Dolls' Houses Past & Present

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The Eve Dawnay collection, Part I: dolls in historical room settings by Elizabeth Jackson


In the lovely summer of 2013 those of us in the York area who love collecting and making dolls house miniatures had an extra and unexpected treat to enjoy. An article in the local newspaper in July alerted us to an exhibition at West Heslerton Church (off the A64 between Malton and Scarborough) showing a remarkable collection of miniature historical scenes on display for the first time. The models, made some 40-50 years ago, depicting scenes ranging from classical times to the 19th century, were all skilfully handmade by Yorkshire woman Miss Eve Dawnay who grew up at West Heslerton Hall.


Above, a Roman scene. The details on the walls are created in Hardanger embroidery. Photo © Philip Richardson.  Below, a Regency scene. Photo © Zoe H.



Eve was born in 1926, the eldest of three daughters of Lt-Col. Cuthbert Dawnay (1891-1964). She was educated at Queen Margaret’s School, Yorkshire, and Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, from where she graduated with a BA in French in 1948. She worked in Paris and London before returning to Yorkshire in the early 1960s to manage the family estate on the death of her father.  An expert needlewoman, but without any formal training in art or modelling, she developed a passion for creating miniature characters, historically correct in every detail. This fascination progressed over some 25-30 years. In later life she became something of a recluse and spent all her time working away on her creations, although by the 1980s she had turned her attention to working on large tapestries and embroidering canvas wall hangings.  She died in December 2010 aged 84 leaving her collection of room settings packed away in the house she had built for herself in the grounds of West Heslerton Hall.  In 2011 some of Miss Dawnay’s work was offered to Philip Richardson, Honorary Tourism Officer of Buckrose Carrs, to display in a local church to help raise funds to repair the church roof.  Local people found them of interest and in 2013 it was decided to launch a large exhibition of all the surviving scenes in All Saints, West Heslerton. Miss Dawnay’s  family were, I believe, somewhat surprised and overwhelmed by the immense interest and appreciation shown by the many, many visitors coming to the exhibition from far afield.

 Over 30 scenes were displayed, housed in wooden boxes about 30 x 15 ins, the scale approximately 1:12. Everything was made by Miss Dawnay from recycled materials and after all this time their fragility is apparent.  Some of the furniture and accessories have collapsed and a few of the scenes were too damaged to display. In order to show them the Perspex fronts, which had yellowed with time, had to be cleaned, and all the lighting reconnected to modern transformers.


Philip Richardson in West Heslerton Church with some of the model historical scenes (Photograph by Garry Atkinson, The Press, York, 22 July 2013; permission to use here obtained by Elizabeth Jackson)


On looking at the settings it is the figures which first attract one’s attention. They are so lifelike in their poses and the detail in their faces and clothing. From notes in the scrapbook which Miss Dawnay kept it seems that some time in the 1950s she started creating small historical figures approximately 6ins tall from material. This was her original passion. They are so lifelike you feel as though they are all individual “people”.


Scene from a ball. Photo © Zoe H.


Her notes show she developed her method of creating figures using an armature of strong florists’ wire, wrapping this tightly with sheep’s wool and covering this with felt. Her special expertise was in moulding the limbs into lifelike postures, showing muscles and body traits. Hands and fingers were fashioned by stiffening the felt with glue. Faces were given character by tinting the felt and embroidering facial features. The historical accuracy in the costumes is striking.


The chessmen – a tour de force. Photos © Elizabeth Jackson 



Miss Dawnay first displayed her “miniature character and costume figures” in her London flat in December 1956 to raise funds for Hungarian refugees. In November 1957 another exhibition was held at the Royal Empire Society, opened by Joyce Grenfell, and fourteen months later a similar show took place in Leighton House, opened by Margaret Rutherford. The dolls were first shown in Yorkshire in 1959 at the Yorkshire Heritage Exhibition in York, and also at West Heslerton Hall in 1959, 1960 and 1962, all these events in aid of charities. She reported at the time that it took between 6-8 hours to create and clothe one of these early characters, although those subsequently made for display in the boxed scenes will have taken considerably longer due to the detail in the hand made clothing.


