The Dolls' House at Uppark

Visitors looking at dolls' house at Uppark, West Sussex

The 18th-century dolls' house at Uppark is one of the most historically important in the country, and one of only a handful that have survived from the era in such good condition.

Where did it come from?

It was originally made for the Lethieullier family and came to Uppark after Sarah Lethieullier married Sir Matthew Fetherstonhaugh in 1746. Although little information about the origins of the dolls' house exists today, it is believed to have been made in the 1730s.

Built in the style of a Palladian mansion, the house features three floors topped by a balustrade and seven classical figures, with the Lethieullier coat of arms on the central pediment. It features four bedrooms, two reception rooms, and three rooms 'below stairs' for the servants.

The 18th-century dolls' house at Uppark
The dolls' house at Uppark, West Sussex
The 18th-century dolls' house at Uppark

Finely decorated interiors

Just like the house it now stands in, the rooms are filled with delicate porcelain, imported silks, fine furniture, and Flemish-style oil paintings.

The chairs are richly carved from mahogany and ivory with silk and leather seat cushions, the furniture carries intricate inlays and real marble tops, the silverware is hallmarked, and the candles are real - the glass hoods suspended from the ceiling are to prevent smoke stains.

The Principal Bedroom in the dolls' house with a mother lying in as a nurse tends the baby in the wicker cradle.
Close view of the Doll's-House, kept in the Stewards Hall at Uppark, West Sussex
The Principal Bedroom in the dolls' house with a mother lying in as a nurse tends the baby in the wicker cradle.

Upstairs, downstairs

As a product of its time, there is a clear divide between those who lived upstairs and the servants below. The grandest furniture and finest decorations are reserved for the upstairs rooms as you'd expect, but the dolls themselves reveal a clearer distinction. The Lords and Ladies are made from wax and dressed in fashionable fabrics trimmed with gold thread, whereas the servants are more robustly made from wood and wear far simpler clothing.

The Kitchen of the dolls' house with shelving holding pewter plates and copper pans.
Close view of the Doll's-House, kept in the Stewards Hall at Uppark, West Sussex
The Kitchen of the dolls' house with shelving holding pewter plates and copper pans.

What was it for?

Some dolls' houses were created as extravagant play-things for young children, but the remarkable condition of Uppark's example and the fact the dolls do not have articulated limbs allowing them to be posed means this is doubtful in this case.

Other 'baby houses' were intended as a teaching aid, perhaps to instruct a future lady of the house about the running of a large household. However, since many of the rooms required are missing, particularly the service areas, this also seems unlikely.

A third possibility is that the house was an elaborate curiosity, an exquisitely detailed display of wealth and taste to be admired by Sarah and her friends.

It's not clear if it was purchased as a whole or if its contents were added over time, making the acquisition of new items a pastime of its own. The copper pots and pans in the kitchen are out of scale with the rest of the house, possibly lending weight to this argument.

Even the kitchen table in the dolls' house is remarkably well detailed.
Close view of the kitchen table of the dolls' house at Uppark, West Sussex
Even the kitchen table in the dolls' house is remarkably well detailed.

Is it original?

We know from extensive paint analysis that the exterior of the house has been repainted twice, while the interior has been partially repainted once.

During construction, it seems a red brick effect for the façade was trialled but quickly rejected in favour of a simple cream-coloured oil paint.

The statues on top of the pediment were originally covered in glazed silver leaf to achieve a silver-gilt effect, although this has long since been lost in the subsequent redecorations. The present off-white paint is a lead-based formulation, which could have been applied any time before the 1940s. The Lethieullier coat of arms and the interior marbling to fireplaces and dining room niche are, however, original.

The Dining Room of the dolls' house with its marbled niche and fireplaces.
An interior from the Uppark Dolls House, West Sussex
The Dining Room of the dolls' house with its marbled niche and fireplaces.