In a new exhibition at the Museum of Childhood, dolls’ houses offer tiny windows into another time. Jessie Burton, author of ‘The Miniaturist’, explores her lifelong fascination with shrunken worlds
Honey I shrunk the kitchen: the Killer Cabinet House, 1835-1838, on show at the V&A Museum of Childhood V&A
By the age of 27, I was struggling in my professional life. Things were not going right; everything I wanted felt constantly out of my grasp. I had not thought much about dolls’ houses in the intervening years – I was a grown-up, after all – but on a visit to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, my preoccupation with these unreachable rooms returned. Petronella Oortman’s cabinet house was built in 1686; its beauty stole my breath and became the mainspring of my novel, The Miniaturist.
|The Dutch cabinet house of Petronella Oortman, from Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum|
We like to believe that we have left childish things behind, as if, in adulthood, they have no importance – but that Dutch cabinet house was a timely reminder for me about the illusion of control and the often impenetrable distance between ourselves and what we desire. There is nothing infantile about an enormous cabinet that took 19 years to build and furnish, enamelled in tortoiseshell and pewter, costing as much as a townhouse in the most expensive part of Amsterdam.
Indeed, the house was not intended as a toy – rather, it was a status enhancement for a wealthy merchant couple, a proto-Facebook where they put their ideal life on show. People would come and visit their real house, and witness the miniature version, waiting in the hall. Like many cabinet houses of the time, every room was a replica of Oortman’s real home, crammed with tiny Venetian glasses, oil paintings, silver candlesticks the length of a pin, a working fountain, hidden chambers, a library with calligraphy books no larger than a stamp, ceramics and silks shipped from the Indies. Anything she owned in full-size, she had shrunk down so that she could see all her treasures in one glance of her eye. It was, you might argue, a reminder of the Netherlands’ extraordinary imperial power.
Read the rest of the article here