Mansion in miniature: newly-conserved rare dolls’ house reveals 300-year-old secrets of British high society
One of the UK’s rarest dolls’ houses is the centrepiece of a new exhibition at the Yorkshire country house that inspired its creation.
The miniature version of Nostell, West Yorkshire, is one of only 12 surviving 18th-century dolls’ houses and the only one that visitors can see in the home it was designed for.
The grand mansion in perfect miniature has been painstakingly conserved down to the last tiny piece of intricate furniture, lavish wallpaper and hallmarked silverware. From 7th March it will be newly displayed in a bespoke, dramatically-lit gallery space so visitors can see every tiny detail as never before.
Specialists from the National Trust, which cares for Nostell, discovered almost all the interior decoration is original, with dozens of tiny masterpieces made at great expense by specialist carvers, silversmiths, upholsterers and painters in the 1730s.
Experts even uncovered a working servants’ bell and minute kitchen spit during much-needed conservation work to repair years of deterioration, from faded textiles and worn surfaces to woodworm-ridden floorboards – the same agents of deterioration that affect life-sized historic collections.
Nostell’s curator and exhibition creator Simon McCormack said: “Nostell’s miniature house is essentially a time capsule offering a window into the world of the 18th-century country house.
“Dolls’ houses were not playthings for children in the 18th century. Known as ‘baby houses’, they were part of women’s lives from early teens to adulthood as a key tool in education and self-expression; providing a space to explore design tastes, fashion, social rituals and household management.
“Later hands may have added new details, but this miniature world remains almost frozen in the 1730s when it was furnished by lady of the house Susannah Winn and her sister Katherine.”
From the overall design to the tiny family crest on the Drawing Room fireplace, the dolls’ house has many similarities to the life-sized house, suggesting it reflects how Susannah hoped her new home would be furnished and run. Crease lines and additional lines of stitch holes suggest some materials were repurposed from the furnishings of Nostell itself.
All of the objects in the 2m-high dolls’ house were made, and are now looked after, exactly as their life-sized equivalents would be. The National Trust’s Textile Conservation Studio Manager, Maria Jordan, one of the experts who worked on the conservation, marvelled at the dolls’ house’s quality and detail.
Maria said: “The grand beds – just 40cm high – are configured and made just as a real bed would have been made, from the carved headboards and bedframes to the exquisite lace trims, bolsters and valances.
“These are some of the smallest objects the studio has ever worked on and we have been amazed by the tiny stitches used to create, embroider or quilt the myriad of textiles in the house. Despite their size, we even found three little petticoats under each of the dolls’ dresses.”
The house was conserved with generous donations from visitors and donors.
Simon said: “I can’t thank enough those who donated to the project and played their part in conserving the dolls’ house to its former glory - creating a wonderful display for generations to come.”
Opening to the public on Saturday 7th March, Miniature Worlds unlocks the stories of the dolls’ house and offers insight into its conservation. The exhibition includes 3D digital animation, beautiful high-resolution photography and interactive activities for adults and children.
To accompany the newly displayed dolls’ house, a new book, The Nostell Dolls’ House, by curator Simon McCormack, will be launched on 24th March.
To find out more and discover the full 2020 programme at Nostell visit: www.nationaltrustorg.uk/nostell.