Conserving the dolls’ house at Uppark

The dolls' house at Uppark

Exquisite items from Uppark’s 18th-century dolls’ house are back on display following its biggest conservation project in decades. Miniature four poster beds, curtains, carpets and chairs have undergone specialist cleaning and repair, at the National Trust’s Textile Conservation Studio in Norfolk. The dolls’ sumptuous but fragile costumes have also been treated, from gentlemen’s silk waistcoats to ladies’ petticoats and skirts, even the tiny satin outfit of a baby doll in a cradle.

How did you clean things?

Maria Jordan, conservation studio manager: “This dolls’ house wasn’t designed as a children’s play-thing; it was created to teach wealthy young women how to run a household, so it’s been well looked after over the years. But at nearly 300 years old, some of its delicate materials have started to degrade. This includes its four extraordinary four poster beds with silk damask hangings.”

Conservators gently removed surface dirt from the beds using low suction vacuuming tools followed by polyurethane sponges. Some items were ‘wet cleaned’ too, which involved soaking them in a tray to release dirt in the fabric’s fibres. A conservation grade detergent was then applied using a fine sponge to remove soiling that had built up over the years. 

Any discoveries?

Jane Smith, senior conservator: “Often, doing conservation work allows you to look at the objects really closely, and you discover things as you’re working. We were very excited with the red and yellow bed when we saw the top of the tester. The card on there is made from uncut Georgian playing cards. To see these lovely designs was a real find for us.”

What was the damage?

The dolls’ clothes – a gorgeous mix of printed cotton and elaborate and sophisticate silk brocades – required particularly gentle handling. Wear and tear had occurred where dolls had ‘perched’ on chairs, the creasing and folds in the fabric eventually causing splitting. Damage to the dolls themselves meant that the textiles were less supported too, and there was general wear on sleeves, cuffs, bodices, petticoats and coats. Trimmings had become unravelled, and caps were grubby and dislodged. Many items of clothing were pinned into place, and some of these original 18th-century pins had begun to corrode.  

Repairing stockings and petticoats

The aim of this conservation work was not just to improve the appearance of the dolls, but to prevent the textiles degenerating further. Surface cleaning included using a tiny museum vac and soft goat hair brush attachment. Footmen in frogged coats had a silk crepeline heat activated treatment applied over their legs to protect remnants of silk stockings. Tears in paper jacket linings were repaired with tinted Japanese tissue, held with bookbinder’s paste. Nadine Wilson, textile conservator: “This was extremely delicate work but the results were very satisfying.”

Dolls' clothes were gently cleaned with a tiny low suction vacuum cleaner
Dolls house doll being gently cleaned with micro vacuum cleaner
Dolls' clothes were gently cleaned with a tiny low suction vacuum cleaner

Sumptuous silk dresses belonging to the ladies of the house had become brittle and dry with age. They were made supple again with the use of a humidipen, making them safer to work on. Adhesive crepeline dealt with splits in the fabric, and silk petticoats were covered with a fine net to prevent more deterioration. New supports for each doll allow them to stand proudly, so that their clothes can be seen clearly, and the textiles are no longer crushed. 

After many weeks, the painstakingly repaired miniature pieces were carefully packed in acid free tissue paper, soft pads and bubble wrap roll to keep them safe on their journey back to Uppark. The conservation work doesn’t finish here though. Maria Jordan: “Each of the 400 items in the dolls’ house has been conditioned checked. When needed, we’ll carry out a similar level of specialist care on other pieces, to ensure this miniature work of art can be enjoyed by generations to come.”

Miniature silk bed hangings were gently cleaned
Conservator gently cleans yellow silk fabric on miniature bed with tiny vacuum cleaner
Miniature silk bed hangings were gently cleaned

This magnificent seven foot Palladian style mansion, which has been at Uppark in West Sussex since the 1740s, is one of the rarest and most historically important in the country. Its nine beautiful rooms display life for the family and for their servants, above and below stairs. Their contents, from hallmarked silverware and oil paintings in the dining room to copper pots and pans in the kitchen, were made with the same level of craftsmanship as their life-size counterparts in an 18th-century mansion.

Rooms are full of beautifully crafted items including hallmarked silver in the dining room
Uppark dolls house dining room with table, chairs, and servant dolls
Rooms are full of beautifully crafted items including hallmarked silver in the dining room