19 April 2023
Sadie Brown explores Queen Mary’s Dolls House, the crown jewel of the miniature world at Windsor Castle.
Queen Mary’s Dolls house is unparalleled for its regal and mesmerising detail in 1/12th scale. A gift from the nation to their highly regarded and much-loved Queen in the aftermath of World War One, what has subsequently become the world’s most famous dolls house was initially born from the imagination of her childhood friend, Princess Marie Louise. Queen Victoria’s grand-daughter and cousin of Queen Mary’s husband, King George V, the Princess enlisted the assistance of renowned architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens.
The Queen was an avid collector with a love for all things miniature, which had endured throughout her life. The dolls house was built through the innovative eyes of over 1,500 individuals and manufacturers who worked with the Committee brought together to bring the house to life, those involved in its creation all undoubtedly the best and most imaginative in their field.
The Saloon. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018.
A friend of the Princess, Lutyens’ lively and vibrant personality made him the ideal person to become the energetic influence behind the project. There is an amusing story which tells that he once found himself berated by Lady Sackville for the sheer amount of attention he was lavishing on the design and build at a time when he was also to be working on a commission for a major oil company. I think it’s true to say that this is a fine example of something many a miniaturist will have discovered along the way - miniatures have their way of absorbing time much faster than the turn of any hands on a clock!
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However, how many of us can say that our dolls house has taken up so much space that we needed to knock down a real wall to move it? So large is the dolls house that this is exactly what happened in Sir Edwin’s office, enabling it to be moved to his Mansfield Street home, where, despite its considerable size, it was to sit in state until completion. He must have had a very understanding family, but, as it was visited by Queen Mary herself on more than one occasion, I’m sure they forgave him for any lack of space!
An incredible piece of miniature architecture, and described by The Brighton Toy Museum as ‘part time capsule’, Queen Mary’s Dolls House can undoubtedly be counted amongst the very finest 20th century works of art.
The Day Nursery. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018, photographer David Cripps.
It is though, one which contains a wealth of individual miniatures which are works of art in their own right. You don’t feel there are many occasions when the word impossible can have been used with regards to the dolls house. This is, after all, the 1/12th scale property with electricity, a fully functional lift, running water, a working gramophone, the construction for which involved an astonishing 70 people, and what some might consider to be the pièce de résistance, a flushing toilet.
It's also the dolls house where paintings of Queen Elizabeth I and Henry VIII sit surrounded by the complete works of William Shakespeare in the walnut panelled library, alongside tiny books which become a roll call of the days’ most prominent and distinguished writers. These include specially written volumes such as Vita Sackville-West’s A Note of Explanation, which, since it was published as a full-size book just last year, is now available for everyone to enjoy.
There are also miniature newspapers and magazines of the day to be discovered, such as a 1923 issue of Country Life, dated the 19th September. One especially notable piece in the library is a set of miniature Maundy money.
The Library. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018.
To list every book, painting or tiny object inside the house within one article would be an unachievable feat, but one piece which will have an enduring and timeless appeal to all miniaturists, is the intricate toy theatre in the day nursery. The stage is set for Peter Pan, a story close to Edwin Lutyens’ heart as not only a friend of author, J. M. Barrie, but also as the set designer for the original early 20th century stage production. The detail found on such a tiny stage is amazing, there’s no other word for it. The open window, the clock resting on the mantelpiece and the design on the curtains all set a benchmark for everything else seen throughout the house.
A palace which incorporates all the associated attributes, including a set of miniature Crown Jewels radiating sparkle inside the strong room, there remains plenty of room for the wonderful minutiae of everyday life. In small scale, a tiny hairbrush with individual bristles can, in a single moment, become the most intensely interesting sight in the world!
Not an unusual item, but, perhaps, amongst the most unusual miniature items ever created, are several pneumonia jackets. With the aim of warming the chest in the days prior to the invention of the antibiotic, they are a piece of medical history now beautifully preserved in miniature.
