At the Dolls’ House Festival
Gary Masters of Masters Miniatures
I made a rare visit to Kensington at the weekend to visit the popular annual Dolls’ House Festival, now in its twenty-fifth year and drawing larger crowds than ever before. Yet although it was my love of tiny things which drew me, I soon realised that I was a mere naive enthusiast once I encountered the giants of the miniature world, who welcomed me kindly with indulgent largesse.
The first lesson I learnt was that it is not appropriate to speak of “Dolls’ Houses” because this might imply a childish pursuit, when I was in the adult world of miniaturists. And I had only to look around to confirm the self-evident truth of this – because there were no children amongst the excited crowds filling Kensington Town Hall that day. In fact, strictly speaking there were not any Dolls’ Houses at the Doll’s House Festival, because those I did see were described by their makers as “miniature architecture.” Yet even this term might be stretching it a little to describe model-making supremo Robert Dawson’s ten foot high replica of the Vatican, perfect in every detail.
Like Alice stepping through the looking glass, I simply had no idea what I was getting into – I had no idea of the scope and ambition and scale of the world of miniaturists, and let me confess to you, it is quite wondrous. As well those who make miniature furniture – of many historical periods and modern styles – there are people who specialise in miniature food, plants & flowers, trees, fruit & vegetables, bread, biscuits & cakes, groceries, glasses, crockery, ceramics, kitchenware, tapestry, baskets, books, lamps & lighting, bathroom fixtures, prams, tapestry, bronze sculpture, silverware, ironwork, thatch, locks & latches, oil paintings, baths & bathroom fittings, pets, fireplaces & architectural mouldings, wallpapers & fabrics, chimneypots, bird baths, and teddy bears & toys & dolls. Although I must qualify that last item by adding that as well as dolls for your dolls house, dolls are also available for your dolls, just for the sake of completeness.
There were so many little things of such breathtaking detail to draw my eye that I barely knew where to look when I first entered the huge hall, filled with stalls manned by the miniaturists who had come out from their sheds and attics, climbed into cars and planes – some travelling from as far as Australia – to converge upon Kensington for the festival. A tiny bunch of radishes, a Staffordshire figure of Dick Turpin, an electric two-bar fire, a Dundee cake, a pot of lilies of the valley, a three legged stool and a tin of Brasso, these were some of the small wonders that spoke to me personally. And on each occasion, I would lift my gaze from the object of my fascination to meet that of the maker, who was observing my pleasure with proprietorial satisfaction. Invariably, they wore spectacles, a badge of the trade that relies upon close inspection of tiny things and equally, they shared the hunch that I adopted while I was there, arching my spine and craning forward to better focus upon the beloved miniatures.
“My favourite is the working miniature bacon slicer!” admitted Karen Griffiths, of Stokesay Ware based in Stoke Newington who has been making miniature bone china dinner services and earning a living out of it since 1981. Karen trained as a ceramicist at the Royal College of Art and created some miniatures to earn a little money after college, then never looked back. It was a similar story with many of the miniaturists I spoke with, trained craftsmen and women who have discovered both a facility for working on a tiny scale and a demand for what they produce. “I used to restore antique furniture and then somebody suggested I do this,” explained Brian Underhay, gesturing cavalierly to the magnificent array of tiny tables, chairs, cabinets and chest of drawers laid out as examples of his handiwork.“We did Thomas Hardy’s cottage and Beatrix Potter’s farmhouse for a museum in Tokyo,” Graham Wood informed me with relish. He has a degree in Industrial Engineering and lives in the New Forest where he runs “The Little Homes of England,” making miniature cottages for which his wife Anne-Marie crafts realistic thatched roofs from the same bristles that are used for brushes.
They were just three examples among hundreds who have won an independent existence, devoting themselves to lives of painstaking labour, often living in remote corners of the country and making a steady and reliable income through internet sales and international Dolls’ House fairs, of which Kensington is pre-eminent in Europe. This weekend, fans travelled from across the country and serious collectors from around the world to pay homage to these top miniaturists, who, in spite of their natures – preferring retiring to work in the garden shed to stepping out into the spotlight – were uplifted by the delight that their handiwork drew from the crowds. Even modest individuals need to be appreciated. And there is an irresistible poetry to this highly skilled work, in which so many talents come together for the sake of the strange yet compulsive joy of small things.
Hilary & Martin Pearce of Willow Models have made miniatures together for nineteen years.
Cakes by Tiny Ter Miniatures of Barcelona.
Sue Cook began when she made a dolls’ house for her son thirty years ago.
Graham Wood of “The Little Homes of England” with his miniature outside toilet.
French gilt furniture by John & Sue Hodgson.
Brian Underhay, with his miniatures made of wood salvaged from old furniture.
Vegetables by Mouse House Miniatures.
Neil Carter who casts miniature sculptures in bronze, with his wife and daughter.
Maria Fowler of the Little Dolls’ House Company, Toronto, with a selection of miniature chandeliers.
Georgina Steeds of The Miniature Garden Centre – “I had a miniature florist’s shop and I couldn’t get any plants for it so I made my own and it grew from there…”
Penny Thomson who specialises in characterful figures, with a Nightwatchman made in paper maché.
William ( £139) and Kate (£135 ) by Georgina Ritson Dolls