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

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.19

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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