Today we share another “insider’s” favorite object that you may have never even noticed. Why not make time for a visit this winter to look at the details in America’s largest home, and check back for the next installment of our favorite things!
After 30 years caring for Biltmore House, there are few details that have escaped Pat Ray’s notice. Pat, Biltmore’s Housekeeping Manager, started in Museum Services before moving to Housekeeping many years ago. One of the major tasks for her department happens every winter: cleaning the magnificent woodwork in the house.
It’s painstaking work when you consider the rich paneling of the Billiard Room and Oak Sitting Room, fanciful carvings and moldings in Mrs. Vanderbilt’s Bedroom, and heavily carved walnut overmantel in the Library just for starters! But it gives Pat time to appreciate the details in every room–particularly one unusual item in the Salon.
“I’ve just always loved this one table in the Salon; it can be used as a table or as a decorative accent because the top tilts for display. It’s made of papier-mâché with an inlay of mother-of-pearl and it’s so beautiful,” she said.
According to our curators, this table is English and dates to the late 19th century. While papier-mâché had been around for more than a thousand years, the material was mass produced in the late 1800s. Papier-mâché pieces gained popularity when it was found that the lightweight material could easily be ebonized or “japanned” to resemble the lacquer finishes popular in Asian furniture and decorative accessories of the time.
While you may think of papier-mâché being a product made of layers of paper, the material used in this table and similar pieces was a mixture of wood pulp (mashed paper) and a thickener such as sand and glue; the mixture was then pressed into molds rather than carved.
These pieces were often adorned with gilding and inlayed with mother-of-pearl, just as the Salon table is. We don’t know what the scene inlaid on the top of the table depicts, but it appears to be some type of ruins surrounded by a variety of different flowers, all created with mother-of-pearl.