Dolls' Houses Past & Present

A website and ezine about dolls' houses: antique, vintage and modern. Plus furniture and accessories.

On Being a Dolls' House Enthusiast, Part 2 by Maddy Smith


Apart from my dolls houses [which I described in the previous issue of this magazine] I have also created other tiny places and scenes.  A good few years ago now, my son, Simon, gave me a book for my birthday called ‘The Art of the Miniature – Small Worlds and How to Make Them’ by Jane Freeman.  It was truly inspiring, showing work of many famous miniaturists, including her own.  In the Foreword she writes that the work of the artists she has included in the book and of those whom she has seen exhibited around the world “… supports and expands my premise that the miniature is a fine art as much as painting and sculpture.”  I, of course, cannot presume to be among such a gifted band, but I was inspired and enthused beyond words by that book.

Elli's Cottage in the Round -  the sitting room. I made the armchair, coffee table, curtains and mat, among other things.

My first little creation was a “cottage in the round”, consisting of a base divided into four rooms by two intersecting, upright pieces of board, which gave just two walls for each of the rooms.  There was no outside to this little cottage of course, so the inside could be seen immediately.  In fact, it was like looking at an open section of a house only.  The example in the book was a lot rougher than my own eventual creation but I felt that this had been done on purpose so as to entice the reader into doing better [I may have been wrong, perhaps it was made like that in the name of art!].  I had such fun with this piece, which I made at the request of my granddaughter, Elli, a then fully-grown woman of nearly twenty-one years.  I created a kitchen, a bedroom, a sitting room and a little garden; all in part only as there wasn’t much room for more than a suggestion of each.  I used some of the bits and pieces that were in ‘our’ original cardboard house and I made things, such as a mat, an armchair, a coffee table, bed covers, curtains, a bedside chest [from a matchbox], a picture of Elli for the kitchen wall – and a 21st birthday cake for her on the kitchen table.  It was a labour of love and a wonderful flight of my imagination. 

Elli's Cottage in the Round - the kitchen, with a photo of Elli on the wall, and a 21st birthday cake on the table.


Elli's Cottage in the Round -  the bedroom. I made the bedcovers, and the bedside chest from matchboxes.


Elli's Cottage in the Round -  the garden.

Then came the Christmas Boxes, the idea for which came, one year, from a dolls' house magazine.  My first box, following the directions in the article, was an A5 file box from which the front was cut off, apart from a frame all round.  Inside, I papered the walls and carpeted the floor.  I made pretty curtains for a small plastic window that I found and I decorated a small fir tree and placed wrapped presents around it, along with a teddy bear and chair.  I trimmed the frame with deep green velvet ribbon.

The first Christmas box.

I bring that first Christmas box out each year in due season and I still love to look at it.  Later, others followed.  I made one each for my granddaughters, of course, and many years later, one for my best friend and for her granddaughter.  For each box, I made small decorations, including wreaths and Christmas cards, which I hung on the walls. 


Granddaughter Elli's Christmas box.


Granddaughter Katie's Christmas box.

At my friend’s request for her granddaughter’s box, I used a snow scene taken from the window of her own house as the scene showing from the window; I made two book covers: one of ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ and one of an imaginary story told to the little girl by my friend, based on a plate with a Chinese lady on it.  As with all my Christmas boxes, there was a teddy bear and presents under the tree.  But, this time, I also dressed a very tiny doll as a fairy with wings for the top of the tree and covered a tiny metal box as a sewing box, which was open on the floor, showing reels of cotton, scissors and my own-made tape measure.  I also created a framed photo of my friend and her husband for one wall and a photo of the little girl for the other.  Another special feature was a tiny bird that I put outside the window, looking in on the scene.  I was particularly proud of this, probably, last Christmas box.

The Christmas box for my friend's granddaughter, with a snow scene outside the window from her own house.


The Christmas box for my friend's granddaughter, with a photo of my friend and her husband on the wall. I made the bookcovers for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (lying on the shelf) and an imaginary story (on the floor in front of the tree), as well as the sewing box and contents.

 The Christmas box for my friend's granddaughter - here you see the photo of the little girl herself, and also the fairy on top of the tree.


After my first scene, in the A5 file box, I decided to use cardboard gift boxes instead.  I found these were much cheaper and easier to use, for one thing, and they had the added advantage of being easily stored, with a lid for protection.  I could also choose boxes with apt coverings, such as a holly pattern or shiny red paper.  I made the frames round the scenes in cardboard and decorated them appropriately.


I made a boxed scene for Katie, my other granddaughter, to celebrate her 21st birthday, too.  It had a picture of her on the centre wall and a hanging that said ‘Happy 21st Birthday’.  On the table is a bottle of wine and glasses, a birthday card and flowers, together with a birthday cake, plates and serviettes.  On the floor are a rabbit [she had her own when she was a little girl] and a guitar.  On a shelf I placed books with titles appropriate to her studies at college and her love of singing; she had been in a girl-choir for a while.

Katie's 21st birthday box. Photos © Ray Smith

This is the box I sent to my niece, Jeanette, on the birth of her first baby.


This is my friend Elizabeth’s room box entitled “A Room of My Own” (above and below). Elizabeth is an author. I made the laptop - but I don’t remember how!  Necessity is the mother of invention, they say.  In the desk is a wad of paper, and a ‘bar of chocolate’ for when Elizabeth needs a treat.  Trouble is, the desk top can’t be opened now the laptop is stuck down. Photos © Ray Smith. 

