Between 1921 and 1924, the great Sir Edwin Lutyens built a doll’s house for Queen Mary, George V’s wife.
How could this little house ensnare the devotion of over a thousand craftsmen, as well as three years’ passionate attention by the country’s best architect?
It was Princess Marie Louise, Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, who on the ‘impulse of the moment’ first thought of asking her friend the renowned architect Edwin Lutyens to design such a rarity for the Queen. He triumphed with glittering golden knobs on.
Queen Mary had been an obsessive collector of objets d’art, most particularly of ‘tiny craft’ with a family connection which she amassed with a manically knowledgeable eye. So it came to be that perfection was to reign in miniature, to be cheered at, loved and lauded to this day.
Great and glorious were the participants. The sculptor Sir George Frampton was responsible for its exterior ornamentation and, my goodness me, he most mightily triumphed – he also made Peter Pan’s charming statue in London’s Hyde Park.
Frampton was to treat the design of the doll’s house as an ingenious architectural exercise. There can be few more splendid last salvoes of Edwardian England than the decoration applied to this little building.
There is a wealth of rich-hued marble, too, much of it most marvellously presented by the Indian Government. The painted ceilings are the oddest and rarest of all the decorative elements in the house. The King’s bedroom has the notes of the national anthem painted to entwine through canes of a garden gazebo. The vaults in the King’s bathroom were painted by Captain Lawrence Irving, grandson of actor Henry Irving.
In the saloon ceiling, there are naked figures, unmistakably of the 1920s, prancing around the cove of the ceiling, inch by inch. What a triumph and a half it is to be sure; what a perfectly glorious golden triumph.
All the diverse elements of 20th-century England are woven into the very fibre of the little building, with the culture of the country embodied within its walls.
William Nicholson, Lutyens’s closest friend, painted the coved ceiling in the entrance hall. Then there’s a marvellous work by the painter Glyn Philpot – here he paints his early shrieks of the artist in torment, torn between devout Catholicism and establishment art. It is quite dashing and quite tremendous.
Alongside a most graceful work depicting Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden by a winged thunderbolt, there are as many creatures as appear on God’s Earth.
Lutyens gave no less thought to the design of the nursery, adorned with Edmund Dulac’s Chinese wall paintings of European fairy tales, than he did to the state dining room. He took much trouble with the Queen’s boudoir and its jade- and amber-filled glass cabinets – exact copies of those in which Queen Mary displayed her objets d’art.
All of life is relished; sport is cheered to the skies. Tiny guns can be fired to kill a fly. They were made by James Purdey, gunmakers to the queen since Queen Victoria. A cricket bat is but a tiny sliver. Music can be played with minuscule records on a little wooden cabinet of a wind-up gramophone.
Enchanting books, bound in finest leather, fill the shelves, with a Sherlock Holmes story commissioned from Arthur Conan Doyle.
Lutyens himself was responsible for roping in many of the artists and authors, writing long and detailed requests to such luminaries as Robert Bridges, A E Housman and Rose Macaulay.
There are 750 works of art, watercolours and drawings, in pencil, pen, ink and chalk. There are etchings, mezzotints, aquatints and engravings as well as lithographs, a few photographic reproductions, one oil painting – and a lone linocut.
What a treasure it is. Never has a generation been so meticulously memorialised: from miniature rolls of Bromo lavatory paper to pneumonia vests.
The spirit of the age has been for ever captured within these little walls. As one of its creators, A C Benson, wrote, ‘It has been built to outlast us all, to carry on into the future and different world this pattern of our own. It is a serious attempt to express our age and show forth in dwarf proportions the limbs of our present world.’
Let us dwell for a moment on the painted grand piano with wildly elaborate decoration by Matthew Rooke. Designed by Lutyens, the piano stands in the saloon.
All I can say is that, like every other inch of the place, it is nothing short of magical.