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Denton Welch’s Dolls House

February 28, 2019
by Jojo Tulloh

I was thrilled when Jojo Tulloh offered to write this piece about the dolls house in the Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green which was restored in the forties by one of my favourite authors, Denton Welch


Upstairs in the ‘Home’ gallery of the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood at Bethnal Green is an eighteenth century dolls house. The outside is painted to resemble pale stone-colour bricks and it has a low dark wood stand. It is just one of many dolls houses displayed in the gallery’s large glass cases. The front is closed and the house quite plain looking, after a quick glance you might be tempted to go on to the next exhibit. However this dolls house is unlike any other in the museum. It is a physical link to a highly original human being, the artist and writer Denton Welch, who restored this house.

In his journal, Welch describes the moment he first saw the dolls house, a gift from Mildred Bosanquet whose mother’s family were the original owners.

26th March seven o’clock 1945

For the last few weeks I have been mending the mid-eighteenth century doll’s house  (which Mrs Bosanquet of Seal handed over to me in 1941). It has been in her mother’s family (Littedale of Yorkshire) since it was made. Mrs B said glibly,  “I suppose it was made by the estate carpenter.”

I first saw it in B’s cellar on a winter afternoon. She said, “Here’s something that might interest you, Denton,” and shined a torch into a grey oblong box, amazingly dilapidated, on a stand. There were windows out in it, but I hardly would have believed it was old, until she opened the doors and showed me the charming mantelpiece in each room, every one subtly different, with perfect mouldings. Then I saw that the tiny doors were two-panelled and that each room was wainscoted halfway up, just as eighteenth century rooms should be.

But it was all daubed and coated with so much thick paint and there were so many sordid remains of Edwardian doll’s furniture, together with moth eaten curtains and pieces of felt that it had clearly become something to be avoided and forgotten.”

Denton Welch is not well known and many of his books are out of print but he is the kind of writer that you discover and take to your heart as you would a new, fascinating and sometimes alarming friend. You quickly find yourself reading all of his works. He is a writer much loved by other writers for the vivid and intimate way he is able to narrate the circumstances of his adolescence and later his painful convalescence. The circumstances of his life were tragic but they combined to produce a writer with a singular voice.

Welch was born in Shanghai to an English father and American mother but from the age of eleven he was educated in England. His mother died around this time. After running away from school at sixteen, he took a journey with his father in China and then enrolled in art school at aged seventeen. When still a student at Goldsmith’s Art School, Welch was knocked down by a motorist while cycling to his uncle’s house. He was badly injured, his spine was fractured and he spent three years recovering in a nursing home. His fractured spine, caused inflammation of the bladder and kidney failure, which left him partly impotent.

The effects of the injury would greatly curtail his life, leading eventually to tuberculosis of the spine and frequent and severe headaches and high temperatures. He was often confined to bed, but it was during this time that he also produced his intense and arresting works of autobiographical fiction. His first two books In Youth is Pleasure and Maiden Voyage both recall his teenage years when he was in full health but beset by terrible anxiety about his inability to fit in with school and his conventional family. He had a great ear for dialogue and an ability to create a distinctive sense of place. Despite his frequent bouts of extreme ill health, before his premature death at the age of thirty-three, he managed to produce a significant amount of work. Several of his books and his journals were published posthumously. His last journal entry, written just a few months before his death is a detailed and very funny account of tea with Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicholson at Sissinghurst.

Because of his accident Denton Welch was isolated and lived in a world of memory and imagination, recreating past events both painful and pleasurable. The writer is often miserable but the books are far from that. Sometimes his books are painful to read but whatever he is writing about whether it is food, architecture, sexuality, churches, antiques, the behaviour of his relatives, his own impulsive and sometimes selfish actions, he makes it compelling.

The writer Edmund White has said of Welch that he is:

one of those writers who is always interesting. The more his world is reduced to a hospital room and a handful of human contacts the more fascinating he becomes.  Is it the precision of his observations, the fierce but gentle strangeness of his personality or his love of nature that captivates the reader? Like Colette and Jean Rhys, Welch has the power to generate interest out of even the most meagre materials. He had this gift from the beginning but suffering and illness refined it into a white hot flame.”

Welch’s novels are compressed pieces of recalled life. His journals are more discursive, during the times he was well he would cycle or walk to churches and ruins, visit antique shops and picnic. He often recalls conversations with those he meets along the way. He also writes at length about the restoration of the dolls house. Writing in March 1945, he recalls the acquisition of the house four years earlier.

“At last it arrived one morning when I was still in bed, having written Maiden Voyage for several hours. My head and eyes were tired, and I was almost trembling with excitement as the men climbed up the outside staircase with it and plumped it down in the middle of the studio. In my pyjamas I began to poke and peer and examine it.

