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A Gem in George Vanderbilt’s Library

Posted on 12/23/2016 by Amy Dangelico Comments(3)

Once termed “one of the best read men in the country” by New York media, George Vanderbilt amassed a personal library of more than 22,000 volumes at Biltmore House, each of which he selected with great care.

In honor of our upcoming Designed for Drama: Fashion from the Classics exhibition, let’s take a look at a true gem within his literary collection: George’s copy of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906), a first American edition of the book featuring illustrations by artist Arthur Rackham.

Arthur Rackham illustration 1

Peter Pan is familiar to most as the free-spirited and mischievous young boy of Neverland who can fly and never grows up.

However, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, one of Barrie’s four major works featuring the beloved character, introduces Peter at the tender age of just seven days old.

The vast majority of the book first appeared in Barrie’s The Little White Bird (1902) as a story within the story.

The popularity of The Little White Bird, thanks in large part to the several chapters involving Peter Pan, prompted Barrie to write the 1904 play Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, a wildly successful production that broke nearly all previous theatrical records.

Barrie eventually adapted the play into another, better-known novel: Peter Pan and Wendy (1911)—but not before the chapters that first introduced the character were extracted from The Little White Bird and published as Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.

While the text was slightly revised for the 1906 publication to read better without the context of the surrounding story, more significant is the addition of Rackham’s illustrations. 

Arthur Rackham illustration 2

His 50 beautiful color plates helped to make the book immediately popular and drew attention to the artist, who—aside from his success with Rip Van Winkle (1905)—was relatively unknown before then.

Another notable difference is the fact that The Little White Bird was published as a novel for adult readers whereas Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens was published as a children’s book.

This fact leads us to believe that Cornelia Vanderbilt, George's daughter who was six years old at the time, may have played a role in his decision to add the title to his collection.

Beginning February 10, George’s copy of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens will be on display in the Banquet Hall of Biltmore House, along with multiple costumes from the film Finding Neverland (2004), which tells the story of J.M. Barrie’s friendship with the family who inspired him to create Peter Pan.


Feature: Arthur Rackham's "There Now Arose a Mighty Storm" on the inside cover, and the title page of
Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens
Right: Rackham's "Looking Very Undancey Indeed" from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens
Left: Rackham's "The Serpentine is a Lovely Lake" from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens


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Posted on 03/18/2017 By Erik J

I am fascinated with George's quest for knowledge and his love for books and reading. I am the same way and have been collecting books since a child. I am far from 22,000 volumes, but I have been lucky to find many old, first edition books from his time period (my favorite). I am curious to know how you protect and preserve your leather bound volumes? Thank you for sharing so much about the collection and the library. I could live in that room!

Great question, Erin. According to our Museum Services team, we generally just leave the books in the Biltmore House collection be! The most important thing is maintaining a controlled environment to ensure that their condition remains stable. If it becomes too humid, they can grow mold; if it becomes too dry, they can start to crack. If a book is beginning to deteriorate, we avoid handling it and often put it in an archival-quality box to protect it. According to our Objects Conservator, many of the products advertised to “feed” the leather or “re-hydrate” it actually cause greater harm in the long run. – Biltmore Blog Editor

Posted on 01/12/2017 By Nikki B

Thank you for sharing. I often wondered about the books on the shelves at Biltmore. It's wonderful to know they are preserved, catalogued and loved.

Posted on 01/07/2017 By Lee S

As I wrote to several of the ladies earlier about theatrical narrative taking place at Biltmore, an adapted staging of Cornelia, George, Barrie, and of course Peter Pan would make an enthralling interlude.