Guest Post: Life in Miniature: A History of Dolls’ Houses by Nicola Lisle

It is a pleasure to welcome to History … the Interesting Bits today, Nicola Lisle, author of Life in Miniature: A History of Dolls’ Houses as part of her Blog Tour with Pen & Sword. A history of dolls’ houses is a little different to my usual type of post, but reading Life in Miniature brought back some very happy childhood memories of my sister and I playing with our dolls’ house in our grandparents’ attic. So I was very interested in finding out more of their history and origins. Nicola very kindly answered a few of my most pressing questions.

Dolls’ house at Charles Dickens’ House, Doughty Street, London

Hi Nicola, congratulations on the release of Life in Miniature and thank you for stopping by to chat.

1. When I heard about your book, I immediately thought of the dolls’ house my sister and I had as children – we used to play with it for hours. How long have you had a fascination for dolls’ houses? Did you have one as a child?

I did have a dolls’ house as a child, and my sister and I played with it a lot. It was apparently made for us by a distant relative, who also made wooden furniture for it. It’s all quite basic, but I love it because it’s unique and it was part of my childhood. We used to have some tiny dolls for it, and we also used to decorate it at Christmas. We had a Christmas tree and had to cut away a square of carpet to fit it in! Sadly, the dolls and Christmas decorations have been lost, but the original furniture and other bits and pieces are still there. As we grew up we lost interest in the dolls’ house and it was in my parents’ loft for many years gathering dust! It wasn’t until I started writing that I became interested in dolls’ houses again, and it was quite by chance. I subscribed to Writing Magazine and Writers’ News – and still do! – and in one issue there was a piece about Dolls House and Miniature Scene magazine, which was open to submissions from freelance writers. It caught my attention, and I got in touch with some ideas. My first piece for the magazine was about the Museum of Childhood at Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire, and it was published in 2004. I carried on writing for the magazine for many years, and it ignited a real passion in me for dolls’ houses. Eventually I rescued my childhood dolls’ house from my mum’s house, and I’m hoping at some point to find the time to give it a bit of TLC! It’s not in bad condition, but it could definitely do with a bit of a makeover!

2. The thing with dolls’ houses is that they are not just for children, are they? My mum has one!

Dolls’ house at Tolsey Museum, Burford

Dolls’ houses are definitely not just for children. I think a lot of adults who had them as children still treasure them, and collecting vintage and antique dolls’ houses is also popular. For children, they are great for stimulating the imagination, but for adults I think it’s more about appreciating the sheer delight of miniatures and the craftsmanship that went into creating them.

3. I think the most famous dolls’ house has to be Queen Mary’s in Windsor Castle, isn’t it? What is so special about it?

Reproduction of miniature of Conan Doyle’s ‘How Watson Learned the Trick’, written for Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House

Yes, I think Queen Mary’s dolls’ house is probably the most famous. It’s special because it captures a slice of 1920s England in such exquisite detail, from the furniture and soft furnishings right down to the food and drink that were popular at the time. It attracted international interest when it first appeared, and it was a showcase to the world, a display of some of the very finest British talent. I think it also restored some pride and optimism in the country during the immediate post-war years. The house and garden were designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll, and among its highlights are miniature books, music scores and paintings by popular writers, composers and artists of the day. Many of the books contained original stories written exclusively for the dolls’ house. Two of these, Fougasse’s J. Smith and Conan Doyle’s How Watson Learned the Trick, have been reproduced as miniature replicas with booklets containing the stories in full-size print. Another, Vita Sackville-West’s A Note of Explanation – a story about a mischievous spirit who inhabits the dolls’ house – was also reproduced in full size. I treated myself to all three when I was researching my book, and they are now treasured items on my bookshelves!

4. How long have dolls’ houses been around, Nicola? I always associate them with the Victorians, but were they around earlier? Are dolls’ houses an English creation, or did they come from the continent?

Nicola’s childhood dolls’ house

Dolls’ houses have been around since at least the 16th century and originated in Germany, where they were known as baby houses. The first known dolls’ house was made for the Duke of Bavaria in 1557, and it was a miniature version of his ducal palace. By the 17th century, baby houses had become popular in Germany, particularly in Nuremberg. The idea caught on in Holland towards the end of the 17th century, but instead of baby houses the

Dutch favoured cabinet houses, which were grand, elaborately-carved cabinets containing exquisitely furnished miniature rooms. The earliest dolls’ houses in England appeared in the late 17th century and were similar to the Dutch cabinet houses. By the early 18th century they were beginning to look more like houses than cabinets, and they were often modelled on the great country houses and created by estate carpenters. It wasn’t until the Victorian era that they became regarded as toys for children, and mass production towards the end of the 19th century made them much more widely accessible.

5. And what was their original purpose, were they always aimed at children.

The earliest baby houses, cabinet houses and dolls’ houses were primarily display pieces, and they were very much the preserve of royalty and the aristocracy – each one was a statement of the owner’s wealth and social status. They also had an educational role, often being used to instruct young ladies and servants in efficient household management and domestic skills.

6. I am fascinated by dolls’ houses and have to admit that the first thing I did on getting your book was look at the pictures. The houses are beautiful and the furniture inside is so detailed and intricate, do you have a favourite?

