How to begin collecting dolls' houses

12 August 2010
imports_CCGB_sidcookedollshousesha_98817.gif Sid Cooke Dolls Houses has a good range of shops for miniaturists.
An introduction to dolls' house collecting. ...

If you ever thought that dolls’ houses were just for elderly ladies and little girls of primary school age, it’s time to radically overhaul that assumption. These days, people of all ages enjoy this absorbing pursuit and, hard as it may be for some to believe, a fair proportion of them are male.

Admittedly, without a thorough understanding of the different facets of the dolls’ house and miniatures hobby, it is difficult to grasp why any burly bloke would willingly become involved in something that at first glance seems fairly steeped in femininity. So, to get a handle on why thousands of individuals – male and female, young and old – are gripped by dolls’ house fever throughout the western world, it helps to examine the different ways in which it is possible to participate in the hobby.

Why dolls’ houses?

People are drawn to dolls’ houses for different reasons. For some, there is a strong element of wish fulfilment; if they can’t actually live in the home of their dreams, then producing a miniature version of it could be the next best thing. In contrast to the compromises we all have to make when planning our real homes, the world is your oyster when it comes to doing up a dolls’ house – there’s no need to consider the taste of a minimalist spouse or provide a playroom for the kids. In your own miniature house, your preferences and whims are paramount so if you desire a French country kitchen, a Chinoiserie dining room, an Arts and Crafts bedroom and a bathroom with a free-standing roll-top bath, there’s no reason not to have them.

Other dolls’ house enthusiasts have a keen interest in history and are drawn to the idea of creating authentic room settings in their favourite period style. The closest most of us ever get to an ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ lifestyle is watching costume dramas on television or visiting National Trust houses, but recreating a period home in miniature gives us the opportunity to become immersed in the domestic arrangements of a bygone era. It can be very rewarding to research interior styles and trends and to ensure anachronisms are not allowed. For example, a true history buff would never put a teddy bear in a Victorian nursery (because the teddy was not invented until November 1903) or permit a doll wearing a crinoline to take up residence in a Regency setting.

The wish fulfilment brigade won’t worry about these things – anything goes in the homes of their dreams – but for the history buffs such details are crucial. Both types, however, frequently discover that dolls’ houses are dangerously addictive; as soon as their first house has been completed they may succumb to the temptation to move on to another one. The ‘dream home’ makers will have other fantasy rooms to create while the historians will want to try a different period.

When it comes to buying furnishings and fittings for their houses, there is unlimited choice for the wish fulfillers and the history enthusiasts. At the bottom of the price range are mass-produced items imported from the Far East. These pieces are generally robust and at first glance look perfectly acceptable, but on closer inspection flaws can be revealed – furniture may seem a bit clunky, wood colours might be overly bright and ceramic items might be potted rather too thickly to be elegant. In my opinion at least, they also sometimes have a slightly depressing uniformity about them. These are small niggles for items that generally represent good value for money but there are plenty of other options. The Internet is bristling with talented miniaturists who make and sell an unimaginable variety of items for dolls’ houses. Many exhibit at the numerous specialist dolls’ house fairs that take place throughout the length and breadth of the country, giving potential buyers the opportunity to see their products at first hand. Prices vary enormously; some will be comparable with the mass-produced imports but others can cost substantial sums of money. However, such prices are more than justified by the hours of highly skilled labour that go into creating finely crafted miniature pieces of furniture, silverwork and pottery.

Although it’s by no means a hard and fast rule, the dolls’ houses most suited to the needs of the wish fulfillers and the history enthusiasts are those readily available, brand new houses supplied either in kit form or pre-built but undecorated. The main advantage of a brand new house is that it allows maximum scope for decoration – interior and exterior – and even a bit of customising; it’s not uncommon for confident miniaturists to move a door or even relocate a staircase to suit their purposes. While some people do buy old or antique dolls’ houses to gut and then redecorate and furnish as they please, the majority of miniaturists observe the convention that period houses should be kept as much as possible in original condition.

