• Christine Pike, MA

Safe as Houses...? [part 2]

Updated: Mar 30

Not a horror story, but still one which evokes a sense of unease and anxiety, is Katherine Mansfield’s short story, The Doll’s House, (pub. 1922).

The house itself is described in unprepossessing terms, having an exterior that is “a dark, oily, spinach green”and there are congealed drips of paint on the window frames. The dolls are out of scale, too big for the house, and it smells so strongly of paint that Aunt Beryl banishes it to the courtyard. And yet there is one small feature - a tiny working oil lamp - that instinctively enchants both Kezia,the youngest Burnell child, and the fragile, half-mute Else Kelvey, thus uniting them despite the enormous social gulf between them. It is a subtle, beautifully observed tale of class prejudice and casual cruelty in rural New Zealand played out through the well-meaning gift of a doll’s house from a family friend from town.

Back in more familiar territory, and bringing us up to the present day is Jessie Burton’s best-selling novel, The Miniaturist (pub. 2014), in which a mysterious model maker creates dolls and other objects for a doll’s house given to newly-married Nella Oortman by her husband, which appear to predict events that are about to happen. The house is an eerie copy of the house they live in. Intrigue, sexual secrets, violence, and tragedy in seventeenth century Holland unfold, revealed through the seemingly innocuous little packages delivered to Nella by the handsome Jack Philips. The book was adapted for television by the BBC and aired in December 2017. [3]

The Miniaturist was inspired by an actual doll’s house which is now on display in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

More properly termed a ‘cabinet’ house, it was originally made for the real Petronella (Nella) Oortman, who married Johannes Brandt in 1686. Their joint initials (‘B.O.’) appear on the sides of the cabinet and are carved in rosewood on the middle hall lintel inside. In her book Dolls and Dolls’ Houses (pub. 1977) Constance Eileen King describes it as “the most exquisitely constructed and planned doll’s house in the world…”

The house, which remains almost entirely complete, offers a miniature glimpse into the world of late seventeenth century life in the Netherlands. Together with the lavishly appointed public rooms, the Oortman house also includes the humbler servants’ quarters and a laundry - a charming touch being the clothes line hung with minute knitted stockings and other garments. So proud of her house was Petronella Oortman that she commissioned the painter, Jacob Appel (1680 - 1751) to paint it.

This painting now hangs alongside it in the museum and shows the detail of the interior as it must have looked around the time of its construction.

Even in examples of the finest cabinet and baby houses, such as this, however, one finds the occasional sinister oddity and is left to speculate how it got there or why. In the Krauss house (Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nürnberg), dating from the second half of the seventeenth century, on a table in the drawing room is displayed a miniature glass bottle containing a tiny homunculus - the only known example even seen in a doll’s house. And in the house given to Ann Sharp by her godmother, Princess - later to become Queen - Anne, in the late seventeenth century there hangs a rather horrible wax portrait of the witch, Mother Shipton, illuminated by an intricately carved wooden chandelier under a glass shade.

No discussion of the doll’s house as an object of cultural discomfiture would be complete without a passing mention of Ari Aster’s cult horror film of 2018, Hereditary, (PalmStar Media) In it, the mother, Annie, is a successful artist who builds detailed miniature dioramas centred on pivotal, (sometimes tragic or horrifying), moments of her family’s life. Some of the film is shot in such a way that you are not immediately certain if you are watching real events unfold or if you are inside one of Annie’s model sets [4]. Writer-director, Aster, has said that the miniatures are meant to indicate that the characters in the film are like dolls in a doll’s house, having no control over what happens to them. It is an adult echo of Rumer Godden’s The Doll’s House, in which she explains: “Dolls are not like people, people choose, but dolls can only be chosen."

I wonder if Aster was aware of Godden’s story when he wrote the screenplay for Hereditary? It is almost certain that he knew about Frances Glessner Lee. [5] Lee was a Chicago heiress, born in 1878, who became the US’ first female police captain. She was fascinated by the new science of forensics and in the 1940s created a series of miniature dioramas she called “The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death”. These were lovingly constructed 1:12 scale domestic interiors in the style of crime scene photographs, populated with battered, bloodstained figures and rotting corpses, and were designed to help budding forensic investigators hone their detecting skills.

Growing up, Lee led a cloistered existence in the family mansion, home-schooled, with the expectation that she would grow up to become a grand society hostess. But the parties hosted by the adult Lee most often included forensic scientists and police investigators, with whom she would discuss grisly crimes and methods of detection. She came to believe that, while the physical evidence of a crime can be transitory, by properly studying the crime scene one may uncover the truth. The Nutshell dioramas contain clues and also red herrings to help students assess evidence and apply deductive reasoning.

