Museum of Childhood Closed from 18 March 2020 Menu

By Patricia Ferguson

Patricia Ferguson is ceramics advisor to the National Trust.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

One of the great doll’s house mysteries at the V&A Museum of Childhood is an unusual early 18th-century room setting filled with furniture, dolls and accessories of mixed date and quality. 1 The walls are formed of six large architectural oak panels, each carved by a skilled cabinetmaker or perhaps an estate carpenter with 12- or 13-pane glass windows above a decorative apron. The panels are of two types, two are narrow with single windows and four are wider with pairs of windows. Stylistically, the shape of the arched windows and apron match features found on English houses dating to the 1720s. Since at least 1901, the panels have been fitted together to create a large fenestrated room, which resembles a shop or commercial space rather than a traditional domestic interior. The arrangement is unlike any surviving 18th-century doll’s house or ‘baby-house’, as these small-scale houses were described in the 18th century.2 During the refurbishment of the dolls’ houses in the Childhood Galleries in 2013, the room was deconstructed. When the individual elements were conserved and studied, it was discovered that for over a century the original function of the panels had been completely misunderstood and misinterpreted.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Almost nothing is known about the early history of the ‘room setting’, presumably, all that remains of a considerably larger baby house of architectural form.3 It was apparently purchased in 1877 for £20 by the Educational Division of the Science Collections for the South Kensington Museum, now the Victoria and Albert Museum. The seller was Mrs. Jane Frances Thornhill, née King (b. 1822), of Willenhall, near Wolverhampton, Staffordshire. In 1845, she married a surgeon, John Howells Thornhill (1818–1885), the son of Charles Thornhill and Sarah Howells. They had a large family, but in 1866 he declared bankruptcy; according to the 1881 census they lived at 53 Walsall Street. With her children grown up, Mrs. Thornhill may have needed to sell the baby house and wrote to the South Kensington Museum on 3 November 1876 to negotiate a sale. A list of the ‘dolls, dolls’ furniture &c.’, which she sent has not survived, but evidently it was already fragmentary, because she replied to a letter from Mr. King, Keeper of the Educational Library and Collections, that she had no other ‘remnants’ belonging to the doll’s house.4 In 1922, the ‘room setting’ and its contents were transferred to the Bethnal Green Museum to be displayed with other dolls’ houses in the new Children’s Section.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

More than half of the over 400 objects that furnished the ‘room setting’ date from 1680-1760, many of these items are the clothing and linens belonging to the five painted wooden dolls, made around 1740. With the exception of the silver, these early items are scaled to the height of these dolls, and indeed to the baby house itself, suggesting that they were purchased or commissioned around the same time and since remained together. They are extremely finely crafted, closely imitating details found on real objects. A silver tankard from the 1690s has a hinged cover, a 1750s set of brass pistol-handled knives with scimitar-shaped blades and two-pronged forks is in the latest fashion, as is the copper lighthouse-shaped chocolate or coffee pot with a turned wood handle.5 There is an assortment of salt-glazed stoneware mugs made in Staffordshire, about 1730–50, which were probably once part of a large set of tablewares. The loose seat on the walnut cabriole-legged chair is covered with faded chintz, printed cotton imported from India in the 1700s, and the traditional webbing, still lashed firmly into place, can be seen on the underside. Like collections found in stately homes, the objects probably represent an assemblage acquired over more than a century by a family, with some of the items dating to the 1850s. Alternatively, Mrs. Thornhill may have been an early collector of doll’s house furnishings though that seems less likely.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Although Mrs. Thornhill’s original list has not survived, it is clear that some items were added by early curators to help with the interpretation. Many of the objects are identifiable in a photograph of the ‘room setting’ published in 1901.6 There it was described as a ‘stately interior of an early 19th century doll’s house’, representing a large and imposing house, ‘presumably that of a country squire’. The room was divided into two by a partition formed of the two narrow panels. In 1917, the ‘room setting’ was published in The Connoisseurin a lengthy article describing the contents by Mrs Willoughby Hodgson, an authority on pottery and porcelain.7 In the much reproduced photograph, the partition had been removed and the walls rearranged into the odd configuration maintained until 2013. Mrs. Hodgson suggested the panelling was from the hall or reception room of a Queen Anne doll’s house.

However, an examination of the panels, which have small keyholes and hinges on one side of each panel, suggests that they formed the façade of a baby house and that the precious contents needed to be secured. The panels would have been attached to the carcass of a house, probably on a stand, and when swung open would reveal at least six rooms. The first floor would have had two principal rooms associated with formal entertaining, such as a ‘Parlour’ or ‘With-drawing room’ and an ‘Eating Room’, an 18th century term for the Dining Room, which were on either side of a central stair-case hall. A second floor for private use, may have had two bedrooms again flanking a central stair-case hall. Kitchens or household offices used by the butler or housekeeper may have been incorporated into the stand. A similar configuration survives in the Van Haeften Baby House, 1740−50, and the opening sequence resembles the King’s Lynn Baby House, about 1740, both modest variations of the grand Sarah Lethieullier (1725–1788) Baby House at Uppark, West Sussex (The National Trust), circa 1730–5.8 Had it survived in its entirety, it would have been among the earliest English architectural style baby houses.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The wealthy individual who first owned this baby house wanted nothing but the best for his children. Some baby houses were acquired fully furnished and others were added to piece-meal, personalised by fabric, paint and wallpaper selections by adults helped by children learning needlework or painting skills. Its fashionably furnished contents were intended to educate them in household management in preparation for marriage and raising a family. The fully functioning toys imitating real objects allowed children to understand how chocolate or wine was prepared and served, or how to lower the flaps on a table to make more space in a room. These lessons were taught to them under the careful guidance of an adult, and the children shared these lessons with siblings, friends and perhaps even their servant’s children.

Objects for baby houses were commissioned or purchased from cabinetmakers or toyshops, retailers of luxury goods.9 In Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, London, 1726 – a date contemporary with the ‘room setting’ – when Gulliver was living among giants and had a small house built for himself, he commissions a cabinet-maker to make two chair-frames, which are caned with human hair. In addition, a ‘nice workman, who was famous for little curiosities, undertook to make for [him] two chairs, with backs and frames, of a substance not unlike ivory, and two tables with a cabinet to put my things in… I had an entire set of dishes and plates, and other necessaries, which… were not much bigger than what I have seen in a London toy-shop for the furniture of a baby house’. The novel’s popularity may have influenced demand for such exquisite items as follies for the amusement of adults, but also with the practical purpose of educating children.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

As so few 18th-century baby houses survive, this ‘fragment’ allows us a rare opportunity to share the experiences of a wealthy young girl in the early Georgian period. In the new display, the doors of the baby house are shut to reveal its grand architectural façade. It is clearly too large to be an everyday nursery plaything, instead it would have been enjoyed under the watchful eye of a taller, responsible adult, who had access to the keys, perhaps an elder sister, mother or housekeeper. Having unlocked the doors and the young owner has carefully removed the furnishings from the Kitchen or Eating Room and placed them on the floor.

Two scenes have been recreated to evoke daily activities in a grand household around 1750. On the right, a doll is preparing coffee or chocolate. There is a large copper kettle sitting on a spirit burner on the floor, which keeps the water hot. On the tripod table is a tall chocolate pot, the hot water would be added to warm up the chocolate. It will be drunk from the white Staffordshire mugs. Silver spoons would be needed to stir the powder which quickly settles in the bottom of the mugs. On the left side, two dolls are going to decant wine into carafes. The wine is poured out from the big wooden jug on the floor through the funnel and into the glass bottles and served at dinner. The wine glasses are chilling in the Monteith, the large wooden bowl with a notched rim, which would be filled with ice from the estate ice house. Chilled wine was a luxury, as the candles and fire in the hearth quickly heated up the Eating Room.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In 1798, the Anglo-Irish author of children’s literature Maria Edgworth (1768–1849), wrote in Practical Education.:

“An unfurnished baby-house might be a good toy as it would employ little carpenters and seamstresses to fit it up; but a completely furnished baby-house proves as tiresome to a child as a finished seat is to a young nobleman. After peeping, for in general only a peep can be had into each apartment, after being thoroughly satisfied that nothing is wanting, and that consequently there is nothing to be done, the young lady lays her doll upon the state bed, if the doll be not twice as large as the bed, and fall asleep in the midst of her felicity’.

Almost three hundred years after this baby house, its dolls and early furnishings were created, it still delights and entertains us just as it did its first owner, while learning about the history of childhood in the early 18th century.

1 W.42-1922.
2 ‘Baby’ was the word used until the early 19th century for doll. A ‘baby-house’ refers to a large, architectural house, commissioned as individual items from joiners or carpenters. The term ‘baby-house’ was in common use until the 1830s.
3 It was referred to as a ‘fragment’ in Flora Gill Jacobs, A History of Dolls’ Houses: Four Centuries of the Domestic World in Miniature, London, 1954, p. 61–4, where the contents are also discussed though much is repeated from Mrs. Hodgson’s article.
4 V&A Archive, Correspondence Abstract Registers MA/4/29 : Registered Paper RP/1876/10251 & RP/1876/10843
5 Many of the objects are similar to those in the Ann Sharp (1691–1771) Dutch-style cabinet-type baby house, illustrated in Mrs. Willoughby Hodgson, ‘Mistress Ann Sharp: her dolls’ house letters and book of recipes’, in The Quest of the Antique, London, 1924, pp.16–34.
6 Alice Corkran, ‘In Doll-House Land’, The Girl’s Realm Annual, 1901, pp.41–50, illustrated on p. 42.
7 Mrs Willoughby Hodgson, ‘Late Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Century Toys and Dolls’ Clothing’, The Connoisseur, July 1917, pp.193–202.
8 Illustrated in Vivien Greene, The Vivien Greene Dolls’ House Collection, London, 1995, pp.33−5; in the Lynn Museum, illustrated in Halina Pasierbska, Dolls’ Houses,2010, p. 22–23; and NT 138073.
9 A London printed trade card in the Heal Collection, British Museum (119.3.+), for the toyshop Bellamy’s, at the Green Parrot, near Chancery Lane, Holborn, circa 1753–62, noted ‘Fine Babies and Baby-Houses, with all Sorts of Furniture at the lowest Price. Wholesale and Retail’

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