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Restorers of vintage houses

This moves us neatly to another group of dolls’ house enthusiasts, those who ‘do up’ genuine period dolls’ houses. Restoration is a hugely popular branch of the hobby, although it does tend to have a slightly lower profile than the others. Depending on condition and rarity, period houses can be bought at relatively low cost – often no more and sometimes even less than a modern house of corresponding size – but the ongoing costs can be high. Actually, although projects of this sort can and often do become minor money pits, it is time that they guzzle most greedily because sourcing authentic materials and furnishings requires commitment and patience. Unlike modern reproduction houses that can be readily equipped via any number of specialist shops, online stores and independent craftspeople, vintage houses call for vintage fixtures and fittings that are not widely available and therefore take effort to locate.

So what type of person takes on the restoration of an antique dolls’ house? Apart from having a strong appreciation for objects from the past, they will probably be looking for an absorbing, long-term project requiring lots of research and hunting around on the secondary market. And a liking for gently shabby artefacts is pretty much a pre-requisite because few vintage dolls’ house items are found in pristine condition and those that are command the highest prices.

The DIY-ers

For some devotees of the dolls’ house hobby, the attraction is not buying the houses and miniature objects required to furnish them, but making them. Plans for making houses from scratch can be found in books and magazines or, for the less brave, there are house kits that can be made up according to the instructions or customised to the DIY-er’s own specifications. Once their houses are built, decorated and wired for lighting, the challenge is then to furnish them as completely as possible with things they have made themselves. At the highest level, this involves learning new skills such as wood-working, clay modelling, doll making and miniature embroidery to make sure the finished result looks as professional as a house that has been furnished with bought items.

Not everyone, though, has the dedication needed to master umpteen new skills and this is where DIY improvisation comes in. A low cost imported table, for example, can be stripped of its finish and re-stained or painted to make it look completely different. Similarly, a cheap doll can be divested of her somewhat tacky clothes and redressed in an outfit lovingly stitched from vintage silk and lace. Even everyday items can be pressed into dolls’ house service by eagle-eyed improvisers. When I was first involved in the hobby over 20 years ago, I found that painted toothpaste caps made excellent vases and plant pots. Many DIY-ers opt for mixing a few ‘high level’ objects they have created themselves with cleverly improvised items, and as there are no unbreakable rules in this hobby, they just might on occasion resort to using the odd shop-bought or vintage item.

Men and miniatures

There is nothing new about male interest in dolls’ houses. Titania’s Palace, one of the world’s finest miniature houses, was created by Sir Neville Wilkinson in the first part of the 20th century. Prompted by his small daughter’s fascination with fairies, Sir Neville oversaw every part of the palace’s design, construction, decoration and furnishing. He stipulated which woods were to be used – old mahogany for the main part and additional decorative woods for specific interior tasks – and he put his own artistic ability to good use by personally decorating much of the furniture and creating exquisite miniature paintings for the 16-room house. Titania’s Palace was unveiled to the public in 1922, two years before an even more famous house was put on display at the British Empire Exhibition. The idea for that palatial residence, Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, was conceived by a royal princess but the person responsible for its design was none other than the celebrated architect Sir Edwin Lutyens.

At a more modest level, fathers have been lovingly constructing dolls’ houses for their children for over a century. As a small child I once discovered my own father, never the most practical of men, toiling away in an attempt to create a dolls’ house for my older sister’s birthday. He never completed it – the birthday arrived before he’d managed to make the roof – but the point is that even my father, a man more at home with a book in his hand than a saw, at one time felt the urge to build a dolls’ house. If such a totally non-handyman failed to resist the attraction of dabbling in miniature house construction, what chance is there for those more gifted in craftwork? Surely it’s no surprise that men used to making models for their elaborate train settings often venture into the dolls’ house hobby. Their involvement might stem initially from a request for help from a wife or daughter but once they enter the magical world of dolls’ houses and miniatures, there’s often no going back.

Not just houses

It differs for everyone but after decorating and furnishing a number of miniature properties, the whole process can begin to seem a little humdrum. This is when dedicated miniaturists look around for a new challenge and happily for them, there’s no shortage of less conventional properties on the market. The most common departure from a straightforward house is a shop but these days it is also possible to buy small-scale schools, churches, barns, market stalls and even pubs. Given enough space, a committed miniaturist could go on to create an entire village. It would take time, money and dedication but for a worthwhile leisure activity, it certainly beats watching TV!