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“Young people who are unhampered by choice possessions of old furniture or by old conventions of drawing rooms, calling hours, formal manners or privacy; a generation that in town asks for a service flat and in the country plenty of light, a swimming pool and a house where friends can drop in in numbers at any time, help themselves to drinks: a generation bred in one war and living its little time of sunshine to the full before the next one.” – Moray Thomas, ‘Whiteladies House, a Miniature Modern Home’, 1936

“The lines and white surfaces of the house itself, and the figures which people its roof-garden, swimming bath and hard tennis-court, excellently illustrate modern social habits and their architectural expression.” – Annual Report of the Victoria & Albert Museum, 1937

In Whiteladies House, artist Moray Thomas created a miniature snapshot of the fashionable generation between the wars, and the lifestyle they led. A swimming pool, tennis court and sports car in the garage tell us this is no ordinary home. First exhibited in 1936, Whiteladies House reflects fashionable furnishings of the time, and includes miniature versions of designs seen in exhibitions and high-end shops.

Moray Thomas

‘Moray’ was the name chosen for herself by Lillian Marie Pullen. Born in 1883, she spent her childhood moving frequently between hotels and inns as her publican father took over new premises. They lived for short times in Suffolk, Berkshire, Surrey and London. In the 1911 census Moray is listed, aged 27, living on her own in a rented room in Upper Gloucester Place, Marylebone, with the occupation “artist”. This was a strong statement to make for a young woman at the time, especially as she wasn’t from a very wealthy background. Unfortunately, no artworks by Moray have yet been identified. In August 1911, Moray married Stanley Thomas, a solicitor. Through investment and as a partner in a law firm, Stanley earned enough money for the couple to live very comfortably.

While she was making the dolls’ house in about 1934-1935, Moray and Stanley lived at Sundial House in Hampstead. At the time, this North London village – a hot spot for Modern art and architecture – had just witnessed the opening of the Isokon flats, and now was watching Maxwell Fry’s huge Sun House emerge. Stunningly white, with flat roofs, ribbon windows and sweeping curved balconies, these Modernist buildings bear more than a little resemblance to the Whiteladies dolls’ house.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Height of Fashion – a tour of the house with Moray

Whiteladies was first shown in May 1936 alongside an exhibition of women architects at The Building Centre in London. At the time, there were only 130 female architects registered in the country. Moray showed Whiteladies House as an example of women’s artistic production, and also to raise money for Bond Street Hospital. She wrote a booklet to accompany the house, which took the reader on a tour of its many rooms.

In the cavernous open-plan living room, “the colour scheme is off-white and a design in white, grey-white and cream leads the eye up the walls and across the ceiling in unbroken lines. The curtains are of oyster-white satin, the chairs and divans in off-white velvet and steel”.

Moray was following a recent trend:

“…forget the heat at Heal’s, where there is an exhibition of all kinds of white things, all different in colour, starting with ice-white and snow-white and going on to wan shades of cream, faint primroses, light oatmeals, buffs and beiges, pale tones of undyed skins and furs, silvery surfaces of natural wood, thick dead-white glazes on porcelain, frosty-looking glass pots in dumpy shapes.” – About Town, June 1933

Most of the furniture in Whiteladies House was copied from fashionable pieces Moray Thomas had seen in shops and exhibitions, and perhaps had in her own home. Her research and interest in Modern design means that Whiteladies preserves the style of a very particular time.

Chrome steel chairs were strikingly Modern. Iconic enough to be lampooned by Heath Robinson, they were associated with European designers Marcel Breuer and Mies Van der Rohe. Scattered floor cushions were a feature of architect Wells Coates’s own London apartment.

The loggia of the dolls’ house has “cream stone furniture” placed symmetrically, almost Classically, under a dominant fresco showing a pair of nude figures. Artist Eric Gill showed a similar room at the Exhibition of Industrial Design in the Home, held at Dorland House in July 1933.

The green bedroom upstairs “has painted walls illustrating a day in the life of the inhabitants – swimming, tennis, flying… The furniture in this room is of pale green satin with mauve net curtains.”

Moray very occasionally used dolls’ house furniture from shops – as long as it fitted with her overall Modern scheme. “The kitchen has a rubber floor, Frigidaire, electric cooker, closed dresser, electric vacuum cleaner and electric iron”. The ‘closed dresser’ is an Easiwork cabinet, a late 1920s innovation. They were lauded by Nanci Clifton Reynolds, in her book ‘Easier Housework by Better Equipment’, for bringing the ordered efficiency of the office into the household.

Artworks on the walls of the house were painted by Moray herself, and friends Patrick Millard and Claude Flight. Millard (1902 – 1977) was an expressionist landscape artist, art teacher, and author of books on life drawing. He held positions at a number of progressive art schools, ending his career as Principle of the School of Art at Goldsmiths College.

Claude Flight (1881 – 1955) was a Futurist, in the 1910s studying alongside C. R. W. Nevinson. After the First World War he bought a house carved into a cliff in France and escaped every summer with a group of students to work there. He is most remembered for establishing the Grosvenor School of Modern Art and developing lino-cutting into a recognised and expressive art form. He was a member of the ‘Seven and Five’ art group in Hampstead in the 1920s, alongside Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth.

V&A Museum of Childhood
Bethnal Green

The Museum is open daily from 10.00 to 17.45 in Bethnal Green, London.

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