Small is beautiful in the new Norwich Castle exhibition about dolls’ houses
PUBLISHED: 09:03 02 March 2017 | UPDATED: 08:31 07 March 2017
Archant Norfolk 2017
Visitors will be able to take a peek inside some rather special dolls’ houses in the latest exhibition at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery. Arts correspondent Emma Knights reports.
They say moving house is one of the most stressful experiences, so imagine what it would be like if you had 12 homes to transport.
For the last three weeks that is exactly the complicated task the exhibition team at Norwich Castle has faced, with some very special properties that are miniature in size.
As they have been carefully unpacking the dozen exquisite homes and the 2,000 pieces of tiny furniture and other items that collectively come with them, the members of the exhibition team have been preparing for the show Small Stories: At Home in a Dolls’ House.
It opens on Saturday and features some of V&A Museum of Childhood’s most treasured dolls’ houses and their pocket-sized inhabitants.
Cathy Terry, senior curator of social history at Norfolk Museums Service, said it was a real coup for the city to host the show which has also visited Finland and Washington DC in America.
Together the collection takes visitors on a journey through 300 years of dolls’ houses, the history of the home, everyday lives and changing family relationships.
And if you think dolls’ houses - or baby houses as they were referred to in earlier times - are simply child’s play, then think again.
Ms Terry explained: “Initially the 18th century dolls’ houses weren’t intended for children at all, they were more of a fashionable hobby for wealthy adults, but by the 19th century the idea of play becomes much more current, and with industrialisation more products were being made and more people were able to afford what was being produced.”
About the 12 houses on show, Ms Terry said: “They really do exemplify changing household styles, changing attitudes from the early 18th century through to the present day. There’s a wealth of delights you can pick out, there’s so many themes to explore, and what the V&A curators have done is tell these stories not just through showing what is inside the houses but also using by audio visual stories [of the characters who live or work in the homes] too.”
Everything from a country mansion to a Georgian town house to a home on a council estate feature in the exhibition and, displayed chronologically, they also show developments in architecture and design.
One of Ms Terry’s favourites is the beautiful Tate Baby House which dates from 1760 and was passed down five or six generations of a family. Its associated story centres on the rising status of three generations of Georgian women, and one of the featured rooms is a lying-in room for a lady who is with child.
“It’s an example of the finest 18th century baby houses at the time...Looking inside you can see scenes referencing 18th century ladies’ roles in the household,” she said.
Another highlight is the Killer House, a gift from surgeon John Egerton Killer to his family in the 1830s. He had the house created within a Chinese-style cabinet and Ms Terry said it was thought the decorating of the house became a hobby for the whole of the family. It is lavishly appointed with gilded wallpapers, a four-poster bed and liveried servants, and its story in the exhibition focusses on the servants’ ongoing struggle for cleanliness and hygiene in the industrial city.
Also on show is the Whiteladies House from 1935, which features a more modern and more relaxed way of life. Designed by artist Moray Thomas, it is said to correspond to the Modernist country villas emerging in Hampstead at the time. Its story focuses on a house party and the house features chrome furniture, a cocktail bar, artworks by British Futurist Claude Flight, and even a swimming pool.
Meanwhile The Hopkinson House, made by Roma Hopkinson in the 1990s, is based on a house in the London County Council St Helier Estate during the Second World War. Within the house there are miniature gasmasks, ration books and torches for the blackouts.
Ms Terry said: “It’s based on the council house Roma Hopkinson was born in. It’s really her recollections, looking back on her childhood in the war.”
One of the most contemporary homes is the bright Kaleidoscope House created in 2001 by artist Laurie Simmons and architect Peter Wheelwright for Bozart Toys in America. With its colourful, see-through walls, it is like no other house in the exhibition and its associated story is that it is home to a design conscious family living in the new millennium.
The exhibition has many more miniature homes and stories to explore, and Norfolk Museums Service is also using the show to highlight its own related collection on display at nearby Strangers’ Hall in Norwich.
“We have a very fine collection at Strangers’ Hall of children’s toys, books, games and dolls houses,” said Ms Terry, adding that the key highlight was the 18th century Norwich Baby House which has undergone special conservation work ahead of the exhibition and would feature a more local story than the houses on display at the castle.
“It’s the story of a Norwich family, we imagine they have made their money in textile production and they are going to be entertaining for the evening,” she said, adding that the story was inspired by a wonderful minature dinner set made from blue and white Staffordshire pottery in the baby house’s kitchen.
Other toys and miniature items from the Strangers’ Hall collection will also be on display throughout the historic building, and there will be a themed trail as well as a special programme of events and displays.
When asked why she thought dolls’ houses made such interesting subjects, Ms Terry said: “I think they offer so much to many different types of people, from serious collectors to students of design and fashion.
“One of the things about dolls’ houses is that they are supposed to give you the chance to manipulate your own world...you have got the chance to be really, really creative in the way that you want them and I think that’s very much a feature of child’s play...for other people it’s about the process of miniaturisation and how small things are so beautiful.”
Small Stories: At Home in a Dolls’ House opens at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery on Saturday and runs until June 25.
For more on the exhibition, including opening times, the sister exhibition at Strangers’ Hall in Norwich, and the programme of special activities related to the exhibitions, visit www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk
See our Family pages tomorrow for a feature on Dream House 2017, the finale of Small Stories: At Home in a Dolls’ House which features miniature rooms created by Norfolk architects, artists, makers, students and school groups.