I attended Lucinda Lambton’s talk this January to the Historical Society in Hedgerley, her home village, as much for the attraction of seeing this colourful character in person as for the topic. However, her subject, the story of Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, turned out to be one of fascination.
This four-storey Palladian villa was constructed in 1/12 scale and is now a permanent exhibit at Windsor Castle. The House was inspired by Princess Marie Louise, Queen Victoria’s grand-daughter, who asked Lutyens, the architect of the Cenotaph, to build it for Queen Mary. Ironically, it has never seen a doll, being in fact one of the finest architectural models in the world. Built between 1921- 1924, it was intended that it should exhibit the finest of British workmanship of the period. As well as involving many of the country’s finest craftsmen, prominent artists, writers and musicians also made their contributions in miniature. The Dolls’ House provides a time capsule of royal splendour in the inter-war years, the final flourish of the British Empire, which had been at its zenith in the Victorian and Edwardian eras.
The whole venture was overseen by Sir Edwin Lutyens, the quintessential British architect of his time ,who was responsible for the building of New Delhi. Lutyens would even sign his extensive correspondence with Princess Louise as ‘Diminutively yours’. It proved to be a project that cost Lutyens dearly. The model in construction dominated his office and required the demolition of a wall to move it on its completion. It was initially built for the British Empire Exhibition in 1924 where it was seen by over a million people (another lasting legacy of this 1924 Exhibition was the old Wembley Stadium, the home of English football).
The Dolls’ House was dedicated to Queen Mary, a collector of miniatures, who always referred to it as ‘my house’. Lucinda told in passing a family story to illustrate Queen Mary’s well-attested kleptomaniac tendency – any hosts with good sense learnt to hide choice items in their homes before her visits.
While many of us may have viewed it at some time, it’s difficult to appreciate the exquisite detail and workmanship of Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House as one is quickly ushered past it in the dimly-lit setting at Windsor Castle. Lucinda Lambton’s beautiful images (photography was her initial profession) illustrated her lecture and revealed the House’s many glories. Over 60 artists and decorators were involved in its construction. The House itself contains hundreds of works of art. Miniature versions of their paintings were contributed by some of the leading artists of the time. Goscombe John contributed sculpted busts. Some of the finest writers of the era produced miniature, original works that are exquisitely bound in leather in the House’s walnut-paneled library. Those who contributed to making it a heritage piece include John Buchan, Conan Doyle, Robert Graves, Thomas Hardy, Aldous Huxley, Rudyard Kipling, A A Milne, Somerset Maugham and Siegfried Sassoon. Not everyone was prepared to contribute to this whimsical project, however, and George Bernard Shaw and Edward Elgar were amongst those who refused.
What amazes is its intricate detailing – the working electric lights and taps, the operative lifts, and the wide range of contents. There are miniature versions of then common household appliances, such as a Singer sewing machine, a Ewbank floor sweeper, and a Miramax fire extinguisher. On the kitchen table is a tin of Coleman’s Mustard and Lea and Perrins Worcestershire sauce. A box of Lux flakes stands by the kitchen sink.
A real showstopper are the tiny copies of the Crown Jewels, which lie behind the gate in the strong room. The Royal School of Needlework produced monogrammed linen and the Royal coat of arms on the bedheads. There is a working gramophone and an ivory toothbrush with its bristles made from the hair of a goat’s ear. Alfred Dunhill supplied miniature cigars and custom-made tobacco, while the jewelers Cartier built a long case clock for the marble hallway. In the cellar are hundreds of miniature bottles of the finest champagne, wines and beers including 200 bottles of Chateau Lafitte 1875 and five dozen bottles of Veuve Clicquot.
As well as the splendour of the Royal family’s apartments, the simpler servants’ quarters have true-to-life details, with wash stands and chamber pots in evidence. In the basement is a garage with places for six cars including a Daimler limousine and a model Rolls Royce, which even contains a miniature flask of whisky. Outside is a landscaped garden, designed by the famed Gertrude Jekyll, which even has a functional lawnmower.
Lucinda Lambton’s eclectic research made its usual quirky contribution. Thus we were informed that Mrs. Benjamin Guinness, one of the decorators of the Dolls’ House’s rooms, was also the founder of the Pekinese Club of America. This was altogether an eye-opener of a talk delivered by an unusually gifted speaker.
by Jeff Griffiths