Conserving the dolls’ house at Uppark
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.
The Doll's House is currently closed
Due to essential conservation works, our Doll's House is currently unavailable for viewing. We apologise for any disappointment this may cause.
The rare dolls’ house at Uppark
This magnificent 7 ft 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.
How did you clean things?
Maria Jordan, Conservation Studio Manager, explains: ‘This dolls’ house wasn’t designed as a children’s plaything. 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.
Jane Smith, Senior Conservator, explains: ‘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 [part of a type of four-poster bed]. 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 mix of printed cotton and elaborate and sophisticated 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 vacuum cleaner and soft goat-hair brush attachment.
Footmen in frogged coats had a silk crepeline fabric 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, said: ‘This was extremely delicate work, but the results were very satisfying.’
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 humidifier, making them safer to work on.
Adhesive crepeline fabric dealt with splits in the fabric, and silk petticoats were covered with a fine net to prevent more deterioration. New supports for each doll allows them to stand proudly, so that their clothes can be seen clearly, and the textiles are no longer crushed.
Returning the dolls' house to Uppark
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 there though, as Maria Jordan explains: ‘Each of the 400 items in the dolls’ house has been condition-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.’
The Palladian-style 18th-century dolls’ house at Uppark is one of only a surviving few. Built on a grand scale, it features opulently decorated rooms and beautifully dressed dolls.
There is a network of historic paths at Uppark that have been covered over for many years. Find out about the work we are doing to restore them using old maps and photographs.
Explore over 400 years of history, from the early estate to the last owners. Discover when grand decorations and furnishings were added, and substantial renovations took place.