Dressing Downton™ with Biltmore’s Floral Design Team

Written By Joanne O'Sullivan

Posted 04/13/15

Updated 09/14/20

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Dressing Downton™ has ended. Please enjoy this archived content.

When you walk into the Salon during the Dressing Downton™ exhibit, right away you notice the striking purple ensemble—the one worn by Lady Violet Crawley during Season 1 of the PBS Masterpiece series Downton Abbey® in an episode about the village flower show.

It’s no accident that the costume seems perfectly in place in the room, although the reason why may not be immediately obvious. Look around and you’ll see that the exquisite floral arrangements in the room pick up the blues and purples of the dress and hat, and echo the style of Edwardian flower arranging seen in the episode.Edith's bedroom

That’s the work of Biltmore’s Floral team, which not only handles the estate’s arrangement year-round but took on the additional task of enhancing the Downton exhibit with show-stopping flowers.

Cathy Barnhardt, Floral Manager, heads the team comprised of seven full-time and 10 reserve staff. Each week, the designers create the sumptuous displays seen in Biltmore House, taking inspiration from the time period when the Vanderbilts lived here, and the architecture, and the furnishing. During this special exhibition, they also took cues from the exquisite costumes.

In the Tapestry Gallery, the particular orange-red of Lady Mary’s coat is picked up in the simple, graceful arrangement nearby. The fox collar of the coat worn by character Martha Levinson inspired the colors seen in the arrangement in the Claude Room.

Cathy says color is very important to their designs, but it’s not the only consideration. During the Dressing Downton exhibition, overall floral design in the house was influenced by English garden style: loose arrangements, trailing vines, lilies, and peonies.Entry Hall

The scale of Biltmore House requires big thinking: the Banquet Hall ceilings in are 70 feet high, so oversize urns filled with big and bountiful arrangements are placed on top of the dining table. In this room, Lord Grantham’s bright scarlet military “Spencer” jacket inspires “patriotic” themes and arrangements, says Cathy.

In the team’s Basement work room, the walls are lined with period-appropriate vases, urns, and other containers such as French painted porcelains, Creamware, and Chinese blue and white ginger jars and fish bowls to match with the designer’s ideas. To come up with this inventory, Cathy researched Vanderbilt family history, scanned the Sargent paintings, and pored over photos of Newport mansions and English castles to determine what kind of containers would have been used in the house and how the designs would have looked.

rosesFloral designers also take into account what they know about the individual tastes of the Vanderbilts.  “Mrs. Vanderbilt loved roses,” Cathy says, so the team makes use of roses from the gardens while they are blooming in addition to flowers from distributors. Greenery is cut from around the estate and arrangements are switched out on Thursdays and Fridays.

The arrangements and artistry that the Floral team contributes add to the distinction of Biltmore as a family home—which is especially evident with during this exhibition.

“When people lived and celebrated here,” says Cathy, “gardens were very important. Our designers breathe life into Biltmore House.”

See what our designers have created when you visit now through May 26 for the Dressing Downton™ exhibition. 


Top: The Banquet Hall features Lord and Lady Grantham’s evening wear and dramatic centerpieces..

Top Left: Mrs. Vanderbilt’s Bedroom features Lady Mary Crawley’s evening dress and her lady’s maid uniform.

Right: The Entry Hall welcomes guests to the Dressing Downton exhibition.

Bottom Left: Roses beneath a portrait of Edith Vanderbilt in the Tapestry Gallery.

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