Dolls' Houses Past & Present

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Titania's Palace - a Book Review by Rebecca Green

 

Titania’s Palace – A Fairytale Doll’s House (published by Den Gamle Skole, 2012), is a new presentation of this famed doll’s house by Laura Beatrice Ricks. Laura runs a toy shop in Denmark called Den Gamle Skole, The Old School. She grew up in Bristol, in south-west England, and first saw Titania’s Palace when it was on view at Wookey Hole near Bristol. After its then owner died, it was sold at auction in 1978 to the Lego Company of Denmark, and exhibited first at Legoland, and now at Egeskov Castle, close to where Laura now lives in Denmark. Laura is also a member of Rotary, which was involved in hosting Titania’s Palace on its fundraising trips around the world. She feels a strong connection to the Palace, which has followed a similar path in life to hers.

Titania’s Palace, as this book explains, was built by Sir Nevile Wilkinson for his young daughter Guendolen, who was 3 when he promised to build it, and 18 by the time of its official opening in 1922. Guendolen had seen a fairy in the roots of a tree, and her father had told her that this was the Fairy Queen Titania, who lived in an underground palace with her family.

 

Rear of Titania's Palace - the Private Entrance, for family and friends only

 

 

As well as being a palace fit for a Fairy Queen, and a gift for his young daughter, Sir Nevile intended his creation to help children in need, and to inspire other children to think kind thoughts which would lead to kind deeds.

This book has been written for children, to introduce them to the marvels of the palace and the ways of fairies, and to encourage them to be good, and to perform acts of kindness. It is thus not a book intended primarily for miniaturists and dolls house collectors. However, it has been my introduction to Titania’s Palace (apart from brief descriptions and one or two photos in histories of dolls houses), and it has given me a very good sense of the scale of construction and appreciation of the marvels within. Many adult collectors are sure to find inspiration for their own dolls houses in the photos of the furnishings and decorations of the Palace.

After an introduction giving the history of the Palace, details about the Wilkinson family, and a survey of fairies in art, literature, and popular thought of the early 20th century, the book takes us through the Palace room by room, with most rooms given a two page spread. Each room is shown in one large photograph, and there are many small photos showing details of objects and features in the room - although some of these are actually smaller than they appear in the large photo, they do identify more items than are (or can be) described in the text.

We start at the official entrance, the Hall of the Guilds. I am still not sure exactly where it is in the Palace, though I can see from the photo that it leads to the Throne Room. Sir Nevile’s plans are shown at the end of the book, on a page describing the architecture of the Palace, but they are not clear enough to read, even through a magnifying glass.

 

The Visitors’ Book, open at the pages signed by Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark, and his Australian-born wife, Crown Princess Mary

 

As an Australian, I was very interested to see the banners hanging in the Hall, which represent places which Titania’s Palace visited during its world tours to raise money for children in need, including Australia - the Australian flag is at the front of the hanging banners, and a banner of Western Australia is shown (with a black swan). Many other items in the Palace were gifts from the people of the countries and towns which hosted the Palace throughout the USA, Canada, South America, Australia, New Zealand and The Netherlands.

 

The Chapel ceiling, painted by Sir Nevile Wilkinson over nine months

 

Much of the decoration in the Palace was painstakingly created by Sir Nevile himself. The Chapel ceiling (above), shown in detail in a full-page photo, was adapted from illuminations in the Book of Kells, and the bathroom has beautiful handpainted tiles behind the crystal basin, as well as beautiful painted walls and floor. The Throne Room is very colourful – it is full of flowers, many in bright porcelain or china pots, made by Beatrice Hindley, whose flowers also grace Queen Mary’s Dolls House and Liza Antrim’s dolls houses. All the surfaces of the room – floor, walls, ceiling and the arch over the throne, are covered with amazingly detailed painting. Both the bathroom ceiling and the mosaic floor of the Throne Room are composed of 250,000 small, individual, coloured dots of paint. 

 

The beautiful tiles, painted by Sir Nevile, behind the rock crystal basin in the bathroom.

