A Lifetime's Passion
by Angela Bulteel (Part 1)
I remember one day in my early teens, passing the building society in town and seeing displayed open in the window a wonderful old dolls house, apparently loaned by a local resident. I had never seen one before, and took every opportunity to pass fascinated by the myriad tiny pieces. As a child, I had always loved anything miniscule and would display my treasures on any available surface in my room, much to the annoyance of my poor mother who had to dust them. However it wasn’t until my late 30s when I madly spent an insurance policy proceeds on a couple of antique dolls and then later, met a new friend who collected dolls and antique houses that I became an avid collector.
Over the years I have bought a number of lovely houses, but like most collectors, filtered them down, as one’s tastes invariably change, and I now have just four that I cherish, but also the display cabinet of items waiting for that illusive next house.
Probably the earliest house in my collection is Miss Halley’s House, handed down from mother to daughter in the same family since the1820s. I had gone to a local auction to view a “late Victorian dolls house with contents”, but one look in the kitchen with it’s spit rack proudly fixed above the fireplace and the accompanying brick ovens in the recesses, my heart skipped a beat. This was so obviously earlier.
The contents were scattered in heaps in the rooms, and I soon picked out early kitchen ware, a tiny vertebrae tea set, china dolls with wooden jointed bodies, so many gorgeous little things my hands shook as I picked them up. Needless to say I didn’t sleep a wink that night, spending the wee hours scrutinising relevant books, hungrily trying to improve my knowledge. Sadly, at the sale the next day, the price inevitably rocketed beyond my meagre means.
When I got home I was so miserable, I rang the auction house asking them to pass on my phone number to the buyer, in case he was splitting the contents and selling them on. As luck would have it, he rang me back explaining he was a dealer who just fancied having it in his shop for a while and it was for sale.
My husband took pity on me and offered to help me pay for it. So off to his shop we went the next day. The house filled his entire small window, and all the contents were laid out in front of it in rows. What a feast! The dealer, realising my passion, kindly offered me the house and contents for only a fraction more than he had paid, and so, with all packed in my small car, I drove my wonderful acquisition home, slowly, with fear and trepidation of an accident damaging my precious cargo.
It’s a lovely dollshouse, and I have spent much time finding out about the previous owners. Miss Halley’s father was a curate and later a vicar, so is fairly well documented, and ironically, shortly after buying the house I managed to find a wooden doll dressed in a vicar’s outfit. Quite apt I thought.
Many of the contents date from the early 19th century up to about 1870, being added to by various generations of little girls.
Interestingly Miss Halley, in her final years signed over the house she lived in and it became a nursing home, allowing her to remain cared for in her own home until she died. I have in fact driven past the house in Berkshire once or twice.
I was fortunate enough to speak to the sister in charge, who told me Miss Halley was a real tartar, and had stipulated, the dolls house remain with her in her bedroom. She did allow the nurses an occasional peep inside, though none were allowed to touch, explaining that as a child, she was only permitted to play with it on very special days. The sister described her touchingly, as a “true Victorian lady”.
The dollshouse façade has a beautiful painted clock on the pediment, and inside, the 6 rooms and stair cases were never papered, the walls being painted in lovely pale regency colours, and the house still has the original pretty home made spotted muslin curtains trimmed with pale blue silk ribbon.
Some of the furniture is early English, simply made wooden items with a darkish brown finish, the beds still have their home made bedding and there are lovely early “Duncan Phyffe” pieces.
The kitchen, which I consider the most interesting room, sports a pair of hand made orange wax candlesticks, a rare tinder box, a Dutch oven, meat hastener, lots of metal plates some pierced and painted, and so much more.
There are gorgeous grodnertal dolls, two dressed in the finest of pin tucked clothing, lying in cradles draped in muslin and lace.
Other lovely dolls include a man in white with sword with pale bisque head and wooden articulated body, there are porcelain and china maids, mistresses, babies, all lovingly dressed by generations of young owners.
There are numerous pictures including a matching set of 6 regency frames with hand coloured subjects, others include a hand painted sketch of whom I suspect is Miss Halley’s aunt, and a photo of Miss Halley as a small child.
There are tiny ivory urns with lids, inside one is a rosary so minute, it is difficult without a magnifying glass to see that the “chain” is in fact threaded minute glass beads, too small to measure. But probably the most touching piece is a tiny home made bird’s nest with 3 wax baby birds peeping out expectantly, hung in the corner of the top landing. It brings a lump to my throat!!
I am so lucky to own this delightful, complete example of early English family life and history. It even contains a helpful list of contents written by Miss Halley in the 1930’s. A real treasure.
Another house I was lucky enough to buy from auction, is the Boys' House.
This dates from about 1840, heavy and chunky, rickety and cracked, and judging by the outlines on the side walls, once had extensions, probably a kitchen on the left as the marks of a large fireplace still remain, and a stable to the right.
The six remaining rooms did allow for the all important kitchen to be accommodated. The lower left room is not as deep as the others, so one can walk to the back of the main hall, turn left behind the room, down a passage to an outside door, which originally, I suspect, lead into the long since lost kitchen extension. The larger room on the right I chose for the new kitchen despite the patterned wall paper.
At this same auction, I also bought a separate lot of furniture and chattels, which a gut feeling told me belonged with the house and I was right. Although it contained some cheap1940s furniture, it also had a few very early pieces, and on closer examination at home, oh joy of joys! I found a small letter about the large house, detailing that it was made in the 1840s for two boys, ancestors of the writer, and ends with “and here it is, not very grand at all.” It seems the dollshouse accompanied the letter writer and her siblings, from London to the country, when they were evacuated during the 2nd world war.
Needless to say, to me at least, the house is very grand indeed and years of collecting have enabled me to add many suitable pieces to those which survived, hopefully give the overall impression of a much loved and lived in house of the early Victorian period and when one opens the doors, the slightly musty, aged smell, exudes and always thrills.
The extremely tatty and torn wall paper is original, and it would appear there was little choice available to the boys as many of the rooms sport the same pattern.
Again, this house had early kitchen ware, an Evans and Cartwright round table, a wonderful dresser, a plate rack, hanging shelf, and a chest of drawers probably 1880’s but looks perfect.
There was also, incongruously, a sea shell hanging by a nail on the wall! I didn’t keep the out of place 1940s pieces, but drew the line at discarding the old sea shell, probably collected, treasured and lovingly placed by a child, decades ago.
Indeed, the pleasure of these old houses often lies in the surprising things that have been utilised by previous little fingers, and I would always advise (albeit humbly) that collectors think carefully when sifting through new acquisitions, and removing the dross. It is often the silly unimportant things, which make the whole, so utterly charming. I always keep in mind, that I’m collecting children’s toys, and as such, a child’s idea of perfection. There is nothing more dispiriting, than looking into an old house and finding only the best displayed therein, in immaculate condition and no fripperies. The true atmosphere of the treasured house is surely lost forever.
You can read 'A Lifetime's Passion (Part 2) by Angela Bulteel' here.