First I tore away all the repulsive curtains and carpets which had been nailed on. The moths’ eggs were thick as fish roe and the dust was like bat’s fur. Gradually I emptied every room (dining, drawing, bed and kitchen). There were only two bits of Georgian furniture left. A charming dark mahogany Pembroke table with one flap, and two tapering legs missing, and a little chest, also very dark mahogany, but quite plain, with little brass knobs. I forgot the little oak stool for the kitchen. There was a tiny, perfect old brass saucepan, two good little pewter platters and some little Victorian dish covers.

The rest was muck, except perhaps for the curious little chair and chiffonier, perhaps 1880-90.

When I had stripped the rooms I saw how coated with ugly pink and green paint each delicate moulding was. Even the floors were painted pink and green. Perhaps by some child with two pots of bright enamel.)”

With great care Welch restores the exterior paintwork.

As I looked closer at the body of the dolls’ house, I saw that under the grim unfeeling coat of battleship-grey was a lighter fawn paint, and on this paint were the signs of bricks painted in black.

This excited me and I began to scrape. I soon found that under the fawn were two other coats of yellower, bigger bricks with white outlines, and that right at the bottom the original coat was tiny red bricks. I longed to get down to this first coat, but it was impossible without ruining it in the process, so I contented myself with the first beige bricks, which by the texture and the quality of the paint seemed to date from at least the early nineteenth century.”

After many months work he strips off the different patterned wallpapers and uncovers the original colours of the rooms that you can see in the dolls house now (drawing, pink – dining, white – bed, blue – and kitchen, white and ochre).

I painfully scraped down to these, stripped the floor to its original plain wood, and found that the doors were meant to be bare mahogany and white surrounds.”

He also discovers that the draws of the stand were originally painted with a Chinese Chippendale fret design, “very pretty but quite ruined by age and stripping. I carefully ruled out the shape of it, then painted nearly all of that in to preserve it.”

He makes a new handle out of odd bits of an old brass handle, but a bomb landed in the garden of his rented cottage in Kent and later on it caught fire, destroying many of his treasures and so he has to move. This time to damp, cramped rooms above a garage. The dolls house languishes for three years before he takes it up again in 1945.

Then came the awful stupid scenes and troubles before I left Pond Farm, and again the dolls’ house had to go, this time to Mays’ outhouse studio where it was stored from 1942 until last month, when I suddenly had a passion for it again, unaccountable, unless it was just looking at it in its ruined condition and seeing again how lovely it could be.

And with May’s tools I started on it, never having done any carpentry since the age of eleven.”

He remakes the stand and repairs the big doors, and then turns to remaking the tiny tapered legs of the Pemroke table, the missing windows, front door steps and the pediment and tops of the columns, “The fanlight I made all of matches and putty, and it was good.”

He carves a tiny cedar newel post and remakes the chimneys, the balustrade he finds (part of a bracket) in a junkshop in Tonbridge.

Nothing will look grander than the dolls’ house, with its perfect classical door, window proportions, heavy Palladian coigning, cornice, and then the pediment and the reconstructed balustrade, all standing on the stand with the fret pattern revived.

All these weeks I have been doing it every afternoon (after writing) in May’s garden. One has the feeling that slowly the house is coming to life again.”

Denton Welch never owned a home. He lived precariously in rented rooms but he always longed to restore a ruin, perhaps a grotto or a medieval chapel and live in it. He had a great love of old and beautiful things and a horror of poor restoration or alteration. The contemplation of ancient and fine things gave him great comfort. In his journal dated 21st of January 1945, a page or two before the entry about the dolls house, he recalls the eighteenth century house in which he rented a room at 34 Croom’s Hill, Greenwich whilst he an art student. He thinks back to the time when he was young and lonely, waiting for something to happen but still in perfect health.

And the old eighteenth century room with everything just thicker, wider, more generous than absolutely necessary, seemed to hold me within its walls as if I were valuable, worth taking care of.”

It is tempting to believe that in restoring this eighteenth century home to its original, elegant beauty he was able to fulfill his ambition to make a permanent home of his own, even if only in miniature.

Drawing Room

Bedroom

Dining Room

Kitchen

Ovens

MJD, 1783

Photographs copyright © Victoria & Albert Museum

Portrait copyright © National Portrait Gallery

Self Portrait by (Maurice) Denton Welch (29th March 1915 – 30th December 1948)

Jojo Tulloh’s books include The Modern Peasant and East End Paradise

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At The Dolls House Festival

10 Responses leave one →
  1. February 28, 2019

    This is such a moving story. That & the photographs are fascinating. What appear to be the craftsman’s initials & the date must have been a joy for Denton Welch to discover. I have a Georgian/early 19th century – style dolls house which was a gift, origin unknown, possibly early/mid 20th century but made by someone fairly skilled in carpentry. I love such creations, the older the more fascinating; it’s the allure of the miniature – and the history.
    So sad that Denton Welch, such a multi talented person, was so unfortunate & died so young – but had achieved so much even in his short life & despite his setbacks. A wonderful story – thank you for publishing it.

  2. February 28, 2019

    This is a fascinating story – and sits well with the present general interest in the restoration of old and lovely things that many people have in their homes (see The Repair Workshop on TV). Its sad to read about Welch’s accident and resulting life changing illnesses but maybe this article will encourage some to read his books and diaries. I know I shall. The quote from Edmund White is praise indeed. Thank you for bringing this writer to my attention – and for the photo’s of the lovely old doll’s house – which made me yearn for one of my own!

  3. February 28, 2019

    Thank you for this gem! What a delicious progression — to learn of the obsession, to “tour” the little charismatic house, and then (the cherry on top of the sundae) to discover a photo of Denton Welch to complete the experience. The appeal of miniatures is undeniable — and this beautiful post illuminates why.

    This one’s a keeper!
    Many thanks.

  4. Jill Wilson permalink
    February 28, 2019

    It looks charming! I’d love to make a dolls house version of 18 Folgate Street if I ever get the time (although it would be missing the sounds and smells of the original!)

  5. Jill Wilson permalink
    February 28, 2019

    Also never heard of Denton Welsh – I will have to check him out.

  6. February 28, 2019

    Thank you for bringing Denton Welch to our attention. . His writing is intense and it has absorbed everything possible from his restricted envirionment. It makes very good reading indeed. His work on the Dolls House and it being kept at the museum is a fitting tribute . Hopefully it will serve as a pointer to his writing

  7. mlaiuppa permalink
    February 28, 2019

    It was a labor of love to build that house and a labor of love to restore it.

    I love dollhouses. My favorite part of Knott’s Berry Farm in California was Mott’s Miniatures. They had many doll houses.

    I once wanted to build a dollhouse just as intricate, but sadly lack the skills and time so that will probably never happen.

    So sad most of the furniture and accessories have been lost to time. But the dollhouse is lovely as it is. I’m grateful he had the opportunity and the time to restore it and preserve it for us to enjoy.

    I will make a note of the Victoria and Albert Doll Museum and add it to my list of places to see for my dream trip to England.

  8. Kristine permalink
    March 4, 2019

    What a beautiful dolls house. I read “The Miniaturist” recently and loved the notion of some clever craftsperson fashioning numerous small objects perfectly to scale.

    I admire that Denton Walsh had the skill and patience to peel back the many layers of paint and decoration.

    One of our prominent art museums here in the States, has a collection of 68m miniature rooms that depict historical rooms of Europe, Asia, and North America. The woman who designed them worked with a craftsman to create many of the furnishings. They too a delight to behold.

  9. JOAN REYNOLDS permalink
    March 5, 2019

    I know the Bethal Green museum so very well. As a child my maternal Grandparents lived just opposite the Musem Gardens and most weekends when we visited I was allowed to go to the Museum and see all its old toys. I remember there were a few doll houses. I was fascinated, particularly by the tiny furniture. I also had my own doll house – it became mine when my sister outgrew it. It had been a present to her when she was three – in 1945. This was war-time, a period of great shortages. My Dad and his best mate found scrap wood (bits from tea chests, orange boxes) and built a three bedroom house, very simple but with miniature fireplaces, a staircase, and real glass windows. It was a work of art with dovetail joints the way things were done in those days. They managed to give it “electric” lighting by wiring each room with tiny light bulbs all powered by a battery clamped on the back of the house. My sister was given it at Christmas – came down in the morning to find the house all lit up so that you could see the little rooms behind the windows. She never forgot the thrill. When I took it over, I of course ruthlessy redecorated it, made little things for it and spent many happy hours with it. When I outgrew it, it was put in a cupboard at the end of a long landing and when my niece and nephew visited as toddlers they would spend the whole afternoon on “make believe” – and all we could see from the end of the landing were their little bottoms as they knelt and muttered conspiratorially to each other. Happy days. In the end, my parents got old, and gave the house to my niece whose life was a bit disorganized and the dolls house ended up in an outbuilding quite forgotten, rotted and was thrown in a skip. My dad never quite forgave her for not treasuring the labour of love he had so lovingly handmade 50 years before. I hope all makers and owners of dolls houses had as much love and fun as we all did over the years.

  10. March 21, 2019

    As a child my mother had a dolls’ house designed by her father, the architect of Shell-Mex House. As she told it all his suppliers got together to provide the fixtures and fitting, apparently even back then, around the time of WWI, it was possible to get tiny lights that worked, though I suspect the same could not be said of the plumbing!

    One day she came back from school to find it gone, her mother had given it away as she was ‘too old’ for that sort of thing. She never forgot the hurt

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