Much can, and has, been made of the contrast between the experience of Lee’s early life as a kind of living doll shut up in a doll’s house, much like Ibsen’s Nora, and her subsequent career as a miniaturist and pioneer of forensic science. In 1945 she donated the dioramas to the Department of Legal Medicine, at Harvard and, when this was disbanded, they were moved to the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office, where they can be viewed by the public and are still used to teach forensic investigation to this day.

Although Lee never saw her miniature scenes as art, several contemporary artists have been influenced by her work. Speakeasy Dollhouse [6], by American performance artist/author, Cynthia von Buhler, is an on-going project directly inspired by the Nutshell models. Haunted by a shocking family scandal von Buhler decided to adopt Lee’s methods to reconstruct the 1935 murder of her grandfather on a Manhattan street in an attempt to make sense of it.

She built a series of 1:12 scale room sets and figures that detailed the crime, which could be walked around and studied from any angle. Together with evidence from autopsy reports, police interviews and court documents she used them to piece together several probable scenarios to explain the events.

In 2011 she created the first immersive theatre experience; Speakeasy Dollhouse: The Bloody Beginning, in which ‘guests’ were invited to a site specific location with rooms that mimicked the Dollhouse and invited to solve the murder. It has been running continuously in New York ever since.

Marc Giat -Miniet (b. 1946) creates unsettling miniature dioramas that feature abandoned libraries, strange experiments (or their aftermath), and deserted, Soviet era-style offices. He describes them as not models, nor are they decorative "dollhouses" or "display cases. These are unique works of art…” It is interesting to note that he still lives and works in the house where he was born in Trappe, which may account for the claustrophobic nature of his miniature works.

Sinister though they, undoubtedly, are, the absence of any figures makes them appear curiously sterile; a moment in time frozen forever. They do not provoke the same sense of anxiety - even disgust - that Glessner Lee’s and von Buhler’s houses do. It is the dolls which inject the element of hazard and threat with their human scale capacity for violence.

From didactic symbol of female oppression to crime scene enactment and cultural horror trope the doll’s house has had, and continues to have, a sinister life away from the playroom or nursery. In fact, it really flourished only briefly as an unalloyed children’s toy: mass production, general prosperity, and a new interest in child development brought the dollshouse into the exclusive province of children from the end of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth. It was superseded by more ‘exciting’ toys powered by battery and electronics - and then the ubiquitous computer game, with which no mere construction of painted wood and cardboard could compete. [7]

But as interest from children waned the doll’s house once again began to be an object of fascination to adults. The first serious attempt to bring makers and collectors of miniatures together was made in 1978 by a group of enthusiasts from America. They founded the International Guild of Miniature Artisans (IGMA) [8] which still flourishes today and boasts members from as far afield as Brazil and Italy. Their main purpose was to facilitate events at which miniaturists could display and sell their work and, whereas the original guilds of seventeenth century Germany were the exclusive province of men, this modern version is entirely egalitarian, the only requirement for admission being a high level of skill.

On this side of the Atlantic, too, collecting and making doll’s houses and miniatures has become a thriving hobby. The longest-running shows were established by Miniatura in 1983 and are still held twice a year in Birmingham.

Once again, a whole industry has grown up to service an adult fascination with tiny things. Shops, catalogues, and magazines exist to help build and equip every kind of doll’s house and, for the more adventurous, plans and online tutorials abound for creating one’s own. Promotional literature speaks of ‘helping you to build your dream house’, ‘challenge your imagination’ and even ‘the ultimate Miniature experience’, in the same breathy tones usually reserved for selling cosmetics and kitchens.

That, of course, is no accident, since women make up the majority of hobbyists both as makers and collectors. A review [9] of the 2015 Bethnal Green Museum’s exhibition Small Stories: At Home in a Doll’s House observed that, while children quickly tired of the exhibits “When school groups have left, the visitors lingering in Small Stories are mainly women…the ‘small stories’ are those of childhood, but of the childhood of the past, requiring an adult’s historical awareness to give them meaning.

And the houses these women mostly covet are the grand mansions and turreted castles of atavistic memory - very few are interested in the gritty realism of a modern council house or high rise flat. These houses represent fantasies of ownership far beyond reality but also a strong desire to tell their own, individual, stories and reveal something of themselves within the confines of a one twelfth scale world. At last, perhaps, women’s fantasies, dreams, and even, occasionally, their nightmares, have been allowed to become wholly their own, at least, behind the hinged wooden façade of the doll’s house.


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