My life in dolls houses
by Pat Cutforth
Not such a strange statement because those of us who love dolls houses certainly spend some imaginary time inside them. However, I could never have visualized my childhood interest becoming a source of fund-raising for Cancer Research UK, a career (writing for Dolls House World and running courses), and the fulfillment of my dream of writing books.
As you might imagine, each section of this life propelled me into another. First came the fund-raising, when the torture of running teenage dances made us look for a new event for our Marlborough committee of what was then the Cancer Research Campaign, later amalgamated with the Imperial to become Cancer Research UK . As I had been to lots of dolls house fairs, this seemed a nice easy one and I rang Muriel Hopwood for advice. She was incredibly helpful and I launched this idea without any thought of the work (and fear) involved. We chose the end of November because there was a space in the fair calendar, but this meant constant worry about fog, ice and snow, and I couldn’t believe it when there was a line around the block at our first event at Marlborough Town Hall in 1987. Many famous traders supported this first fair run entirely for charity and we were thrilled to take over £1500, part of this coming from our Pocket Money stall.
The Cancer Research UK stall at Miniatura, spring 2015
As the years went by, I found that some of October and all of November were taken up by making things to sell on our own table and pricing the many donations. The fear also grew (weather, advertising, people through door, etc etc) and finally I felt I had had enough.
We held our last fair in 1998, and our profits for that one day were over £19,000, mostly from sales on our own —now 18 foot long —table, where we sold things that we made ourselves or that had been donated.
The Bring and Buy Sale
By now I was running courses here at the farm and I envisaged a quiet life with empty barns and stables, but it was not to be. The donations kept coming! With the barns bursting and no fair, I began taking things to Miniatura where the Hopwoods offered us a free table. The two weekends at Miniatura are still a great source of income, bringing in between £6,000 and £9,000 every year. BUT there is no space for houses, so I began holding sales here. At the first one, foolishly called a Bring and Buy sale, I managed to reduce my stock of houses, so the sale became an annual fixture. People loved it and came every time, but now they were mainly buying small buildings and the furniture and other items that filled the big barn. The stables, with its 40 to 50 dolls houses, never really changes. Things are sold and more arrive. I visualize a funeral pyre for me, made up of all the houses and stoked by the 2000 plus magazines that also never reduce!
The barn in 2013
Above and below, The barn in 2014
These combine well with the fund-raising as students always take a look in the stables and often rummage through the boxes waiting to go to Minatura.
I hold between nine and twelve three-day courses each year, some taught by visiting tutors, such as Paul Wells, the others my own, where people can bring houses and other projects to work on. These are great fun and we all learn from each other and exchange ideas. It is the problem solving aspect that I enjoy most. However, I did have one student who always had a particularly difficult project such as a fully strung piano and harp, and a wheelbarrow. This last was about the hardest because all the sides are angled, so the bed of the barrow has four chamfered edges.
I make brownies for the coffee break and a different cake every day for tea. I sometimes wonder if this is why people come back!
Entirely due to my friend Lauren Child, whom I have known since she was seven, as she was originally a friend of my children. I helped her with her first dolls house and furniture to her own designs, then years later she would come and stay with us to work on her books. Now she seems part of the family and is about to finish her magnum opus: the dolls house she was given for her twenty-first birthday. It began as a Honeychurch house, but she has altered and built on and taken the unusual step of adding panelling to the small rooms, with little cupboards and nooks that give an extra dimension.
I have been hooked into various radio and TV projects with Lauren, the strangest being The One Show and the most fun the recent documentary called The Private Life of a Dolls House on BBC 4. Just recently, Lauren and I joined Kirsty Alsopp to talk about illustration and dolls houses and their connection for Lauren at Kirsty’s Handmade Fair at Hampton Court. It turned out to be good fun in spite of the audience of 300. As long as Lauren is there, I feel I can face almost anything, but my heart sinks at HD resolution.
The writing, the teaching and everything else stemmed from my book 'Dollshouses for Everyone', written in 1987. It is a simple paperback with chapters called “Ideas for Christmas”, “Mouse Houses”, “My Dolls Houses”, and so on.
My proudest moment was hearing that a ten year old girl shut herself up in her room and electrified her own dolls house, with my instructions, even using a soldering iron. I used hand tools to make my own house from a cupboard, having longed for one from early childhood. Now I have a wonderful Penny Thomson one but my first is still my favourite, being full of memories.
My first dolls house
My Penny Thomson dolls house
Writing for Dolls House World magazine as the alleged DIY editor made me create new projects and develop ideas, such as the use of mirrors to create the effect of further rooms. It made me learn to use a camera, forced me into deadlines, and above all has given me a glass cupboard full of roomboxes and corners in various scales, as well as individual pieces of furniture for students to copy, my favourite being a leather wing chair with hand made cabriole legs.
My glass cupboard full of projects in various scales
I love woodworking and sewing, as well as writing and teaching, but through my life the love of dolls houses has remained a constant. Through them I have gained great satisfaction, lots of money for Cancer Research UK and countless new friends who have hugely enriched my life.