The Nostell Dolls' House
Only a handful of dolls’ houses have survived from the 18th century and the one at Nostell, West Yorkshire, is the only one you can see still in its original family home. An intricately crafted masterpiece with a unique connection to its life-sized surroundings, this is a grand mansion in perfect miniature.
Peer through the window into a past world
In the 18th century, dolls’ houses weren’t toys for children. Known as ‘baby houses’, they were used by aristocratic women in their teenage and adult years to learn how to run a country house, practice social etiquette and express their creativity.
From rehearsing how to take tea and manage servants to choosing clothes and curtains in the latest fashions, dolls’ houses were miniature worlds in which 18th-century life played out.
Unravel the history of the Nostell Dolls' House:
A prized family treasure
From the overall design to the tiny family crest on the Drawing Room fireplace, the many similarities between the life-sized and miniature house reflect perhaps how Susanna Henshaw hoped her new home would be furnished and run - a mood board for the full-scale house that stands proudly at Nostell today.
Sadly, Susanna died at the age of 32 from a complication of childbirth, and didn’t live to see her vision completed. We can see that later additions were made to the tiny treasure house, most probably by Susanna’s daughter-in-law, Sabine D’Hervart, who may well have put her own stamp on this family heirloom.
A marvel in miniature
As well as providing an educational tool for women, dolls’ houses like the one at Nostell were also symbols of wealth and status.
Just as the Winns filled their big house with treasures to impress their guests, no expense was spared in producing a highly crafted dolls’ house.
From doors with working locks, handles and hinges, to a hallmarked silver dinner set and tiny dolls’ dresses with three layers of petticoats, the extraordinary detail of Nostell’s dolls’ house sets it apart from the rest.
A fragile survival
At nearly 300 years old, Nostell’s dolls’ house is a remarkable survival, with investigations by National Trust advisers confirming that almost all the interior decoration is original.
However, it’s been subject to all the agents of deterioration that affect a real-sized house, which have taken their toll.
In 2019, Nostell launched a fundraising appeal to undertake vital conservation work on the dolls’ house and, thanks to generous donations from donors and the public, the team raised over £100,000 to bring this unique treasure back to life.
From petticoats and sleeves to bedspreads and curtains, experts at the National Trust conservation studio take care to gently preserve the intricate details that can be found in the textiles of the dolls' house. There's an array of different fabrics to look after, such as fine silks for the curtains, which appear to be made from offcuts of dress fabrics used at the time.
Each of the tiny fireplaces is constructed just like those at full scale. There are seven chimneys in the dolls' house, each likely to either be made from real Italian marble, local polished Ashford limestone or sandstone.
When they were originally made, they would have been polished with a natural wax such as beeswax. Over the years, this has attracted dirt, which conservationists clean away to protect the stonework for longer.
It's likely that the intricate furnishings throughout the dolls' house were all made by highly skilled craftspeople using very expensive materials – an indication that only the most wealthy in society at the time would own such a dolls' house.
Paper conservators at the National Trust also work to conserve the paper that was used to decorate the dolls' house. They take care to gently clean dirt that's been ingrained onto the surface of the paper.
It's important to remove this dirt, not only to restore the visual aspects of the paper used, but to also protect it from further pollutants which would cause faster ageing of the materials. Our experts use the exact same techniques and processes for the dolls' house that they would use to conserve life-sized houses.