The Wine Cellar. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018, photographer David Cripps.
Special mention must also be given to the wine cellar, which holds somewhere in the region of 1,200 bottles of the finest champagne, wines, spirits and even beers within its careful design. Naturally, almost 100 years after they were filled with their labelled contents, a proportion of the alcohol has succumbed quite literally to the evaporation of time, but this remains a collection which would continue to be the envy of any connoisseur! With such a lavishly stocked cellar, no one would go thirsty, and with a pantry equally piled high with genuine provisions, hunger would also prove unlikely.
The small tin of Colman’s mustard is an absolute joy to behold. In fact, a large quantity of items in the house were created by household names still familiar to us daily, including a tiny Kodak photo album. Oh, and there’s also a lot of soap, so plenty of opportunity to make use of that running water!
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Readers will be familiar with what could be termed the ‘standard’ dolls house, which often has a plain back where nothing very much happens aside from the concealment of unsightly wiring, but Queen Mary’s Dolls House is different. It’s four sides open to reveal an array of rooms, incorporating everything you would expect to find in a palatial dwelling befitting of Royalty.
You might wonder what could possibly ever tempt you to ever leave should you find yourself in the enviable position of being able to climb inside the house and its then contemporary world?
The Grand Staircase and Hall. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018.
The magic doesn’t end at the door with the grand hall and its sweeping staircase. ‘Outside’ lies the most perfect miniature garden, designed by the leading horticulturalist and garden designer of the day, Gertrude Jekyll, who worked with Lutyens on numerous projects. Royal Collection Trust points out that every flower and tree is botanically correct - an achievement which deserves a huge amount of respect and recognition, owing to the time and effort required to ensure such a feat when working in small scale.
However, if plants aren’t your bag, then lying beneath the library is the garage, a present-day vintage car enthusiast’s paradise with vehicles bearing the familiar names of those firms synonymous with the glory days of the British motorcar industry, such as Daimler and Rolls Royce.
I have always been a huge advocate of bringing miniatures to as wide an audience as possible, and in Queen Mary’s dolls house we may well have the miniature which has drawn the attention and adoration of the largest section of society.
Upon its completion in 1924, the newest addition to the London property scene took pride of place in the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley where more than 1.5 million people saw the wonders of this beautiful house for the very first time. The following year, the dolls house made an appearance at the Ideal Home Exhibition, where it was showcased to many more members of an excited public, before it finally moved to its permanent home at Windsor Castle.
Queen Mary’s Bedroom. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018.
Sir Lawrence Weaver, architectural writer and member of the Committee, described Queen Mary’s Dolls House as ‘A serious synthesis of the building arts of our generation’, so whilst the house was a gift from the nation, it could be suggested that, latterly, it was also a gift to the nation. Gifting an amazing insight into just who we were then for many generations to come, it delivers a glimpse, now so gloriously frozen in time, into an age now sadly disappearing from memory.
Queen Mary’s Dolls House isn’t simply a single story. Each person involved with its foundation and construction had an individual story to tell. A story about the part they played, however large or small, and these are stories which now live on through the pieces they created. The detail of a tiny printed book or a diamond set Fabergé mouse, hold the same resonance today as they did in 1924 and whilst time itself may march forward without hesitation or sentimentality, the house continues to enchant her audience.
The large number of people from throughout the world who visit Windsor Castle each year, find themselves captivated by that same sense of wonder and amazement as those who first laid eyes upon this remarkable miniature masterpiece almost a century ago.
With many thanks to Royal Collection Trust. Queen Mary’s Dolls House is included in general admission to Windsor Castle. For further information on visiting and booking, visit the Royal Collection Trust website. Discover much more about Queen Mary’s Dolls House and its contents here.
Looking for more? Take a tour of another miniature royal residence, The Queen Mother, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon's dolls house, based in Glamis Castle.