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Miniature Mysteries: Interpreting Uppark Dolls House

Guest - Wednesday April 20, 2016 8:00
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Image courtesy of the National Trust, John Millar

The University of Oxford and the National Trust are working together to create experiences which teach, move and inspire. University of Oxford historian and Royal Oak Lecturer Dr Oliver Cox recently introduced this partnership and we’re proud to share his student’s research on AngloFiles magazine. This week, discover the story behind the National Trust Uppark’s miniature dollhouse. 

by Helena Kaznowska and Hazel Tubman

Since the beginning of 2015, we have been collaborating with the National Trust at Uppark in West Sussex to curate a new exhibition that brings one of the oldest and most important dolls houses in Britain to life. The first part in a process we call ‘Story Intervention’ has just been completed, in which we’ve explored new ways of presenting their beautiful eighteenth-century object, finding fresh interpretations of the role of the dolls house in early eighteenth-century life.

We should probably admit at this point that neither of us are experts when it comes to dolls houses. As students of social and cultural history of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – in literature and the material culture of the home in particular – we came to this project with little knowledge of miniatures, even though our academic interests are not wildly far off the mark. However, the purpose of the collaboration between the University of Oxford and the Trust was decidedly not to draw on any specialist dolls house knowledge that we might have. After years of research by Uppark staff, local historians, academics, amateurs and enthusiasts, a great deal is known about the particular features of the house (such as the decorative fabrics and types of paint applied). But little is known about the actual use of the dolls house – and that’s where we came in.

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Image courtesy of National Trust, Nadia Mackenzie

Uppark’s dolls house dates from 1735–40, and is believed to have been brought to Uppark by Lady Sarah Lethieullier when she married Sir Matthew Fetherstonhaugh in 1746. Lady Sarah was 24 when she moved in with her husband, which suggests that the dolls house was an amusement for adults rather than a child’s toy. Rather than being a model of Uppark itself, the dolls house takes the form of a Palladian mansion, with a central pediment painted with the Lethieullier coat of arms. It currently stands in the basement at Uppark in the Steward’s Hall, and although its original location is unknown, it almost certainly would have been on display in the grander rooms upstairs.

Many aspects of the dolls house remain a mystery. It is unclear who designed and built the house, or who supplied the interior decorations and furniture. Why the house came to be at Uppark – and whether it was a gift, part of an inheritance, or commissioned by Lady Sarah – is also unknown. The most important question we kept coming back to, though, was its purpose. What, if anything, was it used for?

To go about answering that question, we turned first to the material evidence of the dolls house itself. It is in excellent condition – suspiciously so. With such minimal damage caused over nearly three hundred years, it seems unlikely that it was regularly played with. In fact, the writer H. G. Wells, whose mother was the housekeeper at Uppark when he was a child, wrote in his 1909 novel Tono-Bungay that he ‘played discreetly’ with ‘the great dolls’ house’ under ‘imperious direction’.  If it wasn’t played with often or in a raucous manner, then, how else could it have been used?

Image courtesy of National Trust, Nadia Mackenzie

Image courtesy of National Trust, Nadia Mackenzie

Some Dutch dolls houses dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were used as a tool for teaching. One example from Nuremberg, commissioned in 1631, was used by its enterprising owner as a business venture; women, girls, children and servants would pay a small fee to visit the miniature home and learn about how to manage a household. Scholars have attributed the same pedagogical purpose to eighteenth-century English dolls houses – or ‘baby houses’, as they were known – as tools for young women to learn about the households they would inevitably oversee. This may well have been true for Lady Sarah Lethieullier, as a means of preparing her for her forthcoming marriage and move to Uppark. But with the emphasis on the front of house – and the servants’ quarters or washing areas excluded from the design – this dolls house doesn’t seem to offer a comprehensive way to learn about managing the whole property and its staff.

Image courtesy of the National Trust, Nadia Mackenzie

Image courtesy of the National Trust, Nadia Mackenzie

Perhaps, instead, the dolls house grew out of the trend amongst early modern gentlemen for creating cabinets of curiosities. As a female equivalent of these display cases for exotic collectables, owners of dolls houses could exhibit their most luxurious domestic goods in a miniature home made up of all their favourite rooms. One equally convincing interpretation is that the dolls house at Uppark was an ‘ideal home’ rather than the embodiment of a practical house. Owners of English dolls houses such as Lady Sarah Lethieullier may have organised their miniature properties to represent a personal container of memories. The rooms depicted in the dolls house highlight her individual taste through the assembly of old and new objects, and the mixture of dated and fashionable domestic interiors. Some of the dolls inside, for example, wear a mixture of late-seventeenth century fashions, while others in different rooms wear garments typical of the late eighteenth century. Dolls houses could be seen as domestic spaces that allowed for a freedom of expression otherwise impossible for women to create within their life-size homes. Uppark’s dolls house was, perhaps, a vessel of memories with imagined interiors: a collage of homes and homeliness, of personal trophies and aspirational ideas.

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So we asked the question and came up with an array of answers – but what did that mean for the interpretation and display of the dolls house itself? In our meetings we all agreed that what we weren’t trying to do was to propose a definitive explanation for what the dolls house was used for. We wanted a display that provided the audience room for their own interpretation. The concept of miniatures holds the same unique fascination now as it did in the eighteenth century – think Gulliver’s Travels, Tom Thumb and Thumbelina, Alice glugging the ‘Drink Me’ potions in Wonderland and, of course, the Borrowers – so we wanted to leave room for visitors to speculate, and imagine, for themselves. Our solution? Placing interactive questions that encourage participation, with space underneath for visitors to write their own comments: ‘What do you think the dolls house was used for?’ and ‘Which rooms would you put inside your dream home?’ are placed quite literally side-by-side on the information boards. It gives the opportunity for visitors to tell their own story about Uppark dolls house.

Our role in this first phase of the reinterpretation of Uppark dolls house is complete, and it’s now over to the curators to address the practicalities of creating the new display. This is the first in several stages of this project, and who knows, it might be that new evidence unearthed in the future can definitively solve the mysteries of Uppark’s miniature. Whether or not that happens, however, this has been an important collaboration, not just between the University of Oxford and the National Trust, but with the public too. It has shown the value of asking open-ended questions even if, for the time being at least, a conclusive answer can’t be found.

Thank you to the students of the University of Oxford for sharing your research and perspective on a piece of Uppark’s cultural history. Plan to visit Uppark this summer? Don’t forget to pack your Royal Oak membership card.

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