Rally of the dolls

A gathering of dolls’ houses is not only delightful to view but charts domestic life through the years

At home with a bear.
At home with a bear. · Credit: Designed by Mister Peebles as part of the Dream House installation

Small Stories: At home in a Dolls’ House is a charming exhibition dedicated to that most appealing of childhood subjects – the dolls’ house. But while the exhibits, drawn from the V&A Museum of Childhood’s renowned collection, are fascinating in themselves, the real success of the show is the interpretation. This uses the houses to reflect how domestic life, in particular that of women, has changed over the centuries – not only for the families lucky enough to own such treasures but in some cases for the domestic staff who served them.

As such, the miniature houses are a reflection of the tastes, innovations and concerns of the day, from the Georgian splendour of the Tate Baby House and the Chinoiserie of the 19th century Killer House through to a 1960s doll’s house kit equipped with brightly coloured plastic furniture of the day. Along with narrations from characters that might have lived and worked in the owner’s houses, this takes the subject away from nostalgia and instead is a social history lesson by stealth, touching on the industrial revolution, sanitation, suffragettes, the end of the servant-heavy household, and the birth of the modern era. 

  • Opening up to a miniature world: the Killer Cabinet House from the 19th century.
    Opening up to a miniature world: the Killer Cabinet House from the 19th century.
  • Grand kitchens inside the Killer Cabinet House.
    Grand kitchens inside the Killer Cabinet House.
  • Hopkinson House – inside a London council estate during the 1940s.
    Hopkinson House – inside a London council estate during the 1940s.
  • Tate Baby House in Georgian splendour.
    Tate Baby House in Georgian splendour.
  • Leisured life in 1930s Hampstead in the Whiteladies House by Moray Thomas.
    Leisured life in 1930s Hampstead in the Whiteladies House by Moray Thomas.
  • Colourful with the odd modernist replica thrown in – Kaleidoscope House, 2001, by Laurie Simmons.
    Colourful with the odd modernist replica thrown in – Kaleidoscope House, 2001, by Laurie Simmons.

And while the historic houses are exquisite, it’s the dolls’ houses of the last 100 years that catch the eye. The Voysey-influenced Lines House owned by Peggy Lines, the future head of Hamley’s toy shop, is a more down-to-earth 1930s example shorn of the sometimes suffocating detail of more ostentatious early examples.

It’s the 1935 Whiteladies House that is the real breath of fresh air, created by Hampstead artist Moray Thomas with the help of her artistic friends. All big windows and sun-decks, this glamorous villa epitomised the modern design of the day as well the new fashions for sunbathing, motoring, and healthy outdoor pursuits.

It’s good to see more ordinary houses represented as well. The Hopkinson House is based on a London County Council 30s estate house during the Blitz with war time accessories such as miniature gas masks. The stackable Jenny’s Home, commissioned by Homes & Garden magazine, successfully took the doll’s house into new architectural territory, with buyers given scope to create different rooms that stack to make a high-rise tower block. Moving into this century is the appropriately colourful Kaleidoscope House, designed by Laurie Simmons with miniature replicas of pieces by Ron Arad and Cindy Sherman.

  • Offline Hideaway, where no tablet can touch you. Designed by Dominic Wilcox as part of the Dream House installation.
    Offline Hideaway, where no tablet can touch you. Designed by Dominic Wilcox as part of the Dream House installation.
  • The Longest Party Table in the World, by Matthew Priestman.
    The Longest Party Table in the World, by Matthew Priestman.
  • The Longest Party Table in the World shrinks when seen from above without its mirrors.
    The Longest Party Table in the World shrinks when seen from above without its mirrors.
  • Home is bear the heart is, by Mister Peebles.
    Home is bear the heart is, by Mister Peebles.

An additional, highly entertaining feature to the exhibition is Dream House, an installation of individual dolls’ house rooms created by 19 artists and designers. This is great fun. I love the Home is Bear the Heart is, by Mister Peebles, which shows a bear’s living room with pots of honey on the mantelpiece, oak leaf and acorn wallpaper, and bear-style Russian dolls. In The Longest Party Table in the World, Matthew Priestman’s dining room uses mirrors to create an endless party table. Dominic Wilcox’s Offline Hideaway is a room for our screen-obsessed times, with the figure reclining on a sofa atop a stack of furniture reading a printed book.

Encouragingly, the tradition of dolls’ houses is still growing – in the museum’s permanent collection is the 2014 Cubix house, a coffee table/dolls’ house conceived for families who want their children around them when they entertain. What a contrast with the earliest dolls’ houses in the exhibition, which were conceived not as children’s playthings, but luxury accessories for adults.

Small Stories: At home in a dolls’ house, to September 6, 2015, V&A Museum of Childhood, Cambridge Heath Road, Bethnal Green, London