Dolls' Houses Past & Present

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A Collection of Miniature Treasures Made by Bertha (Penrose) and Ralph Wright by Celia Thomas of KT Miniatures

It was the hand-painted dolls house sofa and armchair which had initially caught my eye on the online auction but from the photos alone it was difficult to gauge their quality ... and I was rather sceptical with regards to the seller's claim to the provenance. 

A glimpse of just some of the hand-painted furniture.


But on their arrival, as soon as I began to unpack the very large parcel, it was unexpectedly obvious that the contents were rather special!

As well as design, intriguingly a lot of the items appeared quite unique in construction too.  For instance, every single drawer such as those seen above in the wonderful chest of drawers,  have been completely carved out of single pieces of wood. Usually the drawers of dolls house furniture are constructed from separate components.


The sofa and armchair that had initially grabbed my attention on first seeing the advert photos, most certainly didn't disappoint and are so pretty!  They too have each been carved out of a single block of wood, their framework superbly and skilfully shaped. Furthermore, they have tiny hand-painted flowers set out in staggered rows over a white painted background.  


So Who Made This Furniture?


The above piece of paper accompanied this collection which was very interesting indeed and formed a solid basis to begin my research from, as to be honest, I had never heard of Ralph and Bertha Wright before.

Bertha Gwendoline Baker was born in London in 1897. Information about Ralph Fletcher Wright is a bit more sketchy and conflicting, but it is thought he was born in 1888 up in Cheshire. Ralph and Bertha Wright made this dolls house furniture for Bertha's two young daughters from her first marriage to Alexander Penrose. During her first marriage she had a well documented affair with author Clive Bell, a prominent member of the infamous Bloomsbury Set, and who was married to the Bloomsbury painter Vanessa Bell (sister to author Virginia Woolf). Bertha divorced Alexander in the late 1920s and then married Ralph.

Ralph & Bertha Wright

The information given states that together, Ralph and Bertha went on to make dolls houses as well as wooden animals for their extended family, and as a business for the next decade. Bertha was an accomplished artist and sculptor, and worked from her own studio.  As yet I have not been able to find out much about Ralph's background but interestingly during my research, I did come across a dedication in the front of Landmarks In English Literature by Philip Gaskell.  It says..."Dedicated to the memory of Ralph Fletcher Wright 1888-1961, with affection and gratitude." These dates all fit, as Ralph died in 1961 ... so am assuming that this is a dedication to Bertha's very own Ralph Fletcher Wright? Very curious indeed.

Scanned image from International Dolls House News magazine, Vol 22 No 2, Summer 1993.


Not much is known about Bertha and Ralph Wright with regards to their dolls houses. Rebecca (editor of this DHP&P magazine) by chance came across an image from a two-page spread in an old International Dolls House News magazine on Flat-Roofed Houses of the 1930s & 1940s (IDHN Volume 22, Summer 1993, page 46) and very kindly sent me this scanned image. The image can be seen above, and the house No. 2 (on the left) clearly names Ralph Wright as the architect and that Bertha Wright was the interior designer.  What is even more fascinating is that it was furnished throughout by Heals and states  that it is "From The Ideal Home 1935". Now does that mean the Ideal Home Magazine or the renowned Ideal Home Exhibition I wonder? Surely it must have been commissioned for a specific purpose, as it would be highly unusual for Heals, a home furnishing store, to have a "modern" dolls house created and presumably filled with tiny replicas of their furnishings?

The only other reference we can find about either of them in the public domain with regards to miniatures is some brief documented evidence that in December 1934 Bertha was part of an exhibition at the prestigious Lefevre Galleries in London where she was exhibiting "Picture Boxes", alongside  Molly Booker who was exhibiting "Sewed Pictures".  Rebecca was able to get a little further and managed to track down a few words from The Times about Bertha's exhibits...


"Lefevre Galleries." Times [London, England] 6 Dec. 1934: 12. The Times Digital Archive: Web. 2 Apr. 2016.

"The "picture boxes", by Miss Wright, are on the peepshow principle - compositions in the round enclosed in boxes, artificially lit from the top and in some cases with mirror sides. The scenes are dramatically composed, with lively movement and great skill in modelling on the miniature scale. "Le Jardin des Plantes", "Chinoiserie," and "An English Village" are three good examples."


I managed to find images of two large embroidered panels by Molly Booker in the online archives of the Glasgow School Of Art - one of a carnival scene and another of a night-time bacchanal, described as being worked in bright coloured wool and solid stitchery - they are breathtaking! Which leads me on to suppose that even though Bertha was socially well connected, her work surely would have had to have been of an exceptionally high standard to appear at such a high class gallery? If only we could find photos of Bertha's picture boxes ... they sound utterly charming!


And Now To The Penrose Family...

