When Ann Holmes was a child, like many little girls she used to dream of owning a dolls’ house.
Her dad was a joiner and pretty handy with a lathe and a chisel, but while he once made her a toy cot, as successive birthdays and Christmases came there was no sign of the much sought after dolls’ house.
“When I look back I’m not sure I ever actually asked for one, I just hoped,” says Ann, who lives next door to the family farm near Selby. “I think maybe I thought he would just know how desperately I wanted one.”
Twenty years later, Ann was finally able to right that particular childhood wrong while on a trip to York with her two then young daughters. Walking down Fossgate they came across the city’s famous miniaturist shop, which back in the 1990s was almost a tourist attraction in its own right.
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The widows were full of elaborate dolls’ houses, the kind normally seen in the nurseries of grand country houses. There was a fairytale quality to the place, and Ann couldn’t resist taking a look inside in the hope of finding her own happy ending. When she left, she was the proud owner of her very own tiny two-storey property.
“I think I knew as soon as I opened the door of the shop that I was going to buy one,” she says. “It was impossible to resist.”
That first house was soon fully furnished with Ann employing her not inconsiderable craft skills to create the miniature curtains and bedspreads from off-cuts of material.
“I was warned that it becomes addictive and it has,” she says, standing in her spare bedroom which is filled floor to ceiling with miniature versions of real life scenes. “You can spend as much on a table for a dolls’ house as you would on one for your own dining room. If you’re not careful it’s very easy to make expensive mistakes by ordering something which is too large or too small.”
In order to refine her own talents, Ann, along with one of her daughters, joined the Yorkshire Miniatures Association and has now clocked up more than 20 years of continued membership.
“It wasn’t enough just to have a house, I wanted to know how to furnish it properly and the club has been brilliant for that. After a while my daughter lost interest, but I’ve kept going and most of the things I’ve created have been the result of going there.”
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It was at the club that Ann learnt how to turn strips of paper and wire into tiny aspidistra pot plants, fashion modelling clay into minute pork pies, complete with pastry crimped at the edge, and replicate brick work with sheets of painted sandpaper.
It was also by taking part in the club’s annual challenge, where members have to design a miniature scene on a particular theme, that Ann’s modest collection gradually began to take on a life of its own.
“Look, that’s the first one I ever did, which was on nursery rhymes,” she says, pointing to Humpty Dumpty still sitting 20 years on the proverbial brick wall. It’s not as intricate as some of her later work, like the replica of a Whitby goth
shop, complete with coffin-shaped handbags, or the traditional tea room called Muffin Tops with
its minuscule iced buns, but it is where it all started.
“From that point I was well and truly hooked,” she says. “Every time I learn something new. Look, there is this one, which was inspired by the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey in York’s Museum Gardens and there’s another one here which is based on one of the follies at Fountains Abbey.”
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The next theme is romance and Ann already has her eye on repurposing the tiny Romeo and Juliet she had playing out Shakespeare’s famous balcony scene for an earlier theatrical challenge.
“I do struggle to throw anything away,” she says. “I look at an empty Pringles tube and think, ‘What can I make with this?’ I know some people would probably think I am a little obsessed, but I find it really therapeutic. For me it’s the perfect way of relaxing.
“The last couple of years have been quite
tough. My mum died and my father isn’t in good health. When I come up here I can forget about
everything else. I love gardening and during the summer months I am often outside, but when the nights are dark then this is where I escape to.”
However, while Ann has found solace in building her own Yorkshire version of Lilliput, members of the Yorkshire Miniatures Association are getting older and without an influx of new blood she worries for the future of the club.
“A lot of miniaturist organisations exist purely online. I know it means that you can connect with collectors from all over the country, but that’s not everything is it? It sounds old-fashioned, but it’s not a substitute for face to face contact and that’s what our society has always prized.”
During their monthly meetings, as well as passing on news of items for sale and updates on how their latest challenge is going, they also spend afternoons completing a project in miniature.
That might be creating tiny works of art for a scaled-down library or a set of thumbnail-sized magazines for a coffee table. One of Ann’s most successful afternoons resulted in a tiny carpet bag for a yet to be made miniature Mary Poppins.
“The only thing I really struggle with is clothes, which is odd because I can make them for normal sized people,” she says. “Something happens when I try to do them in miniature. I just can’t get the cut right and they always end up looking a little rigid.
“However, as I’ve learnt over the years, you just have to know your strengths and the things you can’t do yourself can always be bought.”
When Ann needs a nest of tables or a bookcase for one of her houses, she generally turns to Yorkshire wood turner and metal worker Cliff Hirst, who is a specialist in everything from tiny balustrades to candlesticks and chimney pots.
“He really is a master craftsmen,” she says. “Everything he does is intricate and delicate and one piece of his furniture can completely transform a room. I know that dolls’ houses are meant to be played with, but honestly, I think I’d have a heart attack if I saw a sticky-fingered child approach.”
That may change if or when grandchildren arrive. However, for now these tiny works of art are all Ann’s and there is one of a man standing at his workbench, next to a pile of wood ready to be carved and shaped, which has a particularly special place in her heart.
“That’s my dad and that’s his workshop,” she says, pointing to the photograph she used to recreate the scene. “He might not have ever made me a dolls’ house, but there was a feeling that things had come full circle when I made a tiny model of him.”
The Yorkshire Miniaturist Society meets the first Saturday of every month (except December). To find out more