On Being a Dolls House Enthusiast, Part 1
by Maddy Smith
When I mention to anyone that my hobby is ‘Dolls' Houses’, I am either met with a simpering smile which implies, “That’s just child’s play, isn’t it: what is an adult like you doing with toys?” - or with total disinterest. I am certain that many people wonder how such a hobby can be a worthwhile activity. The only time I was ever openly asked about my hobby [it was in a hospital and I was in my 70s, being questioned by some kind of socially minded doctor], I was at a total loss to explain myself and ended up feeling very foolish indeed. Ever since then I have wanted to let people know what it is really like to be a dolls' house enthusiast: the pleasure it brings and the creativity that it generates.
Where to start is a problem, but I will begin at the beginning. As a child I was always fascinated by anything small, though I never owned a dolls house. When I was about eight years old and on a train, being evacuated to Lancashire, the optical illusion which made me see from the window, in miniature, all the houses, farms, animals and people created a lasting, delightful impression on me. Later, I made a collection of all the tiny things I could find, helped by some of the people with whom I was billeted. And half-believing in fairies and loving fairy stories meant that acorn cups and anything miniature in nature became a delight, too. Then I grew up and put aside this enchanted time – as I thought, forever.
I left school and worked in a London office, so far removed from the world of my imagination. My hobbies then were reading and drawing. I married and had children and when the children were older I went back to work. I was fascinated with computers when they made their appearance into the office. I much preferred them to typewriters; one could do so much more with them. During this time I never thought about anything remotely resembling a dolls' house.
But then I had a grandchild, a little girl, and this proved to be the magical watershed. As any grandparent will tell you, it is a wonderful experience playing with a small child that is your own and yet not your own, because there are fewer responsibilities. I felt free and childlike myself when I was with Elli. We had such fun and I started thinking of simple things we could make together. One day, I thought I would make a dolls house out of a cardboard box so that we could play at houses. I bought the plastic windows and door, made a pointed roof to the box and put in an extra floor. It was very simply done but Elli, who was only three at the time, loved it. We had sturdy toy furniture and a rather odd family of different sized dolls. One of the dolls was a princess, we said, who came to tea from time to time. When Elli’s sister, Katie, came along and grew old enough to join us, I designed a cardboard dolls' house which they could make for themselves, with minimum help from me. They absolutely loved these houses and, along with the original one, we spent a lot of imaginative and creative time together. This, of course, was the beginning of my dolls house hobby at its most basic; mainly on a childlike level but with potential for development should the opportunity arise.
The cardboard houses for my granddaughters.
However, my husband and I retired to the seaside and contact with the grandchildren became less frequent. The dolls' houses became things of the past and I busied myself with other interests. In my spare time, I still read a great deal and continued with educating myself on the computer. I became more interested in photography, when digital cameras came along, and went on short courses to learn about Photoshop, to produce and enhance my own photos.
One day, we went to a nearby town and discovered a dolls' house shop. This was my first experience of seeing actual dolls' houses for adults on sale. I was amazed and intrigued by them, all lit up and showing such wonderful furniture and beautifully made dolls. My husband said he would buy one for me, if I wanted, but I wasn’t sure I really wanted one. It was, after all, a far cry from playing with my grandchildren and I wondered whether, doing it on my own, would interest me as much. So we left the shop empty handed.
A few weeks later, I changed my mind and said I did, quite, want a dolls' house, though I still didn’t feel very strongly about it. Luckily, we had a dolls' house shop down the street from where we lived so we went to see what was available. The owner, of what turned out to be a delightful Aladdin’s cave of miniatures, was very helpful and eventually I chose a Dolls House Emporium kit called ‘The Country Store”. It had a shop, of course, on the ground floor but I decided it should be a residential property only. This was the beginning of my adventurous journey into the world of miniatures and, even before my husband had started to build the house, I began gathering my doll characters together and buying the first bits and pieces that would make up their home. My imagination had been grabbed and there was no stopping me.
The DHE 'Country Store', now 1 Cambridge Terrace.
Adeline with Amy, Mason, and dog Millie.
Waiting for the house would have been very tedious for me if I hadn’t hit upon the idea of writing a book about the venture, from the viewpoint of one of the dolls destined to live there. I decided to write it in the form of letters to my granddaughters, now young women, under the amalgam name of ‘Miss Saunders’. The doll-writer of the letters was one which they had played with in the past. Adeline Brown, as I called her, was lovely with a china head and painted hair. She looked very gentle and modest and she was, and still is, my favourite dolls' house character. So the story began, with Adeline living in my china cupboard with her husband and baby, waiting for the day when she could inhabit her beautiful new home.
Ray and Adeline Brown relaxing with Marmie the cat. Note the ‘linen chest’ used as a coffee table; I made this in Balsa wood as my first effort of woodwork! I made the rug at their feet, too.
