Palladio Minimus: A Georgian dollhouse and the 18th century miniature world

ANTIQUES Staff

ANTIQUES Staff

December 2008 | When dining with the queen of the Brobdingnagians, Lemuel Gulliver remarked that he “had an entire set of silver dishes and plates, and other necessaries, which, in proportion to those of the queen, were not much bigger than what I have seen in a London toy-shop, for the furniture of a baby-house.”1 Diminutive himself in comparison to the giant Brobdingnagians, Gulliver thus reveals the market among the British elite of the first half of the eighteenth century for miniature replicas of everyday objects. Baby houses, as dollhouses were known in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, like the great houses they occupied, were both showpieces and containers. Children and adults filled the fashionable little architectural shells with objects that paralleled those they used in everyday life.2

The remarkable Georgian dollhouse in Figures 1a and 1b was acquired by the Old Salem Toy Museum at Old Salem Museums and Gardens in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 1999 from the collection of Vivien Greene (1905–2003). A pioneer in the study and connoisseurship of dollhouses, Greene had purchased the house in 1966 from Lady Mabel Annie Ley (nee Brocklehurst; 1886–1979), whose first husband was Jonkheer Franz Izaak van Haeften, and so she christened it the van Haeften house. Described by Greene at the time of her acquisition as both beautiful and ruinous, the house underwent minor conservation in 1967. Missing elements were replaced based on surviving evidence, and these new parts were left unpainted as an aid to future conservators.3 When the dollhouse arrived at Old Salem, curators were faced with questions familiar to owners of historic houses, specifically what to do about the years of grime, overpaint, and repairs that obscure the original surfaces. In the end it was decided that it was best just to conserve it by removing layers of later paint to reveal the original decorative scheme.4

According to Greene, the house was discovered in a secondhand shop in Hawkhurst, Kent, in 1885. Although she was told that Lady Annie Lee Brocklehurst, the mother of Mabel Annie, “had saved her pocket money and done jobs in the garden to be able to buy the house,”5 this romantic story is unlikely to be true. Sir Philip Brocklehurst (1827–1904) and Annie Lee Dewhurst were married in London in 1884, and Mabel Annie, their first child, was born in 1886.6 If Lady Brocklehurst purchased the house during a trip south through Kent in 1885, then it was almost certainly as an enraptured adult and expectant parent not as an enthralled child.

Only a small handful of early English doll- houses survive, and most lack a complete provenance going back to original owners and makers.7 Two important exceptions are those of about 1735 to 1745 at Uppark in West Sussex and Nostell Priory in West Yorkshire (Figs. 2 and 3), both of which remain in eighteenth-century contexts. Furnished, and well documented, they provide tremendous insight into the material culture not only of dollhouses but of English country houses themselves. As Mark Girouard has observed, a fine country house was “an advertisement” for the “culture, education, and savoir-faire” that gave the ruling class of Britain its legitimacy.8 The dollhouse rendered the complexities of this advertisement in miniature in a form that could be admired by both the ruling elite and their heirs.Sarah Lethieullier (1725–1788) brought her baby house to Uppark shortly after she married Sir Matthew Fetherstonhaugh (1714–1774) in 1746 (see Fig. 2).9 Three stories tall and seven bays across, it is highly classical with pilasters and a pedimented and balustraded roof ornamented with seven sculptures. It stands atop a tall arcade of faux-stone and retains its original furnishings. The Nostell Priory dollhouse (Fig. 3) is similarly three stories high atop a faux-stone basement, and its pedimented facade is likewise crowned with classical urns and statuary. According to tradition it was built by Thomas Chippendale, probably for the children of Sir Rowland Winn (1706–1765) and Susanah Henshaw (c. 1710–1742) of Nostell Priory. It is nearly seven feet tall, and its nine rooms are appointed with appropriate furniture, wall coverings, silver, ceramics, textiles, and paintings.10

