A dolls’ house without dolls

A visit to an extraordinary dolls’ house this week suggested some of the differences between dolls’ houses and working models for theatre.

bw queen mary's dolls house

Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House is a spectacular dolls’ house, designed by Edwin Lutyens, and built between 1921 and 1924. It is at 1:12 scale, with murals by William Nicholson and Edmund Dulac, fully functioning hot and cold plumbing, lifts and electric lights. Two hundred miniature leather-bound volumes contain stories and poems written out by hand by the authors, including J.M Barrie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, A. E. Housman and Vita Sackville West. The gleaming pots and pans on the kitchen stove were made by the mechanics of Guy’s Hospital, hammered out of real gold to avoid the need for polishing.

A miniature garden designed by Gertrude Jekyll pops out of the plinth below the house, complete with lawn mowers, plant tubs and benches. The nursery contains miniature toys, including a steam train, soldiers and a theatre. The toy theatre is itself lit by electricity and contains two stage sets for Peter Pan. Lutyens was friends with J.M Barrie and designed the set of the night nursery for the first production of Peter Pan or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.

‘There is a great beauty in smallness’, says A.C. Benson in his introduction to the essays, inventory and catalogue gathered in the two volumes of The Book of the Queen’s Dolls’ House (1924). Benson writes that miniaturisation allows the viewer to take in more – to appreciate composition and juxtaposition at a glance – and at the same time to see less – to remain oblivious to the blemishes that are visible at full scale.

The dolls’ house was displayed at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley for seven months in 1924, and was seen by 1,617,556 people. It was then displayed at the Ideal Home Exhibition to raise money for the Queen’s charitable fund. Finally it was put on show at Windsor Castle.

On Monday 30 October, the doll’s house was specially opened for a group of 12 taking part in a writing workshop led by Lynda Waterhouse. Windsor Castle had closed to the public for the day. We were led over the cobbles in darkness, past the Round Tower, floodlit but silent.

On permanent display in a room designed for it by Lutyens, the doll’s house was this evening lit only by its own internal lights, bulbs no bigger than teardrops. Lynda read extracts from ‘The Haunted Doll’s House’, a story written by M.R. James for the library of the dolls’ house. Curator Beth Jones gave us each a torch to explore the rooms, picking out details, peering round corners to glimpse internal staircases and paintings on the walls.

We returned to another room to write. I was suffering a little from the rapid return to full scale and this room now seemed to resemble a scaled up miniature: spotless walls lined with flawless glass–fronted cabinets displaying sets of porcelain that would never be used. Here we wrote our own accounts of a haunted room and the adventures of a dolls’ house. The workshop was an extraordinary opportunity to view the dolls’ house at leisure, in evocative shadow and torchlight.

Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House is far from being an ordinary dolls’ house. Dolls’ houses designed for play are closer in some respects to the models used in theatre, but the design and research and construction of the house has many similarities with theatrical model-making.

1) Manipulation This house is now behind glass. There is no opportunity to pick up and rearrange items, whereas a working model for theatre – like a dolls’ house for play – is made for manipulation. But the idea of tiny things working, being manipulable, is far more important here than it is for a theatre model, where such questions come up in  discussion instead: ‘Is this light practical?’ ‘Will the windows open?’ Writers on the royal dolls’ house wonder at the tiny drawers that work freely, ‘like those of all the furniture in this well-organised house’ and marvel at the coffee grinder with a base barely 3/8ths of an inch square: ‘its little handle works! The tiny drawer into which the powder falls draws in and out, and has the smallest knob in the whole establishment, or indeed, I venture to say, in the whole world!’ [Note 1] Queen Mary’s dolls’ house is furnished with many items so tiny that they can only be picked up with tweezers – like a tube of toothpaste or a paintbox. (Images below from http://www.royalcollection.org.uk)

2) Inhabitants The house does not contain any human figures (though there is a dog and a cat, and in the garden, a snail), whereas the human figure is crucial to theatre set models. Although the drawers under the plinth were initially intended to house dolls, it was decided not to allow them into the house for fear they would dispel the illusion. E.F. Benson wrote, ‘the fact is that Dolls are hopelessly out of place in a Dolls’ House […] and the more beautiful the Doll’s House, the more are Dolls discordant and messy.’ [Note 2] Benson complained that dolls are not to scale and tend to fall over. They ‘might have fixed their glassy eyes on the pictures, but they would never have seen them’. In theatre, the model always anticipates its future occupation by humans who might need to climb stairs, open doors and sit on chairs, even though the figures might only be flat cut-outs.

