Down House - Modelling the Home of Charles Darwin


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15 September 2012
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imports_HAC_themodelofdownhouse_27482.jpg The Model of Down House
Peter Kelsall of Herdwick Landscapes talks about the challenges of building a model of Charles Darwin's home for a geological museum in Kent. ...

Down House

Down House, near the village of Downe in Kent, was the home of Charles Darwin from 1842 to his death in 1992. It was here that he carried out much of his pioneering work on evolution, including the writing of his most famous work 'On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection' in 1859. It was also home to his wife Emma and their 10 children, a wide variety of pets and their domestic staff.

The house began life as a very plain square Georgian building, that Darwin first described as a very ugly house. Over the 40 years, and as his family grew, Darwin completely transformed the house, doubled it size, and adding a three storey semi-octagonal bay at the rear of the house. This is usually the most photographed aspect of the house, even though it is actually the back.

Creating a Model

Down House is a substantial property, and as the finished model was to form attraction of a display on Darwin at the Stone Museum in Kent, it was clear that anything above 1/48th scale would be too large to be practical. The completed dimensions of the model, even this small scale, would be 2 and a half feet by one and a quarter foot!

The house was built with 6mm MDF, normally this would have been too heavy for 1/48th scale, but was in proportion with the scale of the house. Firstly a scale plan was drawn up detailing all the main features and their measurements. The house could effectively be divided into three separate units, known on the plans as Main House, Veranda Wing and Tea Room Wing. Each part was built as an individual unit before being fixed together on the base board.

Visiting the Real Thing

I visited Down House in August 2011. I find that site visits are essential when modelling an actual house in order to get the proportions and scale. Several photos were taken and a useful guidebook purchased. Today Down House is a museum run by English Heritage, and each year it attracts tens of thousands of visitors from all over the world. The ground floor rooms have been returned to the look of Darwin's time and are filled with furniture and many artifacts that once belonged to the Darwin family. Upstairs there is a display focussing on Darwin's contribution to science and his famous voyage in the Beagle.

Among the many highlights of the visit is Darwin's study, and in the drawing room, stands stands Emma Darwin's piano (she once took lessons from Chopin).

It's all in the Detail

The windows in the drawing room built by the Darwins are its most notable feature, by 1851 window tax had been abolished, and large-paned windows became the fashion at Down House. The model was completely hand built, and all the windows were cut without the help of laser cutting. Patience and accuracy were essential as there are 58 windows in this model. As the model was to be a museum display piece, there were no internal features to be built, so opaque plastic sheets were used to provide glass to the windows. Lighting was also installed at each floor level to give the house a comfortable lived in look when on display.

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The windows were not the most difficult task though! The Darwens had a fascination for decorative trellis work, large rectangular trellis panels cover much of the wall space both at the front and back of the house. This was a painstaking and sometimes frustrating piece of work.

The museum wanted the model to reflect the look of the house around 1880 when the Darwins lived there. Old photographs confirmed that there had been only a few minor changes since then, most notably the addition of a low structure at the back of the house used these days as the kitchen for the tearoom. A photo taken in 1870 also revealed that one of the ground floor windows at the back had originally been much taller. Otherwise the most obvious change was the amount of greenery that has now grown over all the trelliswork.

Changes Through Time

Because of the different building over the years, the roofs at Down House have become quite complex. There are different pitches, and several chimney stacks. To master the intricacies of these roofs, card templates were made first. They were checked for size and fit and used as the framework on which to fit 3mm MDF panels. The chimneys were built separately and fitted to the roofs once the roof tiles were fixed. The roof tiles themselves were hand cut from card and painted to represent the mid-grey slate tiles on the original building.

The model took over 2 months to build from design, through construction, to the final detailed painting work. It was a commission that provided many new and interesting challenges and certainly taught me one or two new skills. I am happy to say that the Stone Museum was delighted with the result.

If you would like to visit Down House, please check out the English Heritage Website www.english-heritage.org.uk (you will have to copy and paste these web addresses into your web browser).

The Stone Museum is a private museum and is not open to visitors at the present time. However they do have an informative website: www.stonemuseum.org.uk you can visit.

Herdwick Landscapes specalise in building houses, and other structures inspired by the English Lake District, but also carry out a wide range of commissions, run workshops, and display their work at most of the major shows in the UK. Please visit their website: www.herdwicklandscapes.co.uk for more information and to contact them.

This feature was originally published in Dolls House and Miniature Scene magazine. If you like making miniatures, why not buy yourself a copy of the magazine. Or better still take out a subscription so you never miss an issue. For fans of Facebook and Twitter, or to email, print or comment on the feature, please use the buttons above to share with your friends.