It is impossible to convey to anyone who isn’t a dolls' house enthusiast the excitement and fun I had during this time. I didn’t really believe that I would have enough to write about but the story grew each month and didn’t end until the house was finished and the Brown family was installed. There were all kinds of references in it to me and my own family. For instance, Adeline’s name was a bit like mine: Madeleine; her husband was a version of my own husband and some of the characters who made things or ‘wrote’ books for me were our children. Some of my contributors mentioned in the book, though disguised in amusing ways, had our surname: Smith, which made it all the more fun.
1 Cambridge Terrace - the interior.
During the writing of the book, I was also collecting all the necessary items for a comfortable little home for the Browns. I didn’t attempt to make much myself because I knew I was not skilled enough. However, opportunities arose and I was able to make a sofa for the dining room-cum-kitchen; a special linen chest to be used as a coffee table in the sitting room [my first attempt at woodwork], and a desk for Mason, the boy doll. I also made several simple tapestry rugs, my own woolly jumpers and cot blanket, besides various smaller pieces such as a toy aeroplane and goldfish.
The Christmas table. This also shows the small, pretty carpet that my daughter made for me - every stitch of it. One can also see the first sofa I ever made and the white figurines I made out of two tiny toy soldiers, I turned the broken one into a woman, with added clay.
Look what I can do, says Mason, on the computer.
Adeline gets Amy out of her cot.
Whilst producing pictures on the computer to illustrate the book, from my own photographs, I also discovered how to make tiny book covers, food packets and miniature photographs of the dolls. For instance, I made a photo of Adeline and her husband on their wedding day, using the tricks I had learnt in Photoshop. It seemed that nothing I had done in the past, with my grandchildren and on the computer, had gone to waste. Here was I being creative in the most basic way and achieving, to my mind, very satisfactory results.
When my book was finished, I had some copies of it made and bound by a proper firm so that it looked like a real publication. I was so thrilled, and gave them to members of my family, and one friend, keeping just one copy for myself. My fond hope is that the dolls house, which I call ‘No.1 Cambridge Terrace’, will survive, with the book, and be handed down in the family for at least a hundred years – or, possibly, that both will end up in a museum. Whatever happens to them, I hope that someone in the future will be able to enjoy what I have created.
It wasn’t long after finishing No.1 Cambridge Terrace that I was tempted to buy another house kit and this time, I chose The Dolls House Emporium’s ‘Holme Lodge’, which I re-named ‘Rowan Lodge’. My husband helped me by building the shell of the house and putting in the electrics but, now, I felt confident enough to do all the decorating inside and out, including painting and fitting the windows and doors [with just a little help]. This should, perhaps, have been a tedious job but I found it very pleasant. I took my time and day-dreamed about the little family [already bought] that would inhabit it and the kind of surroundings that would suit them. It was a very peaceful experience and very unlike the exciting time I had had with the creating of the first house.
DHE ‘Holme Lodge’, now ‘Rowan Lodge’, the home of the Potts family. Photo © Ray Smith
The kitchen of Rowan Lodge is a favourite room of mine. I made the cushions and oven pad as well as the curtains. I also ‘made’ the plates on the top shelf of the dresser. I used little paper plates over which I stuck miniaturised photos of my own plates. It was an idea that I thought might not work but I was so pleased with them; I think they look like real plates and, of course, they are a reminder of my own.
The dining room of Rowan Lodge. On the wall is a picture of Alice in her wedding gown, which I engineered by taking a photo of the dress and veil on a stand. I then put Alice’s head and hands in the appropriate places, with a bouquet. I also covered a cheap sofa to make it fit for the dining room and covered the piano stool to match. Photo © Ray Smith.
The tiled hallway of Rowan Lodge. I used ready-printed tiles for this.
Rowan Lodge is still not fully finished. I have yet to do a little work on the front of the house and some touches are still needed for the inside, such as pictures for the walls of the dining room, and shelves with a few choice items on them for the sitting room. However, I now have a reason to add just one more little house to my collection, because I am keen to pass them on to my daughters and the elder, Jane, who will have Cambridge Terrace, will almost certainly want to pass it down to one of her two daughters. Therefore, it stands to reason, I say, that I have to have another house so that, eventually, both girls may have one, should they wish. So, I bought a Wodham’s kit of ‘Hollyhock Cottage’. So far, I have only attempted to dry-build this little house but I can see it is going to be absolutely delightful. Now that I am a little more skilled at working in miniature [I say this with fingers crossed behind my back] and because this little house has not so many finished features, I am looking forward to adapting it more to my own ideas. This house, for instance, has only cut-out windows with no frames, so I must buy or make my own. They are all in the front, as with most dolls houses, and I am keen to make a long window in the side of the sitting room, hopefully with a window-seat, and also a small window in the kitchen. I am hoping to make false walls inside, so that it looks as though the walls of the cottage are very thick. The time to make Hollyhock Cottage into a reality may be a few years away but, needless to say, I have already bought and dressed the little family who will live in it, along with most of their goods and chattels.