Following in the footsteps of Richard Boyle (1695–1753), Lord Burlington, and his circle, the architecture of very grand dollhouses such as these was drawn from the designs of Andrea Palladio (1508–1580). Less strictly Palladian, the van Haeften house exemplifies the more restrained polite Palladianism that was popular in England during the first half of the eighteenth century. Found in the designs of Colen Campbell (1676–1729), William Kent (1685–1748), and Batty Langley (1696–1751), the style swept through the English countryside. Even the full-scale Uppark house shares similarities with the van Haeften dollhouse, such as the stepped-out pedimented porch and the decorative quoins. Another close parallel is Gunton Hall in Norfolk, designed by Matthew Brettingham in 1745 (Fig. 4). Like the trompe-l’oeil walls of the van Haeften house, the five-bay facade of Gunton Hall is laid up in Flemish bond brick embellished with stone decorative door and window surrounds, keystones, rusticated quoins, and a belt course. As at Uppark and elsewhere, the entire dollhouse rests atop an elevated basement. A popular Palladian architectural device for raising the primary facade above the landscape, here it serves the prosaic purpose of lifting the cabinet to a more convenient height for viewing and playing.

The van Haeften house has a center hall plan, with two large rooms on each floor. When layers of paint and grime were removed during conservation, the original surface treatments were discovered: the walls had been painted off-white, the baseboards black, and the doorframes and staircase red (see Fig. 1b).11 While less colorful than the wallpapered and painted rooms in the Uppark and Nostell Priory dollhouses, this simplified treatment very effectively accentuates the meticulously detailed paneling installed in the rooms.

As in a full-scale house, the finishes in each room give an indication of the hierarchy of spaces. The kitchen, on the left side of the first floor, has the fewest and simplest architectural details. Its decoration is limited to wainscoting without molding, and while it shares a common cornice with the rest of the interior, it is the only room that does not have a molded chair rail. It has the largest fireplace opening and retains the only surviving piece of original furniture—a built-in cupboard for storing plates on the left wall.The three remaining rooms have more detailed woodwork to express their roles as public rooms—parlor, dining room, and bedchamber—in this miniature world. The most elaborate paneling is found in the lower right and upper left rooms, where the molding profiles are more complex and the large expanses of wall have been subdivided into smaller panels. The mantelpieces in the three public rooms are identical and reflect the popular designs of Campbell, Kent, Langley, and Robert Adam. Each is surmounted by a crosseted overmantel frame for a painting, two of which survive (Figs. 5, 6).12 After years of grime and a considerable amount of old varnish were removed during conservation, a signature, “shuster,” was revealed on the painting in the lower right room (Fig. 6).13 This was a stunning discovery given that no period signed dollhouse paintings are known. The artist may be Johann Martin Schuster, who was born in Nuremberg and studied in Rome before establishing himself in Nuremberg as a painter and engraver. The city had been a center of toy production as early as the seventeenth century, and Schuster’s work as an engraver presumably gave him the delicate skills needed to execute work on a small scale.14 Unfortunately, so little of his signed work is known that a positive attribution is not currently possible.

Played with by children and doted over by adults, a dollhouse was at the center of an elaborate circle of craftsmen who provided everything from the house itself to the furniture and accessories. In 1762 one London toy seller advertised “fine babies and baby-houses with all sorts of furniture at the lowest price.”15 In some cases, dollhouses were furnished over time, and an international army of eighteenth-century craftsmen stood at the ready to fill them. However, surviving eighteenth-century dollhouse furniture is quite rare today, which influenced the Old Salem Toy Museum’s decision not to furnish the van Haeften house. Instead, the museum focused on separately assembling a significant collection of late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century silver and ceramics intended for dollhouses and the dolls that inhabited them.

