This is not just a doll's house...
When I was a child, a favourite pastime was playing with my dolls house.
It was made from white metal and had a lovely red roof. The front swung open to reveal 4 rooms. It had painted climbing plants ‘growing’ up the external front wall and around the front door which also opened and closed. Two painted conifers either side of the front door completed the look. I adored it.
I spent hours playing with my miniature house, the furniture, mostly moulded thick plastic or wooden, was very sturdy, utilitarian and not very realistic, that said, I loved every inch of it.
Over the years my house acquired carpets in the form of unwanted shop samples, each of the four rooms had a different carpet. I made curtains from anything I could find that I was allowed to cut up, and truth be told some things I was not allowed to cut up. They were basic, lopsided and a bit frayed curtains to say the least, but I remember a sense of pride in my accomplishment which was second to none.
I played with my dolls house regularly until I was about 13 or 14 although I would not have admitted that fact to anyone at school. I was forever losing myself in an imaginary world over which I had total control. I loved moving the furniture around until I got the best vantage point. An idyllic world with no renovations required, no dry rot, re-wiring, or plumbing to be done, a world where a pair of curtains could be made in ten minutes flat and where location location location was absolutely no problem.
I wasn’t upset when Mum told me she was giving my once beloved house to a little girl who lived nearby. By that time, I had discovered make up, hair driers, bubble bath, perfume, discos, and boys. The house was left sitting in a corner gathering dust on its lovely red tin roof.
I can honestly say that I did not think much about dolls houses in the coming years until I had daughters of my own. By that time, my head was too full of renovations, dry rot, re-wiring and plumbing over which I had little or no control.
Over the years I continued to move furniture around to get the best vantage point when my rather precious and unpredictable back permitted it. The girls often came home from school to find a complete re-shuffle of furniture. Nine times out of ten, the next day it would be back where it was in the first place.
The first dolls house my daughters owned was purchased from The Early Learning Centre. It was wooden, uncomplicated, colourful, and robust as was the furniture. Then came the fairy princess pink and white plastic American style houses from Toys R Us, and the annual onslaught of Disney Princess accoutrements which were always top of the list in the letters to Santa every December. Then inevitably came make-up, hair driers, bubble bath, perfume, discos, and boys. How many years has this sequence of events been going on I wondered?
In 1557-8 a dolls house was built for Albert V, Duke of Bavaria. Accomplished craftsmen built the house and painstakingly made all the elaborate furniture. It was symbolic of wealth and rank. It was copy of an elegant four story dwellinghouse which would be fit for a Duke at that time. It became known as The Munich Baby House, the term ‘baby’ being used to describe hand-built houses. It was followed by The Nuremberg House in 1611, The Stromer House in 1639 and the Kress and Baumler Houses late in the 17th century. Each was about the size of a small wardrobe and was furnished opulently.
Dolls houses in many shapes and forms have been with us ever since, but one is etched in my memory, Queen Mary’s dolls house in Windsor Castle.
I could quite happily have spent my entire visit to the Castle just drinking in every perfectly scaled tiny detail of the doll’s house. I longed to be allowed to touch the amazing house and move things around as befitting a serial furniture mover.
Queen Mary’s Dolls House was built by Sir Edwin Lutyens, one of Britain’s foremost architects. It was started in 1921 and was completed in 1924.Over 1,500 craftsmen and artists had a hand in completing what is the largest and arguably the most famous and beautiful dolls house in the world.
It boasts hot and cold running water, electricity, fully functional lifts, a garden which was designed by Gertrude Jekyll, and it even has a fully stocked wine cellar containing over twelve hundred bottles of fine wines, champagnes, wines spirits and beers, all chosen by Francis Berry who was the senior partner of Berry Brothers in London at that time. Berry Bros is the oldest wine and spirits merchant in Britain today.
A.C Benson and E.V Lucas described it more eloquently that I ever could in ‘The Book of The Queen’s Dolls House written in 1924…
It is built to outlast us all. To carry on into the future and different world this pattern of our own. It is a serious attempt to express our age and to show forth in dwarf proportions the limbs of our present world.
How many London residences, even in Berkeley Square and Park Lane, have a library consisting of two hundred books written in their authors' own hands, and a collection of over seven hundred watercolours by living artists? I doubt even if you could find the counterpart of these in the real Buckingham Palace.
Let us fast forward to present day.
Imagine my delight on two counts on Christmas morning 2021. I opened a large parcel and if truth be told the contents looked like a pile of oddly shaped plywood. However, the diagram on the front was undoubtedly that of a dolls house. I have been blessed with the ability to see the potential in everything, so the pile of wood did not phase me one iota. The second reason for being delighted was the realisation that my husband really does listen to me at times.
The house was duly built by my husband and I … well, chiefly by him, but I did supervise and help a bit. Once it was built, I painted the exterior and the interior. Then came the fun part. I spent ages browsing dolls house furniture and accessories online. I was amazed by the number of outlets and the vast amount there is available to furnish and accessorise one’s house with. (Why am I talking like the Queen all of a sudden?)
I decided my house would be furnished in a Victorian / Edwardian style. I even purchased two tiny newspapers complete with newsprint and photos, one headline is about The Titanic sinking, the other about the Suffragettes. Everything is 1/ 12th scale. I have a black leaded range complete with copper pans and jelly moulds in the kitchen. Fireplaces which glow and flicker, fully operational chandeliers, a Ladies writing desk…of course, you would not expect anything less. Baskets of vegetables and bread. I even bought brown paper packages and yes, they are tied up with string. Tiny letters, a China tea set, and it goes without saying for those of you who know me, a turkey, a Christmas cake, Christmas pudding and a wreath for the front door. I will buy a Christmas tree in December I don’t want to go overboard just yet (tongue firmly in cheek)
I even have a German Shepherd Dog, a black cat and a policeman on the beat who pops in to get a cup of tea from the cook.
What else can I say? I listen to Classic FM and move furniture to my heart's content without any danger of putting my back out.
This is not just a doll's house, it is therapy, it is pure joy. Who needs meditation?
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J Heron Wray March 2022.
References Doll’s Houses from the V&A Museum of Childhood, Halina Pasierbska.
Royal Collection Trust, Queen Mary’s Doll’s House.