 

For most rooms, Laura has prepared a treasure hunt, a box with questions about items to hunt for in the large photograph of that room. The treasure hunt questions are identified by a magnifying glass, which is indeed necessary to see all the tiny details. Even with a magnifying glass, I still couldn’t find the secret panel to the next room in the Hall of the Guilds (perhaps I wasn’t good this week, and so was unable to …), and I did not find the spider on the ceiling of the Day Nursery, but hanging in front of a bureau. Some items mentioned in the text do not seem to be visible in the photos, small or large – a tiny sampler embroidered in 1797 which hangs on the left wall of the bathroom, the tapestry seats of the black lacquer chairs in Titania’s Boudoir, which show peacocks … Hopefully, these could be seen on a visit to the Palace.

 

The Morning Room, with furniture made by Thomas Lennon, a fine collection of miniature lacquer furniture, and a doorway of ivory carved like lace. The paintings are by French artist Horace Vernet (d. 1863).

 

I was, of course, very interested to learn who made the furnishings and miniatures in the Palace. Many were especially made to Sir Nevile’s designs by Thomas Lennon, cabinetmaker with the firm James Hicks & Sons which was contracted by Sir Nevile to build the Palace. A page on Craftsmanship at the back of the book names the makers of some items in some rooms, and here we learn that Thomas Lennon made the furniture in the Morning Room (above), the dressing table in the Royal Bedchamber (photo 3rd from bottom), as well as the minstrel’s gallery in the Hall of the Fairy Kiss, panels in the Chapel, and, in Titania’s Boudoir, a copy of a ceiling designed by Hans Holbein for the Chapel Royal.

 

Walnut bureau by Fred Early

 

In Oberon’s Study is a bureau in walnut made by Fred Early, with working locks & a secret drawer. Fred Early, who also contributed pieces to Queen Mary’s Dolls House, is also identified as the maker of Titania’s desk, the sideboard in the Dining Room, and (a miniature of) Napoleon’s sword.

 

The Chapel, with wood panelling by Thomas Lennon, and Livingstone's Casket (front left) by Horace Uphill.

 

Another familiar name is that of Horace Uphill of Wilton, in Wiltshire, England. He also made furniture for Queen Mary’s Dolls House, and perhaps other miniatures, although (according to a letter to IDHN), his main work was in full-size cabinetry. For Titania’s Palace, he created a cupboard with mosaics in the Dining Room and Livingstone’s Casket, in the Chapel. (This is a bit of a mystery to me – the casket is, apparently, made from the root of the tree where Livingstone was buried, but what is his connection with Fairyland? What is in the casket? and why is it decorated with beads from a royal necklace of Ur?)

 

The bedroom of Princesses Iris and Ruby

 

In the Princesses’ bedrooms, the first thing that strikes me is the Elgin furniture, including beds, chairs, wardrobes, dressing tables and desks, although it is not identified as such, even in the list at the back – it simply says that it was painted by Sir Nevile.

 

Dressing table and chair from Princesses Iris and Ruby's bedroom: Elgin furniture painted by Sir Nevile Wilkinson

 

Another major contributor of furnishings was a Pierre Metge of Skerries in County Dublin, who made the overmantel mirror in Titania’s Boudoir, the dining chairs and “many of the chairs in the Palace”. Is anything known about him, I wonder? Not all makers are identified - who made the furniture in Oberon’s Dressing Room – a Chippendale style desk and chairs, and a glass-fronted cabinet similar, but not identical to the Triang Queen Anne cabinet? Are the canvas chairs and deck chair in the garden Pit-a-Pat?

 

In the Day Nursery is a dolls house, a miniature copy of the first dolls house Sir Nevile built (in the scale of 1:24 of the original 1:12). We only see part of it side on!! How I would love to see inside it – it is apparently lit by the smallest torch bulbs in existence!

 

The Day Nursery, with the miniature dolls house which is a model of the first dolls house made by Sir Nevile. The ivory clock behind it is said to be the one in the nursery rhyme Hickory Dickory Dock. Also note the spider descending in front of the bureau!

 

As well as having furnishings and decorations created especially for Titania’s Palace, Sir Nevile Wilkinson collected miniatures and miniature antiques from around the world. The Palace has wonderful collections of miniature lacquer furniture, miniature books, and miniature glass from Bohemia, Murano, and Nailsea & Bristol.  Among the most amazing antiques are two tiny gold figurines attributed to Benvenuto Cellini, the 16th century Italian goldsmith, sculptor and painter. They are just 2.2cm tall! They are by no means the oldest – there is also a tiny enamel horse from an Egyptian mummy case from the Valley of the Kings, and a piece of vitrified mastodon bone, forty million years old!

