A very special birthday gift

Estate History 10/17/14

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Turning 21 is a milestone today–and it certainly was a significant birthday for George Vanderbilt thanks to a remarkable gift he received in November 1883 when he reached that age: a chess set once owned by Napoleon I, former emperor of France.

How did he end up with such an extraordinary gift? The story begins four years earlier when George, his sister Lila, and his parents traveled to England. There they visited Holland House in Kensington at the invitation of James McHenry, a railroad financier and friend of Lady Holland. The invitation surely thrilled George, who had read the very popular book Holland House.

Excerpts from his travel diary display his interest:
Yesterday I visited Holland House and passed one of the pleasantest afternoons of my life. …I could never describe all the things we saw unless I wrote them down on the spot. I saw all the things described in our book of Holland House. The library is on the second floor and like all the other rooms is very interesting… Mr. McHenry has a magnificent set of Holland House all illustrated in twenty five volumes,… besides many other valuable books.

The teenager must have made an equally strong impression on McHenry, for they remained friends over the years. And in 1883, McHenry marked George’s 21st birthday with Napoleon’s chess set and games table, fueling George’s fascination with the statesman.

George also never forgot the treasures he saw at Holland House. In 1892, he purchased McHenry’s rare 31-volume History of Holland House. McHenry and a partner had combined the text from the 1874 Holland House book with hundreds of rare manuscripts and prints illustrating the people and places mentioned in the history.

The volumes include engravings, letters, and original documents signed by Queen Elizabeth I, Charles I, Napoleon, Lord Byron, John Milton, William Wordsworth, Samuel Johnson and other historical and literary figures—all associated with Holland House’s history. Today, this set comprises the most important manuscript collection in the Biltmore House Library.

The birthday gift also has history associated with it. Napoleon frequently played chess with these pieces after his exile to the island of St. Helena, located off the west African coast. After his death in 1821, his body was autopsied and it is believed his heart was removed, sealed in an alcohol-filled silver urn, and place on the nearby games table.

Napoleon’s possessions were sold at auction a year after his death. Andrew Darling, a decorator on St. Helena who was present during the autopsy, purchased Napoleon’s chess set and games table. Historians are not sure how the chess set and table made its way to Holland House prior to George Vanderbilt receiving them as a gift.


Top: Chess set and games table, currently on display at The Vanderbilts at Home and Abroad Exhibition in Antler Hill Village.

Upper left: Napoleon at St. Helena, engraving from History of Holland House, artist unknown.

Middle right: Holland House print from Vol. I, History of Holland House, artist unknown.

Lower left: Underside of the King from Napoleon's chess set.

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