In the middle of the seventeenth century a few Dutch silversmiths began to specialize in making and exporting miniature wares. During what has been called the golden age of miniature Amsterdam silver, between 1725 and 1775, tens of thousands of these silver toys by more than forty makers were exported to England, many of them hallmarked.16 By the late seventeenth century London silversmiths too had begun producing miniature objects destined for collectors’ cabinets and dollhouses.17

Among the silver objects made by these Dutch and English smiths were a variety of lighting devices, such as candlesticks, candelabra, and chandeliers, many of which were actually intended to hold small candles and be used (see Figs. 7, 10). And, indeed, life played itself out in miniature in the van Haeften house, for during conservation soot marks were found on the ceilings, providing evidence that lit candles had been used inside the rooms. At 3 ¼ inches high, the double-arm floor candle-stand in Figure 10 is just the sort of fine object that might once have provided light in the public rooms of the van Haeften house. Even the drip pans beneath the candleholders are decoratively scalloped. The arms can be removed and their heights adjusted. The hallmark on the bottom, a small tree, is thought to be that of Pieter van Somerwil I of Amsterdam, who was one of the most prolific producers of miniature silverwares.18 A fashionable dollhouse owner might have provided it with a chandelier, such as the unmarked example in Figure 7, which is similar to ones made by Arnoldus van Geffen (1728–1769) of Amsterdam, who was active during the second and third quarters of the eighteenth century. Topped by a silver angel, the chandelier has eight arms that extend from between a pair of bulbous silver spheres. A small, delicately cast basket hangs from the bottom.

Dining and drinking were important parts of eighteenth-century life at all sizes. The equipage associated with these pursuits was especially popular among silversmiths specializing in miniatures (see Fig. 11), who closely followed fashions in consumption, form, design, and decoration. For example, shortly after the punch bowl became a popular feature of the English table in the last quarter of the seventeenth century, the London silversmith George Manjoy was making miniature examples. Manjoy’s work was highly detailed, as can be seen in the 1702 tankard with a raised and stepped lid in Figure 11 (bottom center), which is decorated with a triple band of reeding on its base, gadrooning, and a border of maple leaves. Like so many examples by the fastidious Manjoy, the tankard bears a complete set of London hallmarks.19David Clayton, a few years younger than Manjoy, was London’s most prolific silversmith specializing in miniature objects during the first half of the eighteenth century. He made the delicately wrought plate stand at the top left in Figure 11, complete with ten plates marked “DC,” and the elegantly simple chocolate pot (Fig. 11, top right) with a separate domed lid with a turned finial. Like the surfaces of the van Haeften house itself, the chocolate pot tells a story of use. Burn marks on the wooden handle and fire scale on the exterior suggest a good deal of use (or misuse), despite its small size. It might well have set a fashionable dollhouse breakfast table, although at 2 3⁄8 inches high, it is somewhat out of scale for the van Haeften house. It should be remembered, however, that silversmiths who specialized in miniatures worked in a range of sizes—from objects intended for children to ones intended for dolls or dollhouses—and that in actual use there was a fluidity of scale. Attractive objects, such as a kettle-and-stand in the kitchen of the Nostell Priory baby house, might be included in a room even if they were slightly out of proportion.20

Less exciting domestic objects were also produced in silver, such as a miniature bed warmer by Somerwil I (Figs. 9, 9a). A feat of delicate silversmithing, its twisted handle attaches to a hinged circular pan, and the lid is repoussé-decorated with a scene of a woman, a child, and a winged figure surrounded by a border of flower petals. Another less decorative, and far more utilitarian, object is a miniature dustpan made in Amsterdam (Fig. 8). Engraved on the back with the initials “W. V. S.” and the date 1752, it was perhaps a gift. Ironically, the person receiving it would have been unlikely to ever handle such an object in their full-scale life.

