Simon McCormack, curator at Nostell, West Yorkshire, takes us into a miniature world and explains what it's like to look after one of the oldest dolls’ houses in the country. Dating from the 1730s, Nostell’s dolls’ house is one of only a handful surviving from the 18th century. A grand mansion in miniature, full of intricately crafted objects, the dolls' house is a microcosm of a real-sized house in more ways than one.
I’ve spent most of my professional life looking after large 18th-century properties, getting them in a better condition and enabling visitors to gain more enjoyment from them through improved interpretation. I am now working on another – but it’s rather smaller in scale, at only 6 feet (1.8m) high.
I never thought I’d be dealing with a house of such small proportions. I was also surprised to find that just because Nostell’s dolls’ house is small, it is by no means any less significant or challenging to care for. This perfectly crafted 18th-century artefact truly represents a grand house of the period and isn’t a mere toy. As we learned in 2019 when we embarked on an ambitious project to conserve and redisplay this miniature world, the Nostell dolls’ house also encapsulates many of the conservation issues we face in our real-sized interiors and collections.
A surprise discovery
Moving house can be stressful, can’t it? Moving the more than 150kg dolls’ house down Nostell's large cantilevered staircase to begin the conservation work was not without its challenges, but it also led to some exciting discoveries.
As we moved the dolls’ house across the front of Nostell I could swear I heard ringing in my ears. I was either having a medical emergency or there was a bell going off somewhere. Was it inside the dolls’ house?
My theory was later proved right when conservators found a bell hidden in the attic, visible only by carefully prising open the back boards. The little chain on the bell showed that it originally linked to a bell-pull in one of the rooms.
This kind of working feature suggests that historic dolls’ houses were used to practise household management. Upper class women would need to learn how to manage the domestic side of things, including keeping the servants in order. This explains features like bells that rang, candle snuffers and fire tongs that worked, and doors that could be opened and closed.
The dolls’ houses also offered a chance to practise the art of fashionable interior decoration. Nostell’s is truly a grand mansion in perfect miniature, from its tiny silver cups to its grand beds with elaborate drapery and trimmings, all made using the same materials as their real-life counterparts.
The mark of time
At nearly 300 years old, the dolls’ house and its contents have been subjected to the same forces that affect all historic objects, big or small. Textiles have been faded by light, glass and metalwork have been damaged by constant handling and decorative finishes such as polish on the fireplaces have been removed by over-zealous cleaning. Furniture has warped due to changes in relative humidity and pests have also affected the house, including woodworm in some of the floors.
To restore or conserve?
Just like a real-sized historic house, the conservation work raised the question of whether to conserve or to restore things to their original appearance. As so much of the contents is original, we took a ‘conservative’ approach, accepting later changes such as lost gilding and faded fabrics. We stabilised the deterioration and, where possible, we repaired later damage without altering or removing original materials and finishes. Generally speaking, this approach is also adopted in the real-sized houses we care for.
Giving the house a new home
As well as carefully conserving this miniature mansion, the other key aim of our project was to find a new home for our little house, one in which visitors could, for the first time, properly enjoy and explore its beauty, intricacy and fascinating stories.
We do not know where the dolls’ house was originally located. This underpinned our decision to opt for a museum-style redisplay in a bespoke exhibition space where the dolls’ house would be both better protected but also housed in an environment with far better visitor access.
Supporting interpretation explores the conservation of this wonderful artefact while also considering how it encapsulates in miniature so many aspects of grand house life from design, taste and fashion to social history. What better way to relive the original educational function of these miniature worlds for the audiences of today?