Before I can get down to my third little house, however, I have an addition to make up for No.1 Cambridge Terrace. When we bought the house, we were given a free basement kit. I have mentioned the basement in my book and had decided that it should at least accommodate Adeline’s sister-in-law, Ishbel, who is always on hand to help her with the cooking and the household chores. In reality, I never thought it would ever be made; it all seemed too much to do. I work in very cramped surroundings and have been worried that I would not have space to build my third house, let alone the basement. But, one happy day, I found I did have space to work properly. No.1 Cambridge Terrace was put on to an old tea trolley nearby, leaving a lovely clear gap – so I immediately filled it with the basement kit! I felt that it was important to complete Cambridge Terrace in total, as promised in the book, before I worked on Hollyhock Cottage.
The basement of 1 Cambridge Terrace: Ishbel's living room cum kitchen. The ‘china service’ is Clarice Cliffe, by DHE. (A great deal of furniture, fixtures and fittings in my houses are from DHE. I like their quality and prices.) I made the cushions and table runner, as well as the fire place and grate (not the fire surround [mantlepiece] though).
The picture over the fireplace is a real painting. I visited an art show in Cambridge where, amongst all the normal sized paintings there was a small group of miniatures. Naturally, I bought one. The artist, who is a friend of my daughter Jane [also a part-time artist], later asked if she could have a copy of Ishbel’s room to show how the painting was displayed; I was quite honoured!
Every time I am faced with the bare MDF walls of what is virtually a box for a room [in any of the houses], I wonder how I can ever make it look part of a home. But I dream and cogitate and go and browse in the dolls house shop down the road and, gradually, everything falls into place. I do think that it is very important to fit the home to the characters of the dolls. Cambridge Terrace is a lovely home but it isn’t particularly stylish. It is comfortable and fits the Browns' needs like a glove; I love every bit of it! I am trying to fit the surroundings of the basement flat to suit Ishbel’s personality. Unlike her sister-in-law, she is quite sophisticated so I am thinking all the time about style and colour. So far Ishbel has a beautiful red sofa and armchair, a mainly red Turkish rug on the floor, which is otherwise carpeted in mushroom. The fireside wall is papered in a brilliant red poppy design and the rest are painted cream. She has a superb Smallbone kitchen unit in a sort of petrol blue, which one wouldn’t think would go in the same room as a red suite, but which looks wonderful. Her Clarice Cliffe china placed on top and on the coffee table by the sofa, adds to the sophistication of the scene. What I will do with her bedroom is, at the moment, more than I can say because I do not know!
Ishbel's bedroom in her basement flat, so far. Photo © Ray Smith.
I made the bed - this is what it looked like before I covered it, a simple idea of mine that I could dress up to look quite pretty.
Nigel and Alice Potts with their children: baby Grace and twins Mary and Ben.
My doll family for Rowan Lodge consists of Alice and Nigel Potts and their children: baby Grace and the twins, Ben and Mary. I bought the twins first; they were from Heidi Ott and were wonderful, I thought. Mary, initially had very long plaits but I cut them shorter, to make her more English. I dressed the dolls myself, very simply. I found it easy because I had spent a lot of time in the past dressing dolls for my two daughters. I made Ben a knitted suit cut from a piece of old knitwear and Mary a pretty green dress. At the time, I didn’t know that Heidi Ott made shoes for their dolls, so I encased their little bare feet in boots, which I made out of air-drying clay. These looked good enough, I considered, and could be interpreted as either soft leather indoor slippers or boots for outdoors.
Baby Grace in her pram.
The Potts twins playing in their bedroom. Photo © Ray Smith.
I bought the twins’ parents as kits from a website and they were very beautiful, especially Alice. [Baby, Grace was bought, later, fully formed, from the same place]. This was only my second attempt at making dolls from kits so I was a little apprehensive. For instance, whereas Ray Brown, the first doll kit, had painted hair, I had to make wigs for these two, which was a new experience. I have never been a very careful person and, as I may have said before, my skills are very basic but, by choosing the simplest of styles, I managed to wig the dolls to my total satisfaction. I dressed both little figures, initially, in jumpers and trousers but kept changing my mind so ended up making several different outfits, which I photographed each time.
Adeline and Ishbel go on an outing to the shops, via the piano top. I made all the clothes - as you can see, because it is not precise and neat but I like it.
Ishbel preparing the Christmas tea with Millie looking on hopefully.