Ceramic manufacturers also produced versions of their wares for dollhouses.21 Whether to delight adults or to educate adolescents about fashion, Chinese, continental, and English factories all seized the opportunities presented by miniatures (see Figs. 12, 13). In Liverpool, James Pennington was producing miniature porcelain objects in the 1760s, and Caughley in Worcester was making them by the 1780s.22 In 1790 Enos Hitchcock (1744–1803), a New England clergyman, wrote in his Memoirs of the Bloomsgrove Family (1790) of the presence of ceramics in one young lady’s dollhouse. Explaining to her daughter that she should not steal toys from her brother, a mother asks, “how would you like to have [him] get the pieces of china out of your baby house?”23

Tiny Chinese export vases decorated in underglaze blue (see Fig. 13, top right) would have looked at home as a garniture over a dollhouse mantel, while a Dutch punch bowl with the date 1673 in cobalt in its interior (Fig. 13, bottom center) might readily have been placed on a table. A minute Imari barber’s bowl captures the craze for polychrome Asian ceramics at a scale meant to be appreciated by only the most fashionable dolls (Fig. 13, top center). Unlike silver miniatures, ceramic objects probably enjoyed a variety of uses depending on their contexts. A teacup in doll or child size might easily have made a dollhouse punch bowl.This versatility perfectly mirrors the multiple uses a dollhouse could have as a child’s plaything and an adult’s cabinet of curiosities. As early as 1631 in Nuremberg a dollhouse was touted as having educational merit in teaching young ladies how to manage a household.24 In 1768 Dr. Hugh Smith (c. 1736–1789) wrote in his medical advice book, Letters to Married Women, “I have with inexpressible pleasure seen many young ladies, women grown, happily amusing themselves at their younger sister’s baby house.”25 The 1783 children’s reader Cobwebs to Catch Flies used dolls and a baby house to teach charity. On observing that one doll’s best coat is worn out, a visiting girl asks the house’s owner why her doll did not have a new one:
First Girl:I had a crown to buy her a piece of silk; as I went in the coach with my aunt to buy it, we met a poor child who had no clothes, but the worst rags which you can think.

Second Girl:And you gave it to her? My doll should wear her old gown for a long time, for the sake of such a use to put my crown to.

First Girl:I had more joy in that, than I could have had in my doll’s new gown. Dolls can not feel the want of clothes.26

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries children playing with a dollhouse did so under the watchful eye of a governess or parent. They were costly, fragile, and at times even dangerous, if the evidence of lit candles in the van Haeften house is any indication. The English author H. G. Wells (1866–1946), who spent time at Uppark, where his mother was a housekeeper, recollected in his semiautobiographical novel Tono-Bungay that the toys at Uppark “remain in my memory still as great splendid things, gigantic to all my previous experience of toys.” In particular, he wrote of going to “the great doll’s house on the nursery landing to play discreetly…under imperious direction with that toy of glory.”27

Much like full-scale houses, dollhouses were never really finished. And that was the fun for child and adult. There could always be a new piece of silver, a more fashionable piece of furniture, more avant-garde artwork, or a new dress for the dolls. As the educational reformers Maria (1767–1849) and Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1744–1817) observed in 1798, “an unfurnished baby-house might be a good toy, as it would employ little carpenters and seamstresses to fit it up; but a completely furnished baby-house proves as tiresome to a child as a finished seat is to a young nobleman.”281 Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, ed. Robert A. Greenberg, 2nd ed. (W. W. Norton, New York, 1970), p. 84.
2 The word baby was synonymous with doll from the mid-sixteenth century at least into the eighteenth. For a more detailed discussion of the term baby house, see Flora Gill Jacobs, A History of Dolls’ Houses (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1965), pp. 6–7.
3 Vivien Greene and Margaret Towner, The Vivien Greene Dolls’ House Collection (Cassell, London, 1995), pp. 33–34.
4 The conservation of the dollhouse was carried out by David C. Goist of Raleigh, North Carolina, and all information about it is contained in his “Summary Condition Report” and “Record of Treatment,” object file 4498, Old Salem Toy Museum, Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
5 Greene and Towner, Vivien Greene Dolls’ House Collection, p. 33.
6 England and Wales Civil Registration Indexes, General Register Office, London, online at http://www
.freebmd.org.uk.
7 Fewer than a dozen architecturally comparable dollhouses survive. Greene gave names to those in her museum near Oxford (now closed, and its collections dispersed) as well as to those she recorded. For clarity and consistency, in this article I have retained the names given by Greene and other early researchers. In addition to the houses at Uppark and Nostell Priory, other architecturally comparable dollhouses include: Quantock Oak (1730–1740), the Great House (c. 1750), Cane End House (c. 1760), and the Mid-Georgian Baby House, also called the Balustraded House (c. 1775), all formerly in the Greene Collection (Greene and Towner, Vivien Greene Dolls’ House Collection, pp. 31–32, 36–39, 42–47, 60–63; and Vivien Greene, English Dolls’ Houses of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries [B. T. Batsford, London, 1955], pp.123–124, 133–135); the Blackett Baby House (c. 1740), in the Museum of London, and the Tate Baby House (c. 1760) in the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood (see Greene, English Dolls’ Houses, pp. 108, 117–118, and 122–123).
8 Mark Girouard, Life in the English Country House: A Social and Architectural History (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1978), p. 189.
9 For more about the Uppark dollhouse, see Christopher Rowell and John Martin Robinson, Uppark Restored (National Trust, London, 1996), p. 135.
10 For a good overview of the dating of this dollhouse and the evidence for the involvement of Thomas Chippendale in its construction, see Gervase Jackson-Stops, The Treasure Houses of Britain (National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985), pp. 660–663.
11 Goist, “Record of Treatment.”
12 Two small holes in the center of the overmantel in the upper-left room suggest that a painting originally hung there as well.
13 Goist, “Record of Treatment.”
14 Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler, ed. Ulrich Thieme and Felix Becker (Leipzig, 1878), s.v. “Schuster, Johann Martin.” For the role of Nuremberg in miniature production, see Jacobs, History of Dolls’ Houses, pp. 27–39.
15 Trade card of Bellamy, October 14, 1762, microfilm reel 23, Heal Collection, Department of Prints and Drawings, British Museum, London.
16 Victor Houart, Miniature Silver Toys, trans. David Smith (Alpine Fine Arts Collection, New York, 1981), pp. 47–48, 54–59.
17 Ibid., pp. 163–164.
18 Ibid., p. 60.
19 Ibid., pp. 171–173.
20 For an image of the kitchen of the Nostell Priory dollhouse, see Jackson-Stops, Treasure Houses of Britain, p. 663. A Clayton chocolate pot with stirrer in the Victoria and Albert Museum is illustrated in Houart, Miniature Silver Toys, illus. 211.
21 Children’s ceramics are the subject of a forthcoming book by independent scholar Rick Pardue as the second book in the Old Salem Toy Museum Series. I am indebted to Pardue for his insights on this subject.
22 Simon Spero, The Simpson Collection of Eighteenth Century English Blue and White Miniature Porcelain (Simon Spero, London, 2003), pp. 25, 37–40.
23 Enos Hitchcock, Memoirs of the Bloomsgrove Family (Boston, 1790), p. 114.
24 Jacobs, History of Dolls’ Houses, p. 28.
25 Hugh Smith, Letters to Married Women, 2nd ed. (London, 1768), p. 48.
26 [Lady Ellenor Fenn], Cobwebs to Catch Flies (London, 1783), pp. 92–94.
27 H. G. Wells, Tono-Bungay (Duffield and Company, New York, 1908), pp. 33–34.
28 Maria and Richard Lovell Edgeworth, Practical Education, 2nd ed. (London, 1801), vol. 1, p. 5.

DANIEL KURT ACKERMANN is the associate curator of the MESDA and Old Salem Toy Museum Collections at Old Salem Museums and Gardens in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.