A skeletal Miss Havisham with bird’s nest hair and tattered gown sits in Satis House surrounded by cobwebs... and very convincing they are too.
No-one would guess that the spider silk was fashioned from an old pair of tights or that the dusty interior of the miniature antiques shop nearby was created with lacquer and the contents of a vacuum cleaner. These exquisite recreations demonstrate the ingenuity of dolls’ house doyennes Jane Fiddick and Caroline Hamilton, who are sticklers when it comes to authenticity.
If it doesn’t exist in miniature, they will find a way of making it. “Our mantra is, ‘It’s not beyond the wit of woman’,” say Caroline and Jane in perfect unison.
The two friends have spent the last 40 years collecting and making houses, shops and room boxes and even a caravan and they have just gifted them all to Newby Hall, near Ripon. The 65 properties will be on permanent display in the former potting sheds, next to the garden restaurant. The conversion into a permanent exhibition space has been helped by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and there is absolutely no doubt that it will be a major attraction.
Visitors will observe history, sociology, architecture and all human life played out in 1:12 scale. If you are reading this and think you’ve seen this sort of thing before, then you would be wrong. While there are lots of traditional dolls’ houses, there are also some decidedly unconventional, thought-provoking and laugh-out-loud properties.
Take the Millennium Dome apartment owned by Nick Loadsamoney. Nick, a City banker, is reclining on his Corbusier lounger, fag in one hand and a can of beer in the other, while a half-eaten pizza goes cold in the box by his side.
There’s also an iPod, a Nespresso machine and out on the balcony there is a dodgy looking “pot” plant. “It’s cannabis. Well, he would, wouldn’t he?” says Caroline, who has a wicked sense of humour. “It’s all about observation. Jane and I are great observers. We also do our research and we have loads of historical reference books, which we are also donating to Newby Hall.”
Caroline is also responsible for the 1950s pharmacy shop that has the aptly-named “Floozy” living in a flat above. Bottle blonde showgirl Floozy is very proud of her mirrored ceiling. The idea for the glitzy Abu Dhabi room box was sparked by the rush to build ever more flash hotels in the Middle East and Caroline’s dolls’ house caravan was a nostalgia trip modelled on her aunt’s 1960s static complete with souvenirs from the Costa Brava.
“I was very pleased when one lady looked at the Abu Dhabi and sniffed: ‘More money than taste I’d say’ because I knew I’d got it right,” says Caroline.
All the little people in the houses have names and their own story, although dolls are not favoured by the purists, who believe they detract from the interiors.
“We like having people and they often dictate the decor. I broke a little plate while I was sticking it on a wall so I left it on the floor and blamed it on the cook. She got frightened by a mouse,” says Caroline, a great raconteur.
Jane, a fine embroiderer, particularly enjoys learning about architecture and period styles and her work includes a Scottish baronial pile and a Charles Rennie Mackintosh house. Charles is at the drawing board and his furniture and paintings have been faithfully reproduced.
She has also added a little bit of Newby Hall into her Adam House. Some panels from the Newby Tapestries have been recreated in tiny stitches. It is another testament to the craft skills that she and Caroline possess.
The pair met at university in the late 1950s then found each other again at the school gates when their children were little. They were and still are neighbours in Kew, London.
When Caroline started going to woodwork classes and began her first dolls’ house, Jane joined in and made a replica of her childhood home. They grew more ambitious, creative and resourceful.
Some of their houses and room boxes have been homemade, some commissioned, the dolls are bought and the contents are a mix. The enterprising pair can also tackle electrification, upholstery and wallpapering.
Gift wrap with small print is especially good for the latter and silk ties make great upholstery fabric. Fimo is perfect for fashioning food, as demonstrated by a tiny Kilner jar of bottled peas, Fimo in resin. They scratched their heads about how to make a fountain but came up with a winning combination of nylon thread and resin.
“We concoct things and we have mastered the art of misappropriation,” says Jane, who recently saw some John Lewis drinks stirrers and immediately thought “chandelier”.
Although they can make almost anything, including curved chairs (achieved by boiling wood and fastening it round a jam jar to make it bend), they also have a collection of “treasures” by some of the world’s best miniaturists. It includes including carved furniture by John Hodgson, of Bridlington, while Harrogate silversmith Mike Sparrow made the tiny egg cups and spoons. These pieces can be expensive – Caroline once paid £1,000 for an inlaid cabinet and the cost is what drove her to found an annual Dollshouse Festival in Kensington.
“It’s an expensive hobby so I started making miniature things for sale to fund it and that led to the festival. It was done from the heart and that’s what made it successful,” she says.
She and Jane displayed their houses there to show what could be achieved. Included were some of their “twin houses”, the same carcass with a different treatment. There are two antique shops. Jane’s is very posh, although some of the items are “too shiny and slightly suspect”, while Caroline’s is shabby and owned by Chas Hamilton who “can’t cope any more”. The attention to detail is incredible. At the Wellington Greens house, Chinless Charles is in the loo and his public school photos are on the wall.
The festival brought collectors from across the world, including America, where there is a big dolls’ house scene, and Germany, where they originated as elaborate “baby houses” designed as a hobby for young brides. Now it is a pastime embraced by men and women of all ages, with men the biggest spenders.
Caroline and Jane’s collections are now too big for their own homes. Caroline even sawed one of her wardrobes in half to make a platform for another four mini properties but is now moving to a small apartment with just her French house and her collection of miniature moving toys. Jane is having a clean break and is keen to take up music again.
They thought of donating their life’s work to the National Trust but the bureaucracy proved too much, so they contacted Newby Hall.
“I have a second home in Yorkshire and I knew Newby Hall was privately owned. We wrote and Richard and Lucinda Compton came to see us. They said they’d be delighted to be custodians, which we thought was a lovely way of putting it,” says Jane.
Leaving their little houses and tiny treasures in Yorkshire is a wrench but they plan to visit often. And it won’t stop them collecting.
“If we find something just right for one of the rooms there’s nothing to stop us popping back here and putting it in,” says Jane.
• Our Dolls Houses is a permanent exhibition that opens on June 30 at Newby Hall. There will be a book by Caroline and Jane to accompany it. www.newbyhall.com.