plans for Biltmore, Poupore said. More than six years before the house opened in 1895, Vanderbilt brought Biltmore’s landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, for a visit and consultation.
Working from Olmsted’s recommendations, Vanderbilt “really set about to make Biltmore a working, self-sufficient estate,” Poupore said.
Vanderbilt was indeed looking to the long history of English country estates, the real-life equivalents of fictional Downton Abbey, for his inspiration. “It was very much an English tradition that he adapted here in this country,” Poupore said. “I think he realized from the beginning that he needed revenue streams to support the estate.”
He would have received high marks from “Downton Abbey’s” Charles Blake, the government official who’s researching a report on how family estates can be saved — when he’s not watering pigs and wallowing in the mud with Mary Crawley.
George Vanderbilt may not have watered his hogs in the middle of the night, but he did presage Lady Mary’s concern for his estate’s agricultural viability. In 1890, he hired an agricultural consultant, Edward Burnett, and then a farm manager, Baron Eugene d’Allinges, a German man who had settled in Skyland and was already practicing “scientific farming” before Vanderbilt hired him. He became the first head of Biltmore’s farms.
Then came the pigs — from the land of Downton, no less. “Mr. Vanderbilt sent a Mr. Ruben Gentry, who was ‘an old breeder of pigs’ on a journey to England to buy pigs to be sent to Biltmore,” Poupore said, consulting a letter in the archives from 1899. He brought back several boars and a sow, with names such as Highclear Topper, Columbia’s Duke and Fritters (the sow).
“He paid considerable money for these,” Poupore said. “Columbia’s Duke cost $500, and this was in 1900.” That would be about $13,500 in 2014 dollars, according to an online inflation calculator.
“Early on, the pigs were fed refuse from the Kenilworth Inn,” Poupore noted, and in 1903 the operation had grown large enough that new buildings for it were constructed on the east side of the estate.
There’s also a cautionary tale here for the Crawley family: The Biltmore pig farm lasted only until 1912, when it was closed as unprofitable.
More hogs: Motorcycles
In keeping with this week’s non-human focus, Poupore also noted what may have been the first appearance of a motorcycle on “Downton Abbey,” as a telegraph worker speeds to the mansion to deliver a missive.
“I paused the show for a second to see if I saw it correctly, since the postman had been riding a bicycle,” Poupore said.
“A very typical early use of the motorcycle was for delivery. We know that here on Biltmore Estate, motorcycles were used for security patrols as well as mail delivery.”
The first motorcycle to be used for work was acquired by Biltmore in 1913. The early Biltmore motorbikes were Harley Davidsons, a brand not likely to have crossed the pond to Downton, even by 1922 when the current season is set.
An equivalent of those early Biltmore motorcycles is now on display at the Vanderbilts at Home and Abroad exhibit at Antler Hill Village. It’s a 1920 Harley, model 20-J, identical to a 1922 version that Biltmore used for work. (The bike on display is on loan from Maggie Valley’s Wheels Through Time museum.)
The estate also gave permission for employees to ride their own motorcycles to and from work — with a caveat.
In a letter to an employee in 1914, Biltmore Estate superintendent Chauncey D. Beadle encouraged all riders to follow the rules, which included: “Low speed, especially on curves where the speed-limit should not be in excess of 12 miles per hour.”
He also reminded everyone, “Machines should always be driven on the right-hand side of the road so that they will not interfere with traffic coming from the opposite direction.”
As Poupore noted, “We can’t help but smile at Beadle’s gentle admonishment that ‘Racing, scorching or fast running are prohibited under penalty of forfeiture of the permission granted the offender.’”
Some things never change.