Bevis Hillier

Architectural bonsai

Architectural bonsai
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Family Dolls’ Houses of the 18th and 19th Centuries

Liza Antrim

Cider House Books, pp. 256, £

In the summer of 1961 I was in my second year at Magdalen College, Oxford with rooms in the 18th-century New Buildings. One of my neighbours there was a quiet man called Jonathan Green-Armytage. Sitting out on the steps of the