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Sheffield Museums explore the V&A’s dolls’ house collection

a photo of a modernist styled dolls house with flourescent see through walls

Kaleidoscope House, Laurie Simmons, Peter Wheelwright and Bozart, USA, 2001 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Step inside the fascinating world of the Dolls House as the V&A’s precious collection tours to Sheffield

Marriages, parties, politics and even crime play out in the miniature country mansions, suburban villas, newly-built council estates and high-rise apartments on show in this exhibition of dolls’ houses from the collection of the V&A Museum of Childhood.

Taking visitors on a journey through the history of the home via 12 intricately crafted dolls’ houses spanning over 300 years, each house is brought to life by the characters that live and work there and the people who lovingly created or cared for them.

One of the oldest and ornate of the houses, the Tate Baby House, dates from 1760 and was owned by the same family for at least five generations, passing down from mother to eldest daughter.

It includes original wallpapers and painted panelling in the style of architect Robert Adam, as well as a lying-in room for a pregnant doll. The story of this house centres on the rising status of three generations of Georgian and Victorian women who oversaw the redecoration of the house – even at one time changing the windows – to reflect the changing tastes and fashions of the period.

a photo of a 18th century styled dolls house open with

Tate Baby House, England, 1760 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

a photo of an ornate cabinet dolls house with its interior showing

Killer Cabinet Dolls’ House, England, 1835-1838 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

a detail of a Regency era kitchen inside a dolls' house

The Kitchen of the Killer Cabinet Dolls’ House, England, 1835-1838 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

a photo of an ornate dolls house in the Victorian style

Amy Miles’ House, England, 1890 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The unsettlingly-monikered Killer House was in fact a gift from Stockport-based surgeon John Egerton Killer to his wife and daughters in the 1830s. According to the V&A website, an article in 1924 edition of the Grammarian, the Magazine of Thame Girls’ Grammar School, revealed how the house was made after Mr Killer discovered a series of small models and dolls his wife and children had made and hidden in a cupboard in the house.

“He was so struck by their beauty and daintiness,” reads the article, “that he had an Indian cabinet of his copied in Old English lacquer. The inside of this handsome black-and-gold case was fitted up like a house, and the dolls’ belongings were moved into it.”

Another lovingly detailed creation comes from Amy Miles who in the late 1800s lovingly recreated the Victorian house of her childhood and furnished it objects that spanned her lifetime. Featuring technology and accouterments from different decades of the late Victorian period, the miniature world she created effectively charts the transition from mid-Victorian period fashions and lifestyles to those of the turn of the century.

According to Alice Sage, Exhibition Curator at the V&A Museum of Childhood, dolls’ houses “can be autobiographical or create fantastical worlds”.

“These special spaces are deposits for real memories, fanciful ideas and often a lifetime of dedication,” she adds. “The experience of peeking into the tiny rooms and seeing all the meticulous detail is fascinating for children and adults, and hopefully everyone will discover something new.

“Our research for the exhibition uncovered new characters and stories in the histories of these objects, and now we are using them to bring the houses to life by creating a small story for each of these well-loved houses.”

a photo of a white-painted Modernist dolls house

Whiteladies House, Moray Thomas, England, 1935 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

a photo of a model car in a garage of dolls house

In the garage of the Whiteladies House, Moray Thomas, England, 1935 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Whiteladies House was designed and by artist Moray Thomas in the 1930s and reflects some of the Modernist country villas that were emerging at the time. But rather than a treasured family play thing, the Art Deco house was made and then displayed at The Building Centre in New Bond Street in 1936 for the purpose of raising funds for the Middlesex Hospital.

Features include chrome furniture, a cocktail bar and artworks by British Futurist Claude Flight, as well as a swimming pool. Its story centres on a house party, with revellers enjoying the pool and sunbathing on the roof.

By contrast the Hopkinson House was based on the houses in 1930s suburbs. Made in the 1980s and 1990s by Roma Hopkinson based on her recollections of her family life during wartime, with interiors that show a Second World War-era family in intricate detail, poised for an air-raid with their miniature gasmasks, tin helmets, ration books and torches for the blackouts.

a photo of a dolls' house with the front open

Hopkinson House (set in 1940s), England, 1980s-1990s, Roma Hopkinson© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

a detail of a male doll in a kitchen with table and 1940s styled fittings

Inside the 1940s kitchen of Hopkinson House. England, 1980s-1990s © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

a photo of a high-rise block

Jennys Home, Tri-ang, Northern Ireland, 1960s. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

a photo of two small dolls stadning in a 1960s-styled dining room

The 1960s dining room. Jenny’s Home, Tri-ang, Northern Ireland, 1960s. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Kaleidoscope House (top) was designed in 2011 by artist Laurie Simmons and New York architect Peter Wheelwright. Its multicoloured translucent walls reveal an interior that boasts a chair made by Ron Arad, a dining room set designed by furniture designer Dakota Jackson and a living room sofa by luxury industrial designer Karim Rashid. The walls are lined by replicas of artworks by Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger.

Home to a clearly design conscious family the high end, artist produced dolls house is commercially available – to those who can afford it.

A more realistic option for most wold be The Jennys Home modular dolls’ house system, which was produced in the 1960s by toy makers Tri-ang in conjunction with Homes & Gardens Magazine. The individual sets allowed youngsters to slowly build up a collection of rooms and furniture to create almost any design of their choice and be turned into anything from an apartment block to a bed-sit.

Small Stories: At Home in a Dolls’ House is at Weston Park Museum, Sheffield August 5 2017 – January 7 2018. 

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Museums Sheffield: Weston Park

Sheffield, South Yorkshire

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