3) Scale The scale of one inch to represent one foot used here is the scale of Lilliput in Gulliver’s Travels, and has become the standard scale for collectors’ dolls’ houses. It produces model rooms twice the size of those typically used in working theatre models (at 1:25; or 1:24 in the United States or for film). Practicality must be one reason for this choice: a model of a stage and auditorium at 1:12 would be very inconvenient and expensive to transport. In Germany, theatre and opera models are often half the size of UK models (at 1:50). It would be interesting to discover whether the different scales affect the choices about use of space. A smaller model presumably emphasises larger scenographic decisions, rather than detail and finish. In the construction and furnishing of dolls’ houses made for play, different scales are often mixed – to the disapproval of some collectors.

4) Materials This particular house is a cabinet displaying samples of ‘tiny craft’ rather than a play house. As in a journeyman’s piece, real materials are used: drops of real wine in the bottles, real slate on the roof and ‘two thousand tiny sections of veritable oak’ to make up the kitchen floor. Dymphna Ellis writes: ‘A fairy house, one might call it, except that mortal men have made it. Carpenters and artists, metal workers and weavers, all skilled workers upon the things of everyday life, who in this adventure have applied their art to producing real things of microscopic size.’ [Note 3] In a theatre model, the materials to be used in the eventual production need only be evoked.

However, the problems of working at small scale apply to theatrical model-makers too. In an essay on ‘The Effect of Size on the Equipment of the Queen’s Dolls’ House’, Mervyn O’Gorman notes that the properties of matter do not scale down when size is altered: fabric appears to be ‘slightly starched’, rather than hanging in natural folds, while liquids will not flow out of the tiny bottles.

beatrice hindley

Gertrude Jekyll points out the technical research and observation involved in model-making. The flowers and plants in the garden were made in ‘various kinds of metals’ by Miss Beatrice Hindley: ‘Many structural trials and experiments had to be made, and many tests of different kinds of paint to suit the metallic bases, before the desired effects were secured. The forms and colourings of the flowers were carefully studied at Kew’. [Note 4] Solid metal tree trunks were combined with real twigs from Dartmoor, and ‘every leaf has been bent into shape by hand.’

5) Historical record The Book of the Queen’s Dolls’ House includes a full inventory of each room with the names of all the makers and manufacturers, and a catalogue of the library and artworks. Essays, more or less whimsical in tone, describe the materials and design of each piece of furniture, each mural and even the unseen drawings stored in cases. Lucinda Lambton describes the house as ‘an exquisite little building, designed with serious intent by the great architect of the day and filled to its royal rafters with the work, in miniature, of the finest artists and artisans, craftsmen and manufacturers of early twentieth-century Britain.’ [Note 5] Harold Nicolson relishes the house as a time capsule of the period, documenting the everyday essentials that memoir writers neglect to mention, such as the Hoover and the carpet sweeper, and products like Lux soapflakes, Vim and Colman’s mustard: ‘I am stirred with envy for the biographer of 2023 […] with what illumination will he, the future biographer, gaze upon the detailed domestic appliances of 1923!’

6) Sightlines The formal rooms could be imagined as stage sets for a proscenium arch stage: a wide rectangular hall with marble floor and staircase to a mezzanine, or a dining room with a table set for 14. But there are also narrow rooms that recede away from us – bathrooms, kitchens and servants’ rooms – impossible to stage in a conventional space without denying a view to most of the audience. Although this doll’s house is behind glass, it offers the pleasure of being a privileged viewer: you can move from side to side and up and down, rather than remaining in a fixed position. You can range imaginatively around the rooms, an experience intensified by this after-hours visit with torches.

Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House has another kind of existence through two-dimensional records – the black and white plates in The Book of the Queen’s Dolls’ House resemble photographs of real rooms, while a watercolour painting sets the house in an imaginary landscape. One could compare these images to the photographs of theatre models which Johannes Schutz has published. But that is for another day…


[Note 1] page 127, Benson, A. C. and Lawrence Weaver (1924) The Book of the Queen’s Dolls’ House, London: Methuen.

[Note 2] ibid., page 161

[Note 3] ibid., page 125

[Note 4] ibid., page 154

[Note 5] page 9, Lambton, Lucinda (2010) The Queen’s Dolls’ House, London: Royal Collection Publications.

A short video of a conservation check on the house, showing items being lifted out of the rooms and cleaned, can be found here.

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