After quizzing the person who sold this collection to me a little more,  he revealed that these had been acquired from someone in Tisbury (Wiltshire, UK) who had inherited them a long time ago but were no longer wanted. Through the wonderful power of the internet I seem to have found a direct descendant  from Bertha's eldest daughter Sheila (nee Penrose), living (or at least certainly had lived) in Tisbury, so am completely satisfied of the authenticity of the provenance. Then on further research, a more complete picture became apparent and what an amazing family the Penrose clan were!


Here is an early 1920s photo of the Penrose family, enlarged from the original paperwork that came with this dolls house furniture. Top row left to right: Roland Penrose, Alexander Penrose, Lionel Penrose.  Lower row left to right:  James Doyle Penrose, Bertha Penrose & Daughter, The Honourable Elizabeth Josephine Penrose (nee Peckover), Bernard  (Beakus) Penrose.

In her first marriage to Alexander Penrose, Bertha became part of the famous Quaker Penrose family who owned Peckover House over in Cambridgeshire,  which is now in the care of the  National Trust. Her father-in-law was James Doyle Penrose, an Irish painter and member of the RHA. Her mother-in-law was Elizabeth Josephine Penrose (née Peckover), known more commonly as Josephine, and whose father was Baron Peckover.  Brother-in-law Roland Penrose was a famous Surrealist English painter.  If you research any of the family members seen in the photograph, you will find plenty about each of them in the public domain, even Lionel and Bernard (known as Beakus) ... makes fascinating reading! In the National Trust archives for Peckover House, there are plenty more photos of the family, including some of eldest daughter Sheila as a very young child.

A bundle of letters written by Clive Bell to Bertha were sold at auction a few years ago and you can still see the auction catalogue online that includes some information about Bertha and her infamous affair. Interestingly it states that Alexander Penrose was a theatre producer. I have not been able to find further evidence of this as yet, but he seemingly ended up as a Norfolk farmer in later life. Before this research, my knowledge of the Bloomsbury Set was rather limited and generalised, but there is so much information out there, particularly about the Penrose family, and it is wonderful to be able to personalise these pieces of dolls house furniture in such a magnificent way.  


A Magical Moment On Finding Bertha's Initials!


In the far bottom righthand corner you should be able to just see the initials B.W.

At times, it can be very difficult to prove provenance on old dolls houses and their contents without any visible evidence, and often one has to simply go on hearsay or supposition.  And just when I thought there was no hope of finding any kind of signature on these pieces, purely by chance when looking at an enlarged photo of the folding screen on my computer, I detected a tiny "BW" in the bottom right hand corner which I'd simply not noticed before!  The significance of finding that one set of initials though was a pivotal moment indeed, as the oriental hand-painted images were on  several pieces of the furniture. Therefore it meant that I could confidently say that Bertha was most definitely the artist.


Bedroom furniture that were painted with the Oriental design. 


A close up of the wardrobe and bed. Only the top two doors open on the wardrobe, the two lower doors are for effect only.

Oriental painting on the chest of drawers.

These bedroom pieces all have variations of the hand-painted oriental design,  mostly in green paint with a hint of gold, over a cream painted background.


The Rest Of Bertha & Ralph's Furniture Collection

Bertha and Ralph made other furniture too with differing hand-painted decoration.  Above you can see two single beds, chair and washstand/dressing table, with varying hand-painted floral images.

These vases of flowers on the bed ends are beautiful and the colours are still so vibrant. It is hard to believe that they were painted almost 90 years ago!  Although the two single beds are matching in design, dimension wise the bases are slightly different  - so too the hand-painted floral images are slightly dissimilar, which adds to the quirkiness of them all.

Above left is another version of an armchair.  Like the floral armchair and sofa, this has been carved out of a single block of wood but has been given a simple red finish instead.  Even though this is quite plain in comparison, it is still rather lovely and so tactile. Above right is an unusual chair indeed. The back and seat "pads" have been carved out of the wood and painted in bright yellow with a blue scatter design.


This bright blue painted kitchen cupboard, even with its dodgy broken hinge on the left door, is still magnificent with its fabulous hand-painted fruit, fish and vegetable ... have you ever seen anything quite like this before? I certainly haven't.


The clock face on this wooden grandfather clock has been cleverly carved and beautifully painted directly onto the wood.  The colours of the tiny flowers on top of the pale yellow background, along with hand-painted numbers in black, are extremely effective and very pretty.  

This carved toilet is curious without a doubt. Unlike many of the other pieces, this has been quite crudely made. The hinged lift-up toilet seat has been nicely created but the toilet bowl has relatively unsmoothed cut marks around the outside...what a quirky item! The swivel mirror has been attached to a carved framework and is backed with a kind of hessian material.

There were also a handful of plain dark stained furniture, seen here above.  They include a long chunky refectory style table, a sideboard with carved drawers and opening doors, a coffer with opening lid and a single bed.


