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Palais of the dolls

The Musée de la Poupée in Paris carries Jacqueline Wilson back in time

Jacqueline Wilson | September/October 2012

The Musée de la Poupée is five minutes’ stroll from the Centre Georges Pompidou. You walk away from the bustle and blare of traffic, the squeals and shouting of all the foreign students, the shops selling “I love Paris” T-shirts, and dive down a pretty little alleyway with a sign to the doll museum. It’s like stepping straight into a Victorian storybook. 

The Musée was started by a father and son, Guido and Samy Odin, determined to find the perfect showcase for their ever-increasing collection of antique dolls. There’s the permanent display of 500 dolls in beautiful little tableaux inside glass cabinets, frequently changing themed exhibitions, a room for birthday parties, a doll’s hospital and a shop. As Samy Odin admits sadly, all small specialist museums are in a vulnerable position nowadays, and many other doll museums have had to close. But I very much hope the Musée de la Poupée in the Impasse Berthaud stays open for many more decades.

I first went there with my daughter, Emma, nearly 20 years ago. Emma was an adult by then, but we’ve always shared a love of dolls. When she was little I frequently took her to Pollock’s Toy Museum and the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green. I loved to read her Rumer Godden’s charming doll stories, and we smiled at Beth’s battered dolls in “Little Women” and envied Sara Crewe her magnificent doll, Emily, in “A Little Princess”.

Our family seems always to have been fascinated by dolls. Emma had a large collection throughout her childhood, and was particularly attached to some soft little ragdolls and Sophie, a French doll with a rather vacant expression. My own first doll was a Beauty Skin baby doll called Janet. She started off a pretty pink, but over the years became increasingly jaundiced, though I still loved her dearly. My mother, Biddy, used to take me to see the Christmas dolls in Hamleys and did her best to buy me one every year. We lived in a council flat on very little money and managed without most things (fridge, washing machine, telephone, car) but I was always impeccably dressed and had lovely dolls. Biddy started to collect antique dolls herself, beginning with an Armand Marseille china doll with long hair, bought for ten shillings from a junk shop. As a small girl I combed this poor doll’s hair so frequently that she developed alopecia and had to wear a sunbonnet to hide her bald patches.

My grandmother Hilda Ellen loved dolls too and had a magnificent large German china doll called Mabel. Hilda Ellen had few other toys. She was rather like the little waifs and strays I write about, a motherless child farmed out to various unsuitable relations from the age of seven. I loved to hear her tell stories about her early life. When my great-grandfather married again and had two small children by his new wife, he brought the teenage Hilda Ellen back into the family home to act as an unpaid nursemaid. She had been given the beautiful china doll one Christmas by a local charity and it was still her most treasured possession, even if she was now too old to play with it. 

My great-grandfather was a wheeler-dealer, ever the opportunist. It was wartime and new German dolls were obviously not available. He decided to set up his own doll factory with a colleague. He didn’t have the faintest idea how to make dolls, so despite Hilda Ellen’s protests he decapitated and dismembered Mabel to see how she was constructed.

I suppose Mabel didn’t die in vain, because my great-grandfather’s doll-manufacturing business, Nunn & Smeed, was reasonably successful from 1915 to 1927. They didn’t just use Mabel as a prototype. They went on to invent their own special walking doll with spring hinges at the knees. There’s a photograph of this not particularly attractive doll “walking” jauntily in “Pollock’s Dictionary of English Dolls”.

She can’t hold a candle to her beautiful French sisters in the Musée de la Poupée. Emma and I go to see them every year when we’re in Paris. It’s our little nostalgic treat. It’s clearly a special outing for many mothers and daughters. The child visitors to the museum all seem too good to be true—polite, quiet little girls with Alice bands and pinafore dresses and snowy white socks, gazing intently at each glass cabinet and whispering intelligent questions.

Samy Odin told me that he’s hoping to be able to refurbish his museum next year, but I rather hope it stays just as it is, crammed to bursting point, with doll’s prams and furniture balanced on top of the cabinets. The first thing you see when you go into the museum is a very large doll’s house with 20 small dolls in various costumes: a sailor suit, a Scottish outfit, a Breton costume, a First Holy Communion dress, even a jolly jester party frock. These are all clothes made from patterns in a magazine, La Semaine de Suzette, featuring a very popular little doll, Bleuette. The Bleu­ettes have bisque heads and are under a foot in height, cheery little creatures displayed in their own fully furnished house. There’s even a tiny feather duster so they can keep their rooms spick and span.