Miss Dawnay at her exhibition in August 1959

(Photograph from Scarborough newspaper, permission to use obtained by Elizabeth Jackson)


During the 1960s she developed the idea of creating scenes or diorama to display the figures, at first using simple cardboard boxes, a few of which were shown in the church display. Lighting was installed and she began to use an individual technique of draping gauze across the rear or sides of a scene to convey, when lit, a mystery or a dream-like quality. Finally she began to have wooden boxes specially built, all of similar size and shape. One damaged example could be examined at the exhibition to show how scenery was constructed from cardboard and balsa.


A scene showing the use of draped gauze in the background. Photo © Philip Richardson.


Photo © Zoe H.


All the architectural features and furnishings were also of cardboard and balsa, with string, plaster, glue, paper, lace, braid, gilding and paint effects imaginatively employed to fashion ornate ceilings, fireplaces, furniture, ornaments and accessories. The patience and decoupage skill in cutting shapes in wood, card, paper and tissue-paper is impressive and completely fascinating.  I found it hard to believe she had produced these accurate copies of ornate period furniture using such methods. The fine needlecraft in the tapestries, carpets and wall hangings is also exceptional. There are literally scores of tapestries and carpets in the rooms; visitors to the display could handle some examples to marvel at the fineness of the stitching. She also painted most of the pictures adorning the walls, and many of the mirrors were complete with suitable reflections depicted. She had carefully researched the style and fashions of each period and taken pains to use correct types of fabric and trimming.


A scene from the Commedia dell'arte, with Pierrot, Columbine, Harlequin and others.

                                                         Photo © Zoe H.


A scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream.  Photo © Zoe H.


There was some discussion among visitors on whether Miss Dawnay intended the scenes to re-create well known paintings, themes or stories. Sometimes she did this, for example depictions of Harlequin or Midsummer Night’s Dream and a set of 6 or 7 boxes (not in the display) which were labelled as scenes from The little mermaid. But in general the scenes were not given names. It seems she could visualise a total scene in minute detail, re-create the setting for her characters, and show them sitting or standing, walking or dancing, talking or singing, playing music or cards, or in any sort of pose you could imagine. No wonder we were all utterly fascinated and entranced!


Two ladies with their 'up dos' entangled! Photo © Zoe H


The question of where to house the room settings for the future is of course the next question. Some of them will also require a little restoration. For the moment they are in secure winter storage and it is planned that they will again be displayed next summer in West Heslerton.

I am very grateful to Philip Richardson for his help with this article. He tells me that Dolls House & Miniature magazine will publish an article in January 2014 (March edition).  Another exhibition will take place in West Heslerton church in July, and then during August there will be a show in the village hall. More individual figures which have since been found, plus some of Miss Dawnay’s tapestries, will be included.


The next set of images is from the CD produced by Philip Richardson for visitors to take away.




Detail of scene above, photo © Zoe H.



Scene of a ball: see also a close-up photo by Zoe at top 

The photo below, by Zoe, shows more detail of the "mirror" above the fireplace in the scene above. It is not real, but is created by putting a very fine black or dark net or mesh across where the mirror would be. When lit from behind (by a small light at the top of the the hollow chimney breast), the picture painted on the back of the chimney breast (inside) appears to be a reflection of the opposite side of the room.


See also a close-up photo by Zoe of two of these ladies with large hats, in the article above 



Above: a gentleman has his portrait painted, while a lady plays the harp.

Below: detail of the gentleman whose portrait is being painted, photo © Zoe H.



 Below: close-up photo of the scene above © Zoe H



A close-up photo of this Commedia dell'arte scene appears in the article above.



Below: close-up photo of the scene above © Zoe H




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