Art: A show of history in miniature

The Tate Baby House, doll's house on display at Weston Park Museum., part of the exhibition Small Stories
The Tate Baby House, doll's house on display at Weston Park Museum., part of the exhibition Small Stories

An exhibition opening at Weston Park Museum on Saturday demonstrates the appeal of dolls’ houses while providing an insight into the way people have lived down the ages.

On tour from the V&A Museum of Childhood, Small Stories: At Home in a Dolls’ House will take visitors on a journey through the history of the home through 12 intricately crafted dolls’ houses spanning over 300 years.

26 July 2017........Museums Sheffield curator Lucy Cooper helps put together  'Small Stories: At Home in a Dolls' House' a new exhibition, on tour from the V&A Museum of Childhood, opens at Weston Park Museum in Sheffield on 5 August and runs until January 2018. Picture Scott Merrylees

26 July 2017........Museums Sheffield curator Lucy Cooper helps put together 'Small Stories: At Home in a Dolls' House' a new exhibition, on tour from the V&A Museum of Childhood, opens at Weston Park Museum in Sheffield on 5 August and runs until January 2018. Picture Scott Merrylees

Marriages, parties, politics and crime play out in country mansions, suburban villas, newly-built council estates and high-rise apartments, as each house is brought to life by the characters that live and work there.

The houses show developments in architecture and design, from ornate Georgian townhouses to contemporary urban living spaces. Each house is displayed in interactive showcases that allow visitors to activate audio narration and illuminate characters as they share their story.

The earliest example is The Joy Wardrobe dating from 1712 which is a piece of furniture to store clothes rather than what we have come to regard as a doll’s house and there are no objects inside.

“The early models were made to be looked at rather than played with,” explains Exhibitions and Display Curator Lucy Cooper. “They were things of beauty owned by the mistress of the house rather than the children.”

Early models were made to be looked at rather than played with

The Tate Baby House dating from 1760 was owned by the same family for at least five generations, passed down from mother to eldest daughter. It includes original wallpapers and painted panelling in the style of architect Robert Adam, as well as a lying-in room for a pregnant doll. The story of this house centres on the rising status of three generations of Georgian women.

The Killer House isn’t as sinister as it sounds. It takes its name from the family who owned, It was a gift from surgeon John Egerton Killer to his wife and daughters in the 1830s. This Chinese-style cabinet is lavishly appointed with gilded wallpapers, four-poster bed and liveried servants. The story focuses on the servants’ ongoing struggle for cleanliness and hygiene in the industrial city.

The Victorian Amy Miles House is the first to look more like a real house with rooms on two floors connected by staircases. There’s even a doll of Amy herself as a child and the detailed objects includes a billiard table, paintings on the wall, a table set with a silver teapot, fine china,and tiered wedding cake made from real cake and icing which has lasted since the 1890s.

“Everything has to be unpacked for installation and painstakingly put in place in exactly the same way using photographs down to towels on a rail,” points out Lucy Cooper.

The largest exhibit is Whiteladies House designed by artist Moray Thomas in the 1930s and reflecting some of the Modernist country villas that were emerging at the time. Features include chrome furniture, a cocktail bar and artworks by British Futurist Claude Flight, as well as a swimming pool and tennis courts. Its story centres on a house party, with revellers enjoying the pool and sunbathing on the roof.

The Hopkinson House is a suburban home from the 1940s though made in the Eighties. The interiors show a Second World War-era family in intricate detail, poised for an air-raid, with miniature gasmasks, ration books and torches for the blackouts.

Jennys Home is a a build-your-own doll’s house from the Sixties and reflects the architecture of the time. Its plastic rooms and elaborate furnishings can be used to create the housing of the time whether single-storey chalets side by side or the high-rise configuration on view.

Coming right up to date is Kaleidoscope House designed by Laurie Simmons (mother of Girls star Lena Dunham). Its multicoloured translucent walls are filled with miniature replicas of furniture and artworks by Ron Arad, Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger. The house is home to a design conscious step-family living in the new millennium.

Many of the houses, their furniture and dolls have been specially conserved for the exhibition, with around 1,900 objects being restored over two years in the V&A conservation department. After opening at V&A Museum of Childhood in London, Small Stories has toured to Finland, Washington DC, and Norwich and will go on to Prague next year.

In Sheffield the V&A Museum of Childhood’s collections is complemented by a dolls’ house from the city’s own collection dating from around 1900, on show in the museum’s main thoroughfare. The house was made for a little girl called Dorothy. When she was young she pronounced her own name as “Dophy”, and called the house ‘Dophy Villa’. The house has working electric lights and was decorated with contemporary wallpaper and flooring. Some of the wooden furniture was hand-made by the original maker of the house.

Museums Sheffield will launch of the exhibition with a free day of family activities on Saturday from 11am-4pm with workshops, face painting, music and more.

Small Stories runs at Weston Park Museum from August 5 to January 7.