On first looking in to Liza's book - Family Dolls' Houses of the 18th & 19th Centuries
by Liza Antrim, reviewed by Rebecca Green
For Liza Antrim, dolls houses and miniatures have been a lifelong passion. Her first dolls house was a Triang Stockbroker, and she received some wonderful pieces as Christmas and birthday gifts - Westacre furniture, Beatrice Hindley carnations, a Viennese bronze kitten ...!
Also, wonderfully, she first saw Vivien Greene's English Dolls' Houses at the age of nine - a book full of treasures, which got her hooked. It wasn't until she herself was the mother of a young girl, though, that she bought her first antique dolls house - and from there her collection grew and grew.
In Family Dolls' Houses, she shares with us 34 dolls houses of the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as several kitchens and many many miniatures.
The Dunluce Baby House, ca 1750s/60s
The photographs alone make this book worth buying. Each house has a full page photo of its exterior, and a full page - or double page - photo of the whole of the interior. There are close-ups of some of the rooms, and many of the furnishings have been photographed separately, out of the dolls houses, so we can see and appreciate the fine details.
The Dunluce Baby House: parlour and dining room.
Liza wrote on her blog of her frustration that the first set of photos taken for the book were not of sufficiently high quality to publish. Having all the houses photographed again delayed publication, but it was certainly worth the wait.
A tiny bone dolls house for a dolls house, made by a Napoleonic prisoner-of-war.
For each house, Liza writes all that she has been able to discover of its history prior to her ownership. A wonderful few were in pristine original condition, and fully furnished. One such is the Cabinet House, with which came "an ominous letter" about dolls house wallpapers featured in Woman's Own, but, as Liza writes, "luckily no one had got round to acquiring them".
Some of the treasures from the Cabinet House
Other houses were not so lucky in their past lives, but very fortunate to find a home in Liza's collection. An art restorer by profession, Liza says, "For me, it has always been a crucially important ethic to restore, not to redecorate."
She shows us the interiors of some renovated houses at the time she acquired them, such as Swann House, which had holes cut in walls and floors in order to add a staircase and internal doors, new floor boards and floor tiles laid, and plastic electric lights installed.
Right, Swann House before restoration; below, a detail of the restored Swann House.
Throstle-Nest House was bought almost by accident, and nearly defeated Liza's will to restore it. However, she persevered, removed all the later paint and new fireplaces and panelling, and replaced the original chimney breasts and shelving (amazingly, these had been stored in a box and kept with the dolls house since the renovation in 1957).
Above, 2 of Throstle-Nest's renovated rooms. Right, three rooms as restored by Liza Antrim, with the original chimney breasts replaced.
For those houses which were unfurnished, or only partly furnished, Liza has acquired pieces of the same age as the house itself (or as near as possible). The history of these furnishings and their makers interests her as much as the history of the houses, and many chapters have sections devoted to makers and sellers such as Evans and Cartwright (the name first discovered on a chair leg by Liza's young daughter); John Bubb; Bellamy at the Green Parrot, near Chancery-lane, Holborn; the Ladies' Guild; Beatrice Hindley, and others.
Spring flowers by Beatrice Hindley, who contributed to Titania's Palace and Queen Mary's Dolls' House
Had this book been published on schedule, Liza's research into the Ladies' Guild and the furniture made by the children of the Ragged Schools would have appeared simultaneously with our article on the Ladies' Guild in the February issue of this magazine. However, Liza presents some information which we did not discover (and vice versa, I am pleased to say!), and has a mouth-watering collection of Ladies' Guild furnishings, all shown in photos of higher quality than ours!
In her discovery of John-Henry Bielefeld as the seller of many pieces of cast pewter furnishings, she was not pipped at the post. Not only has Liza identified him and the dates and addresses of his wholesale toy business - from 1790-1834 at various premises in London - she has also succeeded in identifying the manufacturers of these cast pewter pieces - John Phillips and his son William Augustus Phillips. What an amazing achievement - hard enough to do for items produced much more recently, let alone 120 years ago!
Some of the house, including Cane End House, the Fry House, and Knayton Lodge, have been documented before, so that we have the delight of meeting old friends again and seeing them in better light than ever before.
Journal Pour Rire, Comique et Critique, among the accessories supplied for the dolls of Cane End House
Many others have never been photographed or written about - they come from Ireland, Scotland, America, Japan, and of course, England. It's hard to choose a favourite - for me, possibly the Dunluce Baby House shown above, with its built in shelving, cupboards, and doors in the rear walls - or Burgate Manor, with its steeply curving staircase:
Or perhaps Annie Balcomb's House - tiny in comparison with many of these houses (50cm across, 45cm deep, 94cm high), and with three rooms which pull out like drawers from the back of the house:
Annie Balcomb's House
Among the furnishings which particularly delighted me are this fragile card washstand from the 1830s-40s, which even has a toothbrush!!
And this cook with a large nose - how lovely to see dolls house dolls with individual facial features and expressions:
There are so many treasures in this book, I see something new every time I look in it. Some furnishings are very simply made and decorated, others are elaborately carved or embellished. There are exquisitely embroidered, home made rugs, and commercially made pieces from both the 18th and 19th centuries. I can probably only dream of having such old houses - imagine having to remove 1860s wallpapers to reach the originals!
Would you believe that there are two cats sitting by the fire in this kitchen?
In the meantime, I can savour all the details in this wonderful book. If you don't have a copy yourself yet, perhaps you could add it to your Christmas or birthday wish list. Certainly, anyone who enjoys old dolls houses should have a copy - and for those who don't yet have that passion, Liza's book is a fantastic introduction - I am sure that there will be many more hooked after reading it, as Liza was after looking in to Vivien Greene's book.
Details of how to order Family Dolls' Houses of the 18th & 19th Centuries can be found on the For Sale page under Books and Magazines.
All photos in this article © Liza Antrim, Cider House Books.