For her seventh birthday earlier this year my niece asked for a box that only she could open. It would come to contain, she explained, all her secrets. This may be familiar from your own childhood: you begin to close off physical and interior spaces from your parents and siblings. You begin to yearn for privacy.
This intimate idea is explored in a new exhibition of twelve dolls' houses at the V&A Museum of Childhood in East London. Although here they stand slack-doored, open and illuminated, so that visitors can peer inside, their recesses capture the impulse to craft personal space and write your own narrative. A stranger looking in might only spot that the lady of the house is propped upstairs by the bed, dwarfed by a wooden dresser that nearly reaches the ceiling. The setter of the scene would understand why the lady was up there: she might be waiting for someone, or perhaps hiding from the sinister footman with shapely ankles stalking through the drawing room below. The bigger the house, the more elaborate the décor, and the more convoluted the plot. Betty Pinney's house, built in the 1890s and renovated in the 1970s, is a daedal structure decorated with extreme care and teeming with eccentric dolls and shrunken everyday objects: a rocking horse, a tiny set of tin soldiers, a working lift, a drunken man slumped in the living room next to a set of decanters.
The houses are conspicuously female spaces, a series of fetishised snapshots of changing tastes in interior design and decoration. Miss Pinney was a textile designer, and she used her own prints for wallpaper and upholstery. Amy Miles’s house, built in the 1890s, is stuffed with miniature versions of fashionable contemporary consumer goods: folding japanned screens, towel racks and a paper bath mat. An imposing cream and verdigris villa, built in 1935 in the new Art Deco style, has a pool and tennis court. Unusually, in this design by Moray Thomas, the outside is as important as the inside: a swimmer prepares to dive, a doll stretches out on a sun-lounger on an upstairs balcony; murals in soft hues depict leisure activities, like flying and swimming.
For most of the period covered here—the 18th to 20th centuries—the dolls’ houses would be the closest to property ownership women would get. They were passed from mother to daughter, moving with them from the full-sized homes of their fathers into those of their husbands. The Tate Baby House, modelled after a late-18th-century country home, spent 170 years descending the female line of a single family, traipsing from Covent Garden to a Cambridge mansion to a country manor house and finally back to London. Female empowerment comes late in the exhibition. The jewel-coloured Jenny’s Home modular system, created in the 1960s in conjunction with Homes & Gardens magazine, is set up here as a high-rise apartment block. But it could just as easily be slotted together as a sprawling villa or a two-up, two-down town house. As women’s rights progressed it was accepted that they could be architects, designing buildings and their interiors. And as the decades march on, more women can expect to be homeowners, too. My niece has little need of a portable symbol of ownership and privacy: she can expect to build her own story to scale.
Small Stories: At Home in a Dolls' House is at the V&A Museum of Childhood in London until September 6th