 

Tiny Wedgewood medallions framed and hanging in Titania's Boudoir. The rose in front of them (one of the many flowers by Beatrice Hindley which adorn the Palace) is the talking rose from Alice Through the Looking Glass. The tigerlily is also in this room.

 

More recent elephants also contributed to the Palace – the Morning Room (shown in a photo above) has a beautiful door of ivory carved like lace, Titania’s bed is inlaid with ivory carvings from the time of Charles II, and there are some things I wouldn’t expect to find in ivory – boomerangs, a kangaroo (“found …  in a shop in London”), and a totem pole. I was relieved that one description of an ivory object explains that “Ivory comes from elephant tusks and it is now forbidden to trade in ivory.”

Objects from fairy tales and mythology have also found their way into Titania’s Palace. They include Sleeping Beauty’s ivory spinning wheel, one of the bronze jars from Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, Pandora’s Box (which somewhat to my surprise is a gold lacquered Chinese box), and a grandfather clock which is said (presumably by Sir Nevile) to be the actual clock that Hickory Dickory Dock is about (I would find this more convincing if we had not just been told that it was made (of ivory) by one of Sir Nevile’s friends).

Some of the items described evoked a "yuck" response from me: the Jack in the Box (in the Day Nursery) appears to be a skull, and the bellows of the Chapel organ are said (by the fairies) to be made from the lungs of mice. The next sentence, "In fact they are hidden under the platform", did not reassure me at all! Some children do enjoy being grossed out, but many who would be attracted to a book about a fairy dolls house could well find this distressing. 

 

Titania's dressing table, made by Thomas Lennon, in the Royal Bedchamber. It seems that fairies wear hats - note the many hatpins!

 

We learn a great deal about fairies in this book. Fairies like rainbows - there are many rainbow decorations throughout the Palace, and even the Contents list of the book is in rainbow colours. Titania’s badge, the Orange Tip Butterfly, appears around the page number on each page.

The Palace has no kitchen, as, we are told, fairies live on nectar and the smell of fruit. They do, however, have a dining room – they don’t use tablecloths, as they like to see themselves reflected in the polished surface of the dining table! The bathroom has no plumbing, as fairies bathe in dewdrops brought in on rose leaves. (It seems that they need to dye their wings (in the rock crystal basin, see photo of the bathroom tiles above) – do the colours fade?) Their fires have no wood, either, as the fires are made of glow worms. (Valerie will be pleased to note that many of the fenders are made from napkin rings and bangles. Some of the latter were once slave bangles; readers are informed that slavery is now illegal according to the Declaration of Human Rights.) Although I believe that in other parts of Fairyland cleaning is done magically, often with the help of birds and animals, here the fairies use the same equipment we do, including a vacuum cleaner (identified in the text as a carpet sweeper, but actually an early upright vacuum cleaner with a bag).

 

Queen Titania's gold ruby and diamond rings, and a gold thimble - not the smallest objects in the Palace, but almost!

 

The intended audience for the book is clear from the author’s foreword, which she ends with a post-script, “When you are told to clean your bedroom just buckle down and think how lucky you are. Although Titania’s Palace is less than half the size of your bedroom, it still takes thirty-seven hours to clean.” Other comments attempt to explain something of the era in which the Palace was conceived and built, for example, that “The use of electricity in private houses was still relatively new and was not available to everyone when Titania’s Palace opened in 1922, ” and children are asked to “imagine a whole day without electricity”. Children might otherwise be unaware that having electric lamps in every room was in any way remarkable, so this would add to their experience of the Palace. As well as the treasure hunts, other suggested activities for children are scattered throughout the book. Thus, the information about electricity and suggestion to imagine a day without it ends, “Describe your entire day”. Another example relates to the ceiling of the Throne Room, where the names of six fantasy writers appear. Children are encouraged to “read more about them … and read something they have written”,  and then asked, “Who is your favourite author? Why did you choose him or her?” Activities like these could keep a child well-occupied, a bonus on rainy days or school holidays! 

 

Princesses Daphne and Pearl's bed - I love the tiny knitted cap, scarf, mittens and socks!

 

I hope one day that I will be able to visit Titania’s Palace, and see all these treasures in person. In the meantime, the photographs and descriptions in Laura Ricks’ book provide a marvellous introduction, and even, probably, better views of the tiny objects than a visitor would have. At £24.99*, it’s excellent value – perhaps you still have time to get it for Christmas!

 

* Amazon UK price, 15/12/12

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