 Below is my friend Pam’s box.  Pam and her husband owned the dolls house shop ‘down the road’.  It was a delightful Aladdin’s cave of miniatures and was the main source for furnishing my houses and boxes.  My three houses were bought from the shop, too.  I owe Pam so much as that shop was an endless delight.  I am sad that it is closed but Pam needs her retirement.  She had many regular customers and children loved her, she had just the right way of dealing with them. Even retired, she still receives letters from some children.  At one time, I used to help out in the shop, when necessary. 

A view of the garden before the inside room was created. Photo © Ray Smith.


Front view when inside was complete. Photo © Ray Smith.

Right view, showing a picture of Pam and Tony and a dolls house to represent her interest.  She has quite a few in her sitting room. Photo © Ray Smith.

Left side, showing her love of dogs.  She also loves birds and looks after those in her garden with dedication.  See the bag of wild birdseed by the open French window.  I would like to have made that window but I didn’t think I was up to the task.  Note a glimpse of the outside of the box in this picture. Photo © Ray Smith.

The final gift box scene that I made was for another friend’s birthday.  She is an artist, so I miniaturised her own paintings to put on the wall, and the window showed a flowery scene from another of her pictures.  The window had a shelf and I placed a plant in a pot on it, to indicate her love of flowers.  The table was set for tea with flowered china, as it would be whenever I was invited for a cuppa.  And, to one side, in a tiny cupboard, I placed my own hand-made paints, paintbrushes and pencils.  On top of the cupboard, I put a computer [we share an interest in computer magic] – with a model of a real mouse on the keyboard, as a visual joke.  On the pretty armchair, I placed a book with her as the author entitled, I think, ‘How to make Friends’.

My friend Eileen's box, with a flowery scene from one of her paintings in the window. Photo © Ray Smith.


My friend Eileen's box, with miniaturised versions of her paintings on the wall, and a mouse on the computer keyboard. Photo © Ray Smith.

 My friend Eileen's box, with another miniaturised painting of hers on the wall, and a vase and plant pot to indicate her love of flowers. Photo © Ray Smith.


Sometime before I ever thought of having a dolls' house or making scenes in boxes, etc. I made a family of peg dolls for my sister, Jen, in Australia, just for fun.  There was a father, a mother with baby-in-arms and two boys and a little girl.  The father held a newspaper, the youngest boy had a pull-along truck of bricks, the other boy held a football and the girl hugged a teddy bear.  I was very happy with these little figures and so was my sister. 

Mr and Mrs Peg with baby Amaryllis and toddler Rojen.


Matilda and Bruce Peg

One day, years later, I decided to make them a room-box to ‘live’ in.  I made the box from foam-board and in such a way that I was able to put a sheet of Perspex in the front so that everything was seen yet protected from dust.  I had enormous fun dressing and furnishing that room.  Of course, I made a window, with curtains, to one side, with a photo of my own garden behind the ‘glass’.  I made a sofa and fitted a small fireplace on the main wall.  I had a tiny set of wooden shelves with china on and, at the bottom, books with titles appropriate to both my sister’s and her husband’s interests (including 'Veggie Patch', 'Camper Van' and '1 Cambridge Tce').  The picture on one sidewall was of the pair when they were very young and not yet married.  A kitten sat on the hearthrug.  I had such fun with this scene, as I have had with everything I have made.  

The roombox I made for my sister Jen's Peg doll family.

One of my other hobbies, the interest in which, over the years, has declined with declining energies, has been gardening.  I don’t quite know where I got the idea from but, one day, I decided to make my daughters each a ‘garden in a box’.  The first box I bought, which was sturdy and almost square, with a lift-off lid, may have inspired me.  I got Ray to make an MDF base that fitted the inside of the box to support the garden, ready for my creative juices to flow once more – and they didn’t disappoint me.

Daughter Jane's garden.

In each garden I placed a small wooden seat, on and around which were placed items that connected the box to the owner, as if they had just got up to go into the house for a moment.  Jane’s seat had a book on it entitled ‘Natural Gardening by Jane Saunders, with a mug of tea nearby.  Alison’s book was “The Green Man” by Alison Watts with a glass of wine by a chair leg. 

As fitted the ‘natural gardener’, the paving stones by the seat have weeds and grass growing between them.  The nearby, planted, chimney pot has mostly ivy growing down the sides and a little bird sits in it.  A rabbit sits in front of the chair and nearby is a frog and a snail.  A butterfly rests on the seat back and a ladybird sits on one of the leaves of a sunflower.

Another view of daughter Jane's garden.

I built a brick wall at the back of Alison’s garden and I made a Green Man mask covered in ivy leaves to hang behind the seat.  A cat is lying as if asleep on the top of the wall but is, in fact, keeping a keen eye on a little bird that is perched on one arm of the seat.  Another cat sits looking keenly in one direction, whilst a little mouse creeps towards it from the other.   As can be deduced, Alison is fascinated by the myth of the Green Man and is also a lover of cats. 

Daughter Alison's garden. I built the little wall myself. Photo © Ray Smith.

 Daughter Alison's garden. I made the Green Man mask hanging on the wall, covered in ivy. Photo © Ray Smith.


  This is the outside of one of the boxes: both had the same dimensions but different coverings.  I had to part re-cover Ali’s box as it was covered in inappropriate teddy bears. Photo © Ray Smith.


These little box scenes may or may not be the last ones I ever make; I just don’t know where my fancy will take me next.  But what I do know is that I will keep on thinking ‘in miniature’ for as long as I have the leisure and ability to do so.  My dolls' houses are my main preoccupation, of course, and I aim to finish all three, eventually, though not too quickly.  This wonderful hobby, which is quite demanding at times, requires slow, thoughtful deliberation as well as flights of the imagination and flashes of inspiration.

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