Great-Grandfather's Dolls House
by Jenefer Warwick James
I was really excited when I finally started renovating my family heirloom. This was a fabulous dolls’ house which my great grandfather built in 1908, in England, for my mother. It was looking really sad by then, shabby and ramshackle. It was also so long since I had packed away the original furniture and dolls, that I could hardly remember what was there. Young family members had had fun playing with my dolls’ house but now it was time to restore it to its former glory and preserve it for the future.
My great grandfather Edwin Eyres, an engineer, lived in County Durham in the north of England. He is reputed to have gone to work each day in his carriage wearing a frock coat, top hat and a fresh flower in his lapel. He built my dolls’ house in the style of an Italian villa with flat roof and balustraded windows. The elegant entrance hall with its majestic sweeping staircase and moulded ceiling has been adorned with old masters and mirrors.
His first effort was far less ambitious; he had built a manor house with roof and chimneys which my cousin now owns. Family history has it that great grandfather often travelled to Italy and this inspired him to try his hand at building his own Italian villa in miniature.
Edwin Eyres built my dolls’ house from a wooden orange box. These were used to transport oranges across the seas to England. He made the balustrades and banisters using wooden spools from the cotton and weaving mills in the north of England at that time.
I spent 18 months renovating from 2014 to 2015! Fixing the wallpaper and floor covering is unbelievably fiddly. Each wall is a different size and each of the 4 rooms has a door, around which the wallpaper has to be shaped and fitted. The entrance hall with its dividing staircase is even more challenging. Meanwhile, with my head deep in the rooms, I found myself thinking about my great grandfather and the 4 subsequent generations of my family who have played with this much loved dolls’ house.
I was really happy when I unpacked the treasured furniture and dolls and installed them in their ‘new’ home.
My grandmother was a wonderful needlewoman and dressed the bisque Victorian dolls’ house dolls, both adults and children, in lovely old fabrics ; lace, velvet, silk ,with leather hats and shoes with buckles. These are still in beautiful condition and I treasure them along with a few dolls I had added from my own childhood in the 1950s. They go together nicely in the nursery!
My grandmother’s brother, great uncle Ridley made most of the furniture and accessories, including the large kitchen dresser. Victorian miniature glass tumblers, china plates, food and tin cutlery adorn this piece of furniture. Great uncle Ridley also made the large wooden beds and the dining chairs.
All these treasures have been kept safe and sound over the years. They look wonderful once again in my newly restored miniature mansion. It was well worth every second I spent sanding, glueing, painting, wall papering. I feel a deep, warm glow every time I look at it.
In 1980 my dolls’ house moved to Sydney with me. In 1999 it was displayed by the Historic Houses Trust in the Elizabeth Bay House exhibition of Australian dolls’ houses. Three generations of my family were there at the opening, which was wonderful.
I am sure my great grandfather would be most surprised and pleased to see the dolls’ house he made in England for his granddaughter, become an Australian dolls’ house. Above all one that is still treasured and enjoyed all these years later.
I’m not sure I would classify myself as a doll collector, since I have only one type of collection. I am a builder by trade who happened to be doing some work for an antique dealer at her own house. She was retired and had an overabundance of antiques that she prized over the years. She did collect doll houses and she had enough in storage for each of her granddaughters.
She asked one day if I would be interested in purchasing this doll house that needed some repairs. She quoted a price and I declined and we dropped the issue. A few weeks later she asked again and stated a price I could not refuse. All she had was pictures so when I got them home and opened the boxes I was surprised at the detail that the manufacturer had put into it.