Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Dollhouse Fit For a Queen

It was Princess Marie Louise, Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, who first thought 'on the impulse of the moment’ of asking her friend the renowned architect Edwin Lutyens to design a dolls’ house for Queen Mary, the consort of Marie Louise’s first cousin King George V. Queen Mary was an obsessive collector of objets d’art, most particularly of 'tiny craft’, and most passionately of those with a family connection, which she amassed with an acutely knowledgeable eye. There could be no better gift for her than a dolls’ house filled with diminutive treasures. What more suitable tribute, too, for the Queen’s steadfast presence throughout the Great War? With its English eccentricity, this miniature yet monumental scheme was spot-on to capture the world’s imagination.

The Queen’s Dolls’ House, which now belongs to Queen Mary’s granddaughter Queen Elizabeth II, is a creation unlike any other: an exquisite little building filled to its royal rafters with the work, in miniature, of the finest artists and artisans, craftsmen and manufacturers of early 20th-century Britain.

These were the years of post-war convalescence, when the largely unemployed nation needed help to stand on its feet again, in a country 'fit for heroes to live in’. In 1922 the British Empire Exhibition of Arts and Manufacturing, conceived to boost spirits and to stimulate trade, was given the go-ahead, and this tiny masterpiece of an English house, displaying the very best that the United Kingdom could offer, would be its centrepiece. So this remarkable creation, which could have become a mere plaything, a fantastical toy subsumed into the wealth of the Royal Collection, was to become instead a beacon of national importance. Indeed, within days of its inception it was seen as a flagship of endeavour to ease the nation’s woes.

Lutyens regularly began to hold what he called 'Dollyleuyah Dinners’, which would lead to more than 1,500 individuals becoming involved in the Dolls’ House. It was a formidable force: 250 craftsmen and manufacturers, 60 artist-decorators and 700 artists, 600 writers and 500 donors, many of them still household names today.

When Lutyens took on the Dolls’ House, he had been working on the building of New Delhi for nine years. It gave him particular pleasure to be simultaneously applying himself to 80 square miles of Imperial buildings and a house measuring 5ft high. Lutyens created lofty royal chambers along with mezzanine levels, and ensured that every room had a window, with either casement or real sliding sashes. From the outside, what initially appears to be a podium supporting the house is in fact the basement quarters. Let down rusticated stone flaps and reveal, to the north, the water tank and machinery for the lifts; to the south, the wine cellar and food stores. Most ingenious of all are the revelations in the great drawers at either end of the building. With the flaps pulled down, to the west you haul forth a fully fledged five-bay garage housing a fleet of royal limousines; while to the east, a garden by Gertrude Jekyll – empress of garden design in her day – leaps into life.

There can surely be few more splendid last salvos from Edwardian England than the decoration applied inside the house, with its woodwork, plasterwork and damask-hung walls; its superbly imaginative ceiling paintings; as well as the murals by such giants as William Nicholson and Edmund Dulac. There is a wealth of rich-hued marble. In a letter to Princess Marie Louise, Lutyens had wondered whether 'government would allow us to tap maharajahs for Dollyleuyah 1) Would the Queen mind? 2) Would the Viceroy?’ Whatever he eventually did, there is Indian marble on the walls, floors, door-cases, dados and ceilings, and fashioned into fireplaces which then decreed the decorative colour scheme of the rooms.

When the shell of the house was finished, it was moved (the wall of Lutyens’s office in Apple Tree Yard, St James’s, London, had to be torn down to get it out) to Lutyens’s house in Mansfield Street. There it was to stand, taking up half his drawing-room, for nearly two years. The elite of the nation’s talent poured through the door: Sir Alfred Munnings (1878–1959) with his miniature painting of the King’s charger, Delhi; Alfred Dunhill (1872–1959) with his tiny cigarettes, cigars, pipes and tins of 'My Mixture’ – tobacco custom-made for the King. Ursula Ridley, Lutyens’s daughter, told me of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930) arriving with his diminutive, hand-written and leather-bound story How Watson Learned the Trick. Queen Mary, enjoying every development, came to Mansfield Street several times.

In 1924 the house was finished. 'The most perfect present that anyone could receive’, wrote the Queen to all those involved in its creation. During its seven months at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley the Dolls’ House was seen by 1,617,556 people. A year later, it was taken off again, in 45 boxes weighing four and a half tons, to the Ideal Home Exhibition at Olympia in west Kensington. Finally, in July 1925, it was put on show in Windsor Castle, in a room specially designed by Lutyens. There it has remained ever since.

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