Why do so many of us want dolls’ house items of 100 years of age? I have been collecting since I was six years old and find that my tastes have changed considerably over the years. I used to foolishly reject the really old furniture because I thought that it was too big.e.g. one twelfth scale. I now feel sharp pangs of sorrow about the attitude I had, having even rejected gifts of Victorian furniture and not purchased when a few such old pieces could be found at affordable prices. Luckily I did accept some ceramic vases and now treasure them highly. The fault probably lay in the scale chosen by Dol-toi, and Barton (ABC), one sixteenth was what was freely available so the old one twelfth bits looked crude and clumsy by comparison to a child. I fell in love with Lundby in 1974 when I found the Rococo stuff in Norway – it was so different to the post-war stuff that I had furnished my simple home-made box house with. When I first married, I lived in Oxford and would visit Vivien Greene’s Rotunda Museum which was excitingly full of old houses stuffed with loads of large furniture, fun, but not my scale at all – at the time.
A Schneegas chair of very simple construction (r) alongside an early 1980s piece from Taiwan (l) which is very well turned and carved for a cheapish modern item.
After many years of collecting and no time to play, I now have the freedom to re-assess my acquisitions and to explore Ebay. I have been shocked and mystified at the exorbitant prices being paid for fairly simple commercially produced furniture from approximately 1890 to 1920 when there are some marvellous pieces being made today – in scales ranging from one-twelfth to one-twenty-fourth. The Dutch matrons of the 17th Century spent great amounts of money on their cupboard houses, commissioning the craftsmen of the time to replicate their life in miniature, creating amazing models that show every-day life of that period with great accuracy. They would have dismissed the pre-World War 1 factory made German furniture that seems to command such high prices nowadays as too simple and crude.
My collection is very mixed - my childhood pieces seem too small to me now and I have taken to the bigger scale very happily. When I have commissioned a piece or bought from a craftsperson, I may have paid a considerable amount but they are exquisitely made and are antiques of the future. Recently I have bought examples of 21st century craftsmanship whilst at the same time seeing commercially produced toy furniture made for the children of 100 years ago fetching eye-watering prices. I would love to know what drives some collectors to the Victorian and Edwardian past? I shudder when I see the treacly varnished badly proportioned imported furniture made today, usually a parody of the elegance and proportions of those past times, and would not wish to furnish a house with it – but some bits are acceptable and I will happily “antique” something that has possibilities and even dismantle and re-use parts in other ways.
I consider the pieces I show in this article to be superior or historically interesting, whose construction, whether commercial or craftsman made, seems better by comparison to the German furniture made during the period 1900-20. These two factory made armchairs are based on the designs of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and, although of fairly simple construction, are of interest because of the Arts & Crafts design. There are some beautifully hand-crafted copies of this furniture but I do not own any to show.
The old furniture has a naive charm about it and I wish that I had bought more when it was available. Kaye Desmonde’s magic little shop which was tucked away in a pretty lane, just off Kensington Church Street had everything that you could desire. It was amazing place, a step back in time, she even had duplicates and triplicates of many things, but they seemed expensive at the time, which they certainly were. She was notorious for that! If I compare an Edwardian dressing-table with a 1984 “Georgian” lowboy made by a craftsman; both are lovely but the edge, in my opinion is on the lowboy since there were not many produced, it’s quite exquisite and correctly made because the maker dealt in full size antiques before he retired and knew his stuff, unlike those designers who make the blue prints for “modern” Georgian made in Taiwan! I paid the same amount for each.
I saw a beautiful soft stamped metal cradle go for over £200 recently. It was lovely and I don’t expect that many of such delicate material have survived but I would rather search out the modern makers than pay that price. Treen fetches fabulously high prices but can easily be made by a wood-turner today – if you can find a willing one. In my past job I came across many skilled craft-workers who could copy old items at a fraction of the cost and they look very good, perhaps in some cases, even better than the original.
Grecon dolls seem to be very sought after and expensive. I bought a few directly from Greta Cohn just before she retired and I was sad to see how the quality had gone downhill from those original early, cheerful, sturdy dolls who could stand firmly on their large metal feet. The latter ones are smaller with tiny feet and quite crude. I sent for a couple of Mothers and received Tarts! Even the Grannies...... She did replace them with something a little more acceptable but they were very poor quality compared to the early ones. The price was around 5/6d –[ 27p] per adult so when I see the prices now, I gasp in amazement especially since most of them look as they have been dragged through a hedge backwards with unravelling legs!
In the corner is a Judith Dunger Chinese wedding chest, made in 1994 and copied from one of 1700, on show in the V & A museum, London. It fits in well into its surroundings of c.1930 curtains and wallpaper. Next to it, on the left is a reproduction Taiwan made sideboard and to the right, a crude but nice German piece of the Edwardian era. All three pieces come from different countries and times but sit well together.
Although I like the beautiful miniatures made today I cannot bear perfectly scaled houses that can look just like real houses in photographs. I find them rather soulless and boring. I do enjoy the juxtaposition of larger with smaller, old with new, and I think it works well for me. After all, our own houses evolve with different period furnishings – we are not tied to a time-capsule. I would love to hear from others about their attitude to collecting.