Small Scale Furniture

Although much of the furniture are of a larger scale, there are some tiny pieces in varying scales too ... ranging from 1/24th scale, right down to even smaller than 1/48th. The two book cases seen at the back of the group in the above photo have been carved and painted in such a way that they give the illusion that the shelves are filled with books ... absolutely exquisite!

As you can see from the photos, the smaller furniture have been made using the same constructional techniques and paint finish as on the larger scale pieces.  My favourite is the tiny armchair with red flowers and tiny Tudor carved chair ... simply beautiful!


Some Bits Of An Old Dolls House...

A few random wooden walls and bits of wood from a very small dolls house came with this collection. As you can see, there is a large white sticker on one of the pieces  which says ... "BITS of tiny dolls house made by RFW & BGW". I have attempted to fit these bits together but without any kind of success, it seems that there are a lot of the dolls house walls missing ... what a shame! Not sure what to do with them all now?  Am assuming it would have had a flat roof and so could be similar in appearance to that which you can see in the black and white image earlier in this feature.  

There are some tiny doors, all hinged and with carved detail. Some lengths of wall have arched carvings to indicate fireplaces.  On the whole, this appears to be approx. 1/48th scale but scale is a bit all over the place with Bertha and Ralph's creations, and quite a few pieces don't seem to conform ... which, as any seasoned antique and vintage dolls house collector knows, is a common trait found in many an old dolls house!


And There Is Even A Little Store!


In the original advert photos,  I could only see the back of this and assumed that it was a coal bunker of some kind? So was a little stunned to find on its arrival, that it is actually a little store. It is wooden with a green and cream painted finish, quite small in size and probably more like 1/24th scale than any other. It is all fixed as one, although the hinged 3" high single door at the back does open. But access is quite easy from the front.  At the moment, am pondering what to do with it ... what a curious item this is!


And Finally...

Just as I was tying up the loose ends on this feature, a final search on a well known genealogy website unexpectedly led me to several photographs of Bertha from a young age, right through to a grand old age of 76. And even more surprisingly,  it stated that those photos had come from a book called: Bad Aunt Bertha: Memoirs Of Bertha Wright.  Hmmm ... well what can I say?!

With a title like that, sounds like there is a lot more for us to learn about dear old Bertha, I shall have to seek a copy out!

As to this unique collection? Well, I have kept quite a lot of Bertha & Ralph's pieces and have managed to shoehorn them into my 1930s Hobbies house, I just couldn't part with them! Plus some of the very tiny pieces have been crammed into my antique toy shop and look absolutely fabulous in there.  But the rest of the collection I simply had no room for and some of the very special pieces were put up for sale at Thame Dolls House Fair firstly earlier this year, and then subsequently what was left was sold off KT Miniatures website.  It was a shame to split the collection but it was pointless for the unwanted pieces to sit in a box for evermore unseen.  The sold pieces have gone to new homes, not just here in the UK, but also to some far off corners of the world too. Am sure Bertha and Ralph would have approved, as their creations have made a lot of people very happy.



Intriguingly, Rebecca discovered further that  Ralph Wright appeared on the electoral role at the address of 30 Gerrard Street, London W1, from 1923 -1926. This was the address of Birrell & Garnett, a book shop selling both antiquated and new books, owned by Frances Birrell and David Garnett.  Garnett and Francis Meynell (British poet) also ran separately the Nonesuch Press from the basement at that address.   

So ... armed with this new additional piece of information, I was able to then discover that Ralph Wright was invited to become a partner in the Birrell & Garnett book shop business in 1922 to inject further capital, as it had cash flow problems. Both Garnett and Birrell were writers and part of the Bloomsbury Set.  Their Bloomsbury friends were regular visitors to the shop.

According to  Sarah Knight in her book  Bloomsbury's Outsider, Birrell and Garnett had met Ralph when he was working at the Central Library For Students.  Ralph was described as being "sympathetic, sensitive, warm and particularly well versed in French and English literature, which endeared him to the two original partners.  He was also said to have a love of reading and flair for conversation".   Ralph was also an invited member of the Cranium Club in the 1920s, "a dining club for the purpose of good conversation amongst select friends". Several of the members were well known figures from the Bloomsbury Set but another member of particular interest was ... Alec Penrose (Bertha's first husband)!

Apparently Ralph sold his book shop shares in 1927, just before it was reorganised to become a limited company. On further research, Ralph Wright is listed as being the translator for the French novel Graziella in 1929. So we now know a little more about Ralph, but how Ralph goes from here to making dolls houses with Bertha, remains to be seen? Rebecca has also managed to discover that Ralph and Bertha married at Marseilles in France between 1931 and 1935 .... hence, that was why I could not find any trace of their marriage over here!


If there is anyone out there reading this who may have more information about Ralph or Bertha Wright and their dolls houses, picture boxes, etc., then please do get in touch, I would love to hear from you!

© - Celia Thomas - KT Miniatures - All Rights Reserved

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