The Queen’s Dolls House

Lecture at Goddards by Lucinda Lambton
Sunday 10 June 2012
“Turn the dark cloud inside out…”

On Monday 11th November 1918, after four terrible years, the guns on the Western Front finally fell silent. The Great War was over.

Then came the Great Silence.

This phrase was first coined in November 1919 when British people stood motionless for two minutes to remember those who had died during the conflict. Increasingly nowadays, it describes a longer and more enduring kind of silence, born out of national shock, grief and numbness. The old rituals of life re-commenced; but everyone knew that the pre-war world had gone for good. The future would be very different; but in what way? Millions of young men had been lost in the conflict. Those lucky enough to survive felt a sense of guilt merely because they had survived.

After two years or so the mood slowly began to lift. So it may seem curious that, from this strange, silent period, one of the first initiatives to engage British people from many different walks of life should be the creation of a dolls’ house.

But, of course, it isn’t curious at all. For the whole point of dolls’ houses – this one as much as any other – is that they encompass a world totally in control. Behind its imposing front door the house is ordered and harmonious; everything functions properly. In stark contrast to the bewildering dislocation of the preceding few years, all is utterly, totally and reassuringly well. Of course there are some surprises; it would be bland and dull if there weren’t. But they are delightful surprises, such as the discovery of the tiny contents of a drawer or cupboard, or the exquisite workmanship in a miniature replica of a full size original. Wisely, no dolls are to be seen in any part of the house. This would spoil the great illusion not only by introducing an element of unreality but also, at the same time, a reminder of human reality with all its conflict and disharmony. The world of the Queen’s dolls’ house is always that of 1921 or 1922 (although really – and comfortingly – 1914). But inside its safe and encircling walls luxuriates a world of perfection.

It was early in 1921 that Princess Marie Louise, grand-daughter of Queen Victoria, asked her friend, Sir Edwin Lutyens, to design a dolls’ house. To be filled with diminutive treasures, it would act as a gift for Queen Mary, thanking her for her unstinting presence and devotion during the war. Marie Louise knew Lutyens well. She instinctively sensed that here was precisely the kind of challenge to which he would respond with style. His imagination, sense of fun and playfulness just begged to be harnessed. The project was one he was born to undertake.

In her superbly entertaining way, Lucinda Lambton told us of the early days, designing and creating the model (in his Wrenaisance style) at Sir Edwin’s Apple Tree Yard office in London. When the shell was finished – complete with electric wiring and plumbing – the house was moved to his home at Mansfield Street where it stayed for two further inconvenient, yet busy, years. Lutyens himself played a major role in persuading, cajoling and beguiling 60 artists and 150 craftsmen and writers to contribute to the furnishings and fittings.

By 1924, the house was finished. ‘The most perfect present that anyone could receive’ wrote the Queen to everyone involved in its creation. And at that stage, it might have been added to one of the royal collections and immediately lost to public view. Fortunately however, it was taken to the British Exhibition at Wembley where, as one of the most popular exhibits – seen by 1,617,556 people – it helped make ‘Wembley’ Wonderful . A year later, to raise money for the Queen’s charitable fund, it was moved to the Ideal Home Exhibition at Olympia. Finally, in June 1925, it was put on show at Windsor Castle where it has remained ever since.

No one could fail to be enchanted by Lucinda’s photographs and descriptions of the miniature contents, equipment and up-to-date technology of the house. We loved it all – from the working taps in the bathrooms and kitchen (has anyone ever tried them?) to the coved ceiling in the great hall, painted by Lutyens’s friend, William Nicholson. It was one of those afternoons which we wished could have gone on for ever – as, we hope, will the Queen’s dolls’ house.

We were already relishing our time in the special atmosphere of Goddards, an Edwardian Lutyens house. Lucinda then magically transported us to yet another and very-much-grander one. We thank her for taking us on such a memorable and pleasurable journey.

With acknowledgements to Juliet Nicholson ‘The Great Silence’ 2009 and to Lena Gilbert Ford who wrote the words of ‘Keep the Home-Fires Burning’ 1914.

John Entwistle