Photography is, in fact, very much part of this hobby, as far as I’m concerned. One of my greatest pleasures has been posing the different families at different stages of their existence so that I have a record of them and their homes. In Cambridge Terrace Adeline is seen preparing the baby for a shopping trip with Ishbel, or displaying the pretty dress and shoes that she wore when she first met her husband, Ray. Amy, the baby can be seen playing with her toys, either in her high chair or on the floor by her mother’s feet. Ray is coming home from work with his briefcase, being greeted by son Mason, or bending to stroke one of the dogs, as well as sitting patiently in the unfinished dining room with Amy on his knee, while the women of the house are busy in the kitchen. Ishbel, Ray’s sister, is rushing about busily preparing meals or making cups of tea. And there are many more snapshots of them than can be described here.
Christmas morning - time for giving presents. The tiny paper chains were made by my daughter, Jane.
When the Potts came to Christmas tea with the Browns: Adeline Brown with baby Amy and Alice Potts with baby Grace; Alice’s daughter, Mary, is playing with her new doll’s pram. A neighbour’s little girl looks on.
Mason in his room with friend Ben [Mary’s twin] playing trains.
I couldn’t resist taking a picture of the Potts family going home from visiting the Browns, with Grace using Amy’s pram because it was cold.
The family in Rowan Lodge have also been extensively photographed and, because of their more easily pose-able limbs, have looked pleasingly more realistic. My favourite picture has been of teatime in the kitchen with Alice and the twins, though a Christmas scene in the sitting room comes very near to its [to my mind] perfection.
Christmas in Rowan Lodge. I made the actual fire from a magazine article.
Alice Potts getting Grace out of the cot. Photo © Ray Smith.
As in the Cambridge Terrace project, a story of the family: what they have thought, said and done, has unfolded in my mind. However, this time, instead of writing a full-sized book about them, I wrote a miniature one. This project was utterly delightful in the doing. I had wanted, for some years, to find out how I could print a 1/12th size miniature book with printing on both sides of a page – like a real book has and, suddenly, I managed to work it out! The result was “A Dollshouse Story” all about the Potts family. Needless to say, the book is now on the bookshelf in the twins’ bedroom, as well as in the bookcase at Cambridge Terrace.
The books I made are: The Baby Princess, A Dollshouse Story, The Little Hen, The Felt Fairy, The Nursery Rhyme book and the ‘paperbacks’ i.e. First Picture Books and a Dinosaur book [not my illustrations]. Also in this photo, at the back left are some printed books that I bought. Behind the Peter Rabbit book is a book of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. The little red aeroplane that I made for Mason is to the right of Peter Rabbit. Behind is the lovely handbag which belongs to Adeline of Cambridge Terrace. Her husband Ray’s shoes are not very clear but they are exquisitely made, as are Adeline’s golden party shoes (see below).The last three items were bought from a wonderful miniaturist but I can’t find her name now. Detail of photo © Ray Smith.
The breakthrough in miniature book-making set my creative juices flowing yet again and I proceeded to write and produce more little books: “The Felt Fairy” was based on a pink felt Christmas Tree fairy that I bought one year. “The Little Hen” was based on email ‘conversations’ I had with my sister in Australia about the antics of her hens. “The Baby Princess” just popped into my head when my sister sent me a tiny baby doll she had dressed, ready for my third little family, the Simmons. Lastly, I made a book of Nursery Rhymes, which I illustrated myself. My artistic ‘competence’ surprised me but I suppose it was, almost certainly, the result of all those years of drawing when I was much younger – as well as the inspiration gained from the many illustrations of rhymes that I have seen in the past: in my own and my children’s books. I am inordinately proud of each of these small publications – overweeningly so, I’m afraid, but I don’t care! It is a wonderful feeling to create something from your own imagination – as good as being a ‘proper’ author or artist, I think.
Some of the drawings I did for the Nursery Rhyme book.
At the front are a few books handwritten for me: My sister-in-law wrote about her menagerie, one granddaughter wrote about Fashion and her friend wrote ‘A Tail of a Horse’ about her own horse who had, eventually to be put down through injury. I wrote about wild flowers. Most books aren’t fully finished, actually, as it is very hard work. At the left back are examples of some of the ‘books’ I covered. I love the Greater Oxford Dictionary, the cover copied from our own full-size book, and ‘How to be a Miniaturist’, which I thought was a fun thing to do. Detail of photo © Ray Smith.
Three needlework boxes I made [which are actually covered tin boxes]. In the middle is a rag doll which I made many years ago. I made Adeline’s party dress from a lace cuff; it goes in her wardrobe with her golden party shoes.Detail of photo © Ray Smith.
Some of the things I have made, bought, and been given. Photo © Ray Smith.
See Maddy's follow-up article: On Being a Dolls House Enthusiast, Part 2, in the next issue.