Reproduction of miniature of J. Smith by Fougasse, written for Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House

I saw so many gorgeous dolls’ houses while writing and researching my book that it’s almost impossible to pick a favourite. I think all dolls’ houses have their own particular charm, from the grand, ornate ones to the very simplest, and often it’s the stories behind them that make them special. For this reason, I think the dolls’ house at Uppark in West Sussex is one of my favourites, partly because it’s one of the earliest surviving dolls’ houses from the early 18th century, reflecting the Palladian-style architecture that was popular at the time, and partly because it has a connection with H.G. Wells, and I always love literary connections! Wells’s mother was the housekeeper at Uppark during the late 19th century, and he drew on his childhood memories of Uppark in his novel Tono-Bungay, in which he refers to the “great dolls’ house on the nursery landing”.

Another with a literary connection is the dolls’ house at Charles Dickens’ House at Doughty Street in London. The house doesn’t actually have a connection with Dickens himself, but it was modelled on the Doughty Street house by dolls’ house maker Christopher Cole for his book Make Your Own Dolls’ House, which was published in 1976. It is a simplified version of the real thing, rather than an exact replica, but it is very similar, especially the outside, and it was one I particularly enjoyed going to see! It’s not on public display, but it can be viewed by appointment.

I also have special fondness for the dolls’ house at Overbeck’s in Devon. It was created during the 1980s by a lady called Mabel Hill, a very talented, self-taught craftswoman who used scraps of leftover material and other household odds and ends to make the furniture and soft furnishings. What’s particularly lovely is that Overbeck’s was used as a convalescent home for wounded soldiers during the First World War, and one of the activities they were encouraged to do as therapy was to make dolls’ house furniture. Although there’s no direct link between that and Mabel Hill’s house, it does feel as though there is a spiritual connection.

Others closer to home, in Oxfordshire, include the Regency-style dolls’ house at the Tolsey Museum in Burford, which was created during the 1930s by members of the local community and reflects the town’s rural industries (another fascination of mine!), and the Palladian-style house at Greys Court, near Henley, which was created by a local lady, Patricia Mackenzie, during the 1970s. Like Mabel Hill, she used old materials and household objects to create the house and its contents. She was inspired by the Carlisle Collection of Miniature Rooms, which she used to visit when it was displayed at Greys Court during the 1970s. The collection is now housed at Nunnington Hall in Yorkshire, and is another favourite of mine, with a fascinating history – as I said, there are so many favourites!

7. I am guessing that some of these dolls’ houses have fascinating histories – is there one that has a story that particularly caught your attention?

Interior of Dolls’ house at Charles Dickens’ House

Something I became fascinated with while researching the book was finding out about famous collectors, particularly Vivien Greene, wife of novelist Graham Greene. Her collection was once housed in a museum in Oxford, not far from where I live, so there’s a bit of a connection there! Tracking down Vivien Greene’s dolls’ houses almost became a project of its own – sadly, she decided to auction her collection during the late 1990s when her eyesight was deteriorating and most of it finished up in private hands. But one that is on public display is Whiteway at Saltram, a National Trust house in Devon, and its Victorian-style interior is exquisite. I particularly loved the library with its miniature books, all made from wood, and the dining room with its plush red furnishings. The provenance of the house is something of a mystery, and I do love a good mystery! There’s another Vivien Greene house on display at Ilkley Toy Museum in Yorkshire, which dates from the late Victorian era and used to belong to a lady in Abingdon, Oxfordshire – again, not far from where I live. At some point it was converted into an hotel and named The Original Swan after a pub in Cowley, just outside Oxford. It has lost some of its original contents, but it is in good condition and you can still see the mahogany bar and its wooden barrels and glass bottles.

8. What made you want to write a book on dolls’ houses?

The Original Swan at Ilkley Toy Museum

It was writing for Dolls House and Miniature Scene magazine for so many years that made me think it would be interesting to write a book on the subject. I had already accumulated a lot of information and pictures that I could use as the basis for a book, and I had a lot of fun building on that, visiting various museums and stately homes that had dolls’ houses on display and gathering up lots more fascinating facts about these wonderful miniatures. I enjoyed researching and writing the book so much – it was a real labour of love!

9. What is your next writing project?

I’ve been working on some possible new book ideas, but at the moment I’m very busy with other writing work. I have several article deadlines coming up, and I am also a tutor on four distance-learning courses with The Writers Bureau, so I’m having to work on my book pitches in between everything else! Hopefully, though, at some point I’ll get them finished and sent off!

10. Where can people find you? Do you have a website or blog? Are you on social media?

I’m on Twitter – you can find me at @NicolaLisle1. I did set up a blog a while ago but haven’t actually done anything with it for some time, so it’s due for a major overhaul – that’s probably going to be a Christmas holiday job!

Thank you, Nicola, for such a lovely chat!

Life in Miniature: A History of Dolls’ Houses is available from Amazon or direct from Pen & Sword and would make a perfect Christmas present.

About the author:

Nicola Lisle is a freelance journalist and author specialising in history and the arts. She has written numerous articles for family history magazines, including Who Do You Think You Are?, Your Family History and Discover Your Ancestors, and was a regular contributor to Dolls House and Miniature Scene magazine for many years. She is the author of Tracing Your Family History Made Easy (Which? Books, 2011) and Tracing Your Oxfordshire Ancestors (Pen & Sword, 2018).

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My Books

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly & Nicola Lisle

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