It’s easy to stare at them so long that you feel sucked into their own perfect little world. The loudly ticking clock in the hushed museum makes you especially aware that for a very modest tariff you’re taking a step back in time. This sense of time travel is increased when you see the only modern dolls in the permanent collection, portrait dolls by Catherine Dève, lovingly copied from family photographs of Samy Odin as a little boy, his mother Vera as a child, and his grandmother Madeleine, all aged about five and playing together happily with their toys.  

Vera died when Samy was little, and Guido brought him up single-handedly. He had a photography studio in a village in the Italian Alps and took many photographs of women in their traditional costumes. He displayed his photographs imaginatively, with costumes and dressed dolls. Guido was given an old broken doll to mend, and the teenage Samy was fascinated. Guido gave Samy an English book about dolls for his birthday, thinking it would help him learn the language. They both became passionately interested and started collecting.    

Samy studied literature and became a teacher while Guido continued with photography and theatrical costume design. His sewing skills were a tremendous bonus when an antique doll needed a new outfit. They started to exhibit their dolls, and in 1994 founded the Musée de la Poupée. Both men continue to collect and attend doll conventions all over the world. Samy has written numerous books about dolls—and touchingly has dedicated his major work, “Fascinating Dolls”, to “Guido Odin, my father, who made this amazing adventure possible”. 

The Odins’ collection is wide and varied, and the exhibits are arranged painstakingly to delight and instruct children. There’s one cabinet showing that dolls can be used for all different purposes, even as representations of celebrities. I love the dapper Maurice Chevalier doll, stockinette over cardboard, with a very lifelike painted face and removable clothes—though it seems an impertinence to imagine little Maurice stripped down to his underwear. There’s also an insistently pink pyjama-case dolly beside a beautiful 1870s fortune-teller doll with a swivel head and a wide skirt made up of numerous folded paper fortunes. There are wooden dolls, porcelain, wax, leather, papier-mâché, celluloid, rubber, and little delicate paper dolls miraculously untorn and preserved intact for 150 years. There are china dolls as big as children, and tiny little dolls the size of a thumb. These pocket dolls were sold by La Poupée Modèle and called Mignonnette. Little girls could make extensive wardrobes for them. My favourite is a bizarre Eiffel Tower outfit: the little Mignonnette wears a pink dress decorated with silver braid stamped with the date 1889, and sports a miniature Eiffel Tower on her auburn curls like a droll hat.

The 19th-century lady dolls are all exquisitely dressed, often with little reticules and parasols and tiny kid gloves and minute fans and opera glasses. One very splendid 1860s Steiner doll wears a black and pale-green silk dress and is clearly well into her teens, but she says “Papa, Maman” like a toddler as she raises her arms and “waltzes” to left and right. Her mechanism is still in good working order and her pale blue eyes and blonde hair are immaculate because she was only taken out of her box and played with one day each year by her original owners.

Infant dolls are displayed amusingly, 15 babies of varying sizes in the care of two adult dolls. One is a nursemaid in a costume specially made by Guido, the other is a magnificent fairy queen with a bisque head by Simon & Halbig. She has a bejewelled headdress and a pearl-trimmed silk frock and two very long blonde plaits. She looks capable of charming all the babies and effortlessly keeping them quiet but, just in case, one nursing doll has his mouth stoppered by a wooden dummy.

There are more babies in an enormous seaside tableau, a disconcertingly large assembly of naked celluloid dolls making sandcastles in front of a painted sea. There’s a magnificent array of plastic picnicware laid out beside them—but no food! There’s also a school display of character babies, one screaming his head off, another wearing a dunce’s cap, each sitting at a wooden desk with authentic little ink splotches.  

These detailed displays delight small visitors—but this is also a museum to interest serious doll collectors. The Odins are particularly proud of their Jumeau bébés. These aren’t actual infant dolls, they are little girl (and occasionally little boy) dolls, exquisitely made, with beautiful expressions. The Jumeau dollmaking firm was founded in the early 1840s by Pierre François Jumeau, and his son Emile developed the business so that the beautiful dolls were much prized throughout the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s. The heads were made of fine kaolin paste, moulded in plaster casts, then carefully painted pale pink. Their eyes were wonderfully realistic, painstakingly made from coloured glass rods. Jumeau insisted his factory workers served a long apprenticeship to become proficient and employed little orphan girls so that they had a chance to learn a trade.

Samy’s favourite is the Premier Portrait Jumeau, one of the first series produced in the late 1870s. She’s 25 inches high, very pale and delicate, with beautiful blue eyes and dark gold curls. She’s wearing immaculate original clothing, a red lace-trimmed dress with a tiny Kate Greenaway pattern, white polka-dot stockings and black leather tied shoes. She even has tiny black jet earrings. He also admires a little ten-and-a-half-inch blonde bébé in a cream dress with brown velvet ribbon and blue leather shoes to match her eyes. Both dolls were kept and cherished by the families of the original owners, and were clearly only played with on very special occasions.

Jumeau bébés can have closed or open mouths with little pearly teeth. There is a very large 1890s open-mouthed doll in the collection in a magnificent pale pink bonnet and silk dress. She’s smiling sweetly but her expression is a little disconcerting because she has very pronounced Frida Kahlo eyebrows. My favourites are the bébés tristes—they translate as long-faced Jumeau babies, the dolls having distinctive wistful expressions. There’s a very fancy example in beautiful condition, wearing a green and red sailor costume with a saucy red straw hat, but the largest bébé, at 30 inches, is the one I like best. She’s got long blonde curls and big brown eyes, and she wears a pale green silk hat with a satin rose and a matching dress abundantly edged with cream lace. Guido and Samy bid for her in a public sale, and when they made the clinching offer they were applauded by the whole room.

Not all their dolls are on display at one time. Samy and Guido have a remarkable private collection of dolls with extensive wardrobes. I’ve seen photographs of a pair of Jumeau bébés, Charlotte and Suzanne, with striking sky-blue eyes. They were originally owned by two sisters, Claire and Pauline, who each received a magnificent Jumeau doll on her 11th birthday. Imagine giving a doll to an 11-year-old now! But Claire and Pauline clearly played elaborate games with their dolls, dressing them up in velvet coats with matching hats, serving them many little meals on their own tiny china dinner service. I’m sure they enjoyed getting them ready for bed, using their own little washstand and possibly the miniature china chamberpot.

Many of the dolls in the museum have little dogs or teddy bears to play with. There’s a small Steiff bear that looks as if he’s been through the wars. He has a distinctly melancholy expression, and one arm and one leg are carefully bandaged. He was donated by Edith Coisson, who ran an orphanage in Italy. She’d give each new orphan the little bear for comfort—until the next orphan arrived. Maybe the bear got his injuries from a tug-of-war between two children.

There were some 1920s and 1930s Lenci cloth dolls on display when Emma and I visited, and I found them a little alarming. Their very rouged cheeks, red pouty lips and ultra-curly hair reminded me of those terrifying tots in American beauty pageants. By contrast, we greeted the more modern dolls as if they were old friends: there were the Holly Hobbies that used to be crammed into Emma’s doll’s cot, and the exact twin of her little Sophie doll, a poupée, with no mouth, big black button eyes and very long fair hair. There was even a set of Emma’s 1960s Sindies looking like a miniature cast of “Mad Men”.  

I think this is part of the charm of toy museums—to have that little thrill of recognition. It had an added resonance for me, because my glamorous professional daughter suddenly became that long-ago little girl with a pageboy haircut and stripy dungarees, begging me to play dolls with her.  

It’s hard to explain precisely the charm of dolls. Balzac kept a little collection of doll’s house dolls on his desk and said they helped him invent his fictional characters, but some people find their intense glassy gaze disconcerting and recoil from their little outstretched fingers. I find them enchanting. I don’t often give them to the children in my own books because most girls hide away from them by the time they start junior school. My latest book, however, has a solemn old-fashioned child narrator called Rosalind. In one chapter she goes back to Edwardian times to meet E. Nesbit’s characters, and she has a wonderful time in their nursery, playing with their china dolls.

La Musée de la Poupée is open Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 6pm; museedelapoupeeparis.com

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