Nostell Priory’s Dolls’ House is a rare survivor from the eighteenth century, and it’s just as posh as the house itself…
Nostell Priory in Yorkshire is rightly regarded as one of the greatest treasure houses of the north of England. Surrounded by 300 acres of parkland and landscape gardens the house contains a wealth of treasures ranging from Robert Adam interiors and a world-class collection of Thomas Chippendale furniture to priceless paintings and antique curiosities.
Created as an ambitious statement by the Winn family between 1725-1785, generations added to the richness of the Palladian house, and today its sumptuous interiors still reflect the family’s wealth and social status.
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So it’s perhaps fitting that the dolls’ house made by the creators of this lavish country pile is equally impressive.
The miniature version of Nostell is one of only 12 surviving 18th-century dolls’ houses and the only one that visitors can see in the home it was designed for thanks to a major restoration project and new exhibition that allows visitors to see its tiny details as never before.
Specialists from the National Trust, which cares for Nostell, discovered almost all the interior decoration of the superior toy is original, with dozens of tiny masterpieces made at great expense by specialist carvers, silversmiths, upholsterers and painters in the 1730s.
Experts even uncovered a working servants’ bell and minute kitchen spit during much-needed conservation work to repair years of deterioration, from faded textiles and worn surfaces to woodworm-ridden floorboards – the same agents of deterioration that affect life-sized historic collections.
And as you might expect from the National Trust, all of the objects in the 2metre-high dolls’ house are now looked after, exactly as their life-sized equivalents would be.
“This miniature world remains frozen in the 1730s”
“Nostell’s miniature house is essentially a time capsule offering a window into the world of the 18th-century country house,” says Nostell’s curator and exhibition creator Simon McCormack.
“Dolls’ houses were not playthings for children in the 18th century,” he adds. “Known as ‘baby houses’, they were part of women’s lives from early teens to adulthood as a key tool in education and self-expression; providing a space to explore design tastes, fashion, social rituals and household management.
“Later hands may have added new details, but this miniature world remains almost frozen in the 1730s when it was furnished by lady of the house Susannah Winn and her sister Katherine.”
From the overall design to the tiny family crest on the Drawing Room fireplace, the dolls’ house has many similarities to the life-sized house, suggesting it reflects how Susannah hoped her new home would be furnished and run. Crease lines and additional lines of stitch holes suggest some materials were repurposed from the furnishings of Nostell itself.
The National Trust’s Textile Conservation Studio Manager, Maria Jordan, one of the experts who worked on the conservation, was amazed at the dolls’ house’s quality and detail.
“The grand beds – just 40cm high – are configured and made just as a real bed would have been made,” she explains, “from the carved headboards and bedframes to the exquisite lace trims, bolsters and valances.
“These are some of the smallest objects the studio has ever worked on and we have been amazed by the tiny stitches used to create, embroider or quilt the myriad of textiles in the house. Despite their size, we even found three little petticoats under each of the dolls’ dresses.”
The exhibition, Miniature Worlds, unlocks the stories of the dolls’ house and offers insight into its conservation together with a 3D digital animation, beautiful high-resolution photography and interactive activities for adults and children.
To accompany the newly displayed dolls’ house, a new book, The Nostell Dolls’ House, by Simon McCormack, has been published by the National Trust.
Nostell - National Trust
nr Wakefield, West Yorkshire
Nostell is one of the greatest treasure houses of the north of England, surrounded by 300 acres of parkland and landscape gardens. Created as an ambitious statement by the Winn family between 1725-1785, generations added to the richness of the house, from Robert Adam interiors and a world-class collection of…