This weekend the Museum of Childhood opens an exhibition featuring 12 extraordinary doll’s houses made over the past 300 years. Halina Pasierbska looks inside Whiteladies House, a very stylish modernist villa forever stuck in 1935, where the cocktails are on ice and the pool party is in full swing.
It was after seeing illustrations of a grand 18th-century German doll’s house that the artist Moray Thomas decided to design one herself. Whiteladies House was built in 1935 and was inspired by the handful of modernist buildings that had begun to crop up in Hampstead, north London (Wells Coates’s iconic Isokon building was completed a year earlier). Its flat-roofed, geometric shape and white render is typical of the experimental architecture of the day.
Whiteladies was more a social observation than a children’s toy. According to an illustrated pamphlet, Thomas managed ‘to record in miniature the habits, homes, tastes and ideas of the people of today – the young people who are unhampered by choice possessions of old furniture or by old conventions of drawing rooms, calling hours, formal manners or privacy... A generation bred in one war and living its little time of sunshine to the full before the next one.’
Bearing this in mind, there is a poignancy in the care-free gathering that the viewer is invited to witness: its eccentric inhabitants and their friends are frozen in time, sunning themselves, diving into the pool and laying the table for an alfresco meal in the loggia.
Whiteladies was designed by Thomas and built by William Purse, of whom little is known apart from the fact that he was a chauffeur and talented carpenter. Thomas made the decorations, hangings and pipe-cleaner inhabitants with the help of Basil Hunt, a Sussex road-mender with a passion for model-making. The facade of the doll’s house is hinged, making it possible to look beyond the front door (complete with silver knocker) and have a closer inspection of the rooms. The interior is modern, with Bauhaus-inspired tubular steel furniture, a turquoise-coloured circular free-standing bathtub and murals by the British futurist artist Claude Flight among the standout contemporaneous pieces. What is also intriguing is the attire and behaviour of the people within it. The inhabitants of Whiteladies are a privileged set, tennis rackets in hand and never far from a (miniature) soda syphon.
|The bathroom has an air of luxury about it, with its contemporary mirror glass and silver fittings.|
Thomas had an altruistic reason for embarking on this project too, which was to raise funds for the Bond Street ward of the Middlesex Hospital. As such it is one of the oldest existing charity doll’s houses. Whiteladies House was exhibited at the Building Centre at 158 New Bond Street in London in May 1936; later that year it was offered as a loan to the children’s exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. In 1937 it became a gift to the museum. Sir Eric Maclagan, who was the director of the V&A at the time, and who is credited with broadening the museum’s public appeal, wrote to thank Thomas for her donation. ‘I accept Whiteladies House with real enthusiasm. It delighted me when I first saw it and it is a centre of attraction at present in our exhibition for boys and girls in the North Court.’ As Whiteladies goes back on display nearly eight decades later, I suspect it will capture the imaginations of a new generation of visitors who gather to observe the life in miniature that Thomas managed to capture.
This wooden modernist construction makes much use of glass and cream and green paint. The balcony was inspired by one that the artist Moray Thomas had admired in an Austrian house in the summer of 1935. There is a definite atmosphere of Mediterranean-style living – sun, fresh air and good health were encouraged at the time. The pipe-cleaner inhabitants are among many items made by Thomas from inexpensive materials. Through the chromium doors, which can be closed in winter, is the sandblasted outside-dining loggia, with an incised design on the wall and stone furniture.
|The walls of this room on the upper storey are decorated with scenes illustrating a day in the lives of the people who live in the house and their guests. There are two further bedrooms on this level: a maid’s room and a spare room. In a letter to the museum in July 1956, Thomas revealed that the mural decorations in the house were by Claude Flight and other artists, including herself.|
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