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

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.

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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