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Get Close & Personal with Downton Abbey

By Dasha Morgan

Huge, beautifully lit photographs of many of the personalities from Downton Abbey are shown as you enter the exhibition of Downton Abbey at Biltmore’s Amherst.  Courtesy of The Biltmore Company.
Huge, beautifully lit photographs of many of the personalities from Downton Abbey are shown as you enter the exhibition of Downton Abbey at Biltmore’s Amherst. Courtesy of The Biltmore Company.

Big crowds are flocking to see the nationally touring exhibition at the Biltmore House of Downton Abbey. This stunning exhibition is located in two separate venues on the Estate. However, they are not actually being shown inside the Biltmore House itself. This is truly an immersive exhibit with props and fashionable costumes that take you back in time. This highly technical multimedia exhibition hall requires special tickets— over and above the entrance fee to the Biltmore Estate. It is being shown in two settings—at the Amherst, a building just behind Deerpark Restaurant and at the Biltmore Legacy in Antler Hill Village. You can drive to park near the exhibitions or of course hop on a free shuttle bus. Combined the two exhibits recreate accurately many memorable moments of Downton Abbey and let you experience the social history of the early 20th century and British culture of that time. Fans remember the wonderful personalities of Downton Abbey with their favorite characters, who come to back to life through excellent videos, props and displays.

The many characters of Downton Abbey greet you in huge hanging photographs and around the exhibit walls at Amherst as you enter. The strong personalities of the Crawley family and those visiting and attending to their needs are animated by these photographic portraits. Well documented displays and sets encapsulate the people of post-Edwardian times and bring you into the family dynamics of the Grantham household.

The familiar butler, Mr. Carson, opens the door to the exhibit with an introduction on a video screen in a quiet viewing room, then guests can proceed to the amazing room settings with voices, displays, and even the music from the television series in many partitioned areas of the Amherst building. All remind you of the many hours of enjoyment you had watching this show. You revisit Cora and Robert, the Countess and Earl of Grantham. There is a large mock-up of Highclere Castle, which helps one understand how imposing and grand the “real” Downton Abbey castle is in Hampshire.

You get to see the elegant Lady Mary Crawley and Lady Sybil speaking to you through short film videos and to hear the pithy remarks of Dowager Countess of Grantham, Violet Crawley, of course played by Maggie Smith: “I am a woman, Mary, I can be as contrary as I want” or “How you hate to be wrong.” — answered by “I wouldn’t know, I am not familiar with the sensation.” There are fully furnished kitchen rooms, where you can visualize Mrs. Patmore, Mrs. Hughes, and Daisy preparing dishes for the many guests. At Biltmore’s Amherst, guests walk through some of the television series’ most recognizable sets, the family’s glamorous dining room, Carson’s pantry, and the gossip-fueled servants’ quarters.

The Biltmore Legacy in Antler Village has a beautiful display of the stunning pre-Edwardian costumes on mannequins—with the wedding dresses, beautifully embroidered ball gowns, fashionable hats, and men’s dress coats. Loose fitting glamorous ladies outfits in chiffon and lightweight silks slowly began to evolve into flapper outfits and can be seen in well lighted rooms. A variety of hats from the television series, including some wonderful pearl head bands, are shown in a display case. The gentlemen’s outfits of that period in history were not that different from today. Men’s pre-Edwardian fashion included suits during the day, formal tailcoats for evening, and slightly more casual attire for sporting events. These too are on display.

The Biltmore House

Elegant costumes from Downton Abbey are displayed at the Biltmore Legacy in Antler Village.  Photo courtesy of The Biltmore Company.
Elegant costumes from Downton Abbey are displayed at the Biltmore Legacy in Antler Village. Photo courtesy of The Biltmore Company.

Downton Abbey is brought even further to life as you walk walk out of the exhibit halls and through the grounds of the Vanderbilt estate into the halls of the Biltmore House. Located in Asheville, North Carolina, Biltmore was the vision of George W. Vanderbilt (1862-1914). The design of the house was greatly inspired by European architecture, especially the Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, England, and the Chateau de Blois in the Loire Valley in France. Designed by Richard Morris Hunt, America’s largest home is a 250-room French Renaissance chateau, exhibiting the Vanderbilt family’s original collection of furnishings, art and antiques. The magnificent estate was finally opened to family and friends from across the country on Christmas Eve 1895 and lived in for many years as the private home of Edith and George W. Vanderbilt, where they entertained many guests. Much like those living at Downton Abbey, the guests enjoyed horseback riding, hunting, reading, swimming and being served by Vanderbilt’s’ staff. Driven by the impact of the newly imposed government taxes and the fact that the Estate was getting harder to manage economically, George W. Vanderbilt worked with the federal government on the sale of 80,000+ acres in order to keep the Estate intact. His wife, Edith, carried on her husband’s efforts following his unexpected death in March 6, 1914, and saw the sale to fruition in 1915. Biltmore Estate currently encompasses more than 8,000 acres, including renowned gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of American landscape architecture. The estate was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964.

The TV-Series Creator of Downton Abbey: Julian Fellowes

Julian Fellowes who wrote and created Downton Abbey, was born in Egypt in 1949, where his father was with the British Embassy. He attended Magdalene College, Cambridge. Fellowes’ breakthrough came with his first produced screenplay, Gosford Park (2001). It earned him several honors, including an Academy Award for best original screenplay. He later wrote scripts and also published best selling novels. In 2010 Fellowes created and produced Downton Abbey. The calibre of writing and acting captured the public imagination and numerous awards. In 2011 the show received an Emmy for best drama series, and Fellowes received an Emmy for his writing. Downton Abbey ended in 2015, but he later penned the screenplay for the 2019 feature film.

One of the many elegant evening gowns currently on display at the Downton Abbey exhibit.  Photo courtesy of Dasha Morgan.

Downton Abbey aired for six seasons on Masterpiece on PBS with its classical production in the United States and reached more than 26 million viewers in its final season. A Carnival Films/MASTERPIECE co-production, the series was written and created by Julian Fellowes and executive produced by Gareth Neame, Liz Trubridge, Nigel Marchant and Fellowes. Downton Abbey is one of the largest UK drama exports of all times, seen in over 250 territories worldwide. With 15 wins and 69 nominations, it is the most nominated non-US show in the history of the Emmys. Downton Abbey the movie was released in September. The movie was a Carnival Films production, with Focus Features and Universal Pictures International distributing.

This is a traveling exhibition and will be on view at the Biltmore Estate through April 7, 2020. Fans of the television series and the movie should not miss this opportunity to a visit. It brings the program back to life, and once again you can interact with the personalities at the castle. Downton Abbey: The Exhibition is brought to you by NBCUniversal and Imagine Exhibitions. Biltmore marks the fourth stop on the exhibition’s U.S. tour, which has received wide critical acclaim. The exhibition was launched in Singapore, then made its U.S. debut in New York City in November 2017. The exhibition has since completed successful runs in Boston and West Palm Beach. Travis Tatham, Biltmore’s Director of Entertainment and Event Programming noted: “Guests visiting Downton Abbey: The Exhibition at Biltmore love the costumes in Biltmore Legacy. They comment on the attention to detail and how it really makes the costumes showcase the elegant lifestyle.”

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