One of the universally favourite items within the collection at Nostell Priory is our Dolls’ House. Nostell’s dolls’ house is one of two important 18th-century doll’s houses within the National Trust (the other is at Uppark House). Our dolls’ house was made for the Winn family (who lived at Nostell) around 1735, which was when the current Nostell Priory was being built. Traditionally, it’s thought to have been built by a young Thomas Chippendale, who was born at Otley, which is only a few miles away from Nostell (which sadly can’t be proved – but it would make a great addition to Nostell’s fabulous collection of Chippendale furniture, one of the largest in the country). The decorating and furnishing of the dolls’ house was done by the Lady Susanna Henshaw, the wife of the 4th Baronet at Nostell (who built the present main house).
And just like Nostell Priory itself, the dolls’ house gets its own spring clean once a year. We did this in front of the public as it was a great opportunity for them to see, learn, and ask questions about our work.
The cleaning itself is relatively simple, but great care is needed due to the size of the objects. We don’t want to lose anything! It’s really a scaling down of the work involved in cleaning the main building and contents at Nostell. For example, each object will be carefully dusted, checked for damage or deterioration, and the fabrics will be vacuumed (with a special museum-grade low-suction vacuum cleaner).
When the house is open to visitors, the dolls’ house is covered with a large glass pane, to ensure that visitors can get a good view of the inside (and there are steps for our smaller visitors to be able to see the top floor rooms). The glass has the added effect of reducing the amount of dust and dirt entering the doll’s house, reducing the need to clean it more frequently. Infrequent cleaning also means that we are less likely to lose any of the contents – as some of them are very small indeed! It also fits in with a rolling programme of annual cleaning which takes places across the whole of Nostell Priory – after all it’s a big house, there are lots of objects to clean and conserve.
The craftsmanship of all of the furniture and accessories suggest that it was made for adults to admire, rather than for children to play with. For example, in the photograph below there is a cabinet which is in the drawing room. The cabinet is never open whilst the dolls’ house is on show to visitors, so when it is cleaned we look at in detail to make sure there are no pests or signs of deterioration. It’s inlaid with ivory and because the inside rarely sees sunlight the colour has been preserved very well, including the ornate artwork on the drawers. Wonderful! Visitors really enjoyed seeing the inside of the cabinet.
Aside from the Chippendale connection and the fact that the building of the doll’s house is contemporary with the building of Nostell itself, what is amazing is the detail of all of the accessories. The tableware is made of hand blown glass, all of the silver is hallmarked, all of the fireplaces were copied from James Gibb’s Book of Architecture (dated 1728), a table in the parlour has real wrought-iron brackets and a marble top, and the walls in the drawing room are decorated with contemporary French prints.
There we have it – a clean and dusted dolls’ house. We especially enjoyed talking to the public during our conservation work on the dolls’ house, as this is definitely one of our favourite jobs to do at Nostell and we love to share it with visitors!
We arranged for some journalists and photographers to come and photograph us cleaning the dolls’ house, which is great publicity for Nostell and will hopefully encourage more people to come and see the dolls’ house for themselves. Articles were published in The Yorkshire Post, the Yorkshire Evening Post and the Wakefield Express. Here is a link to one of the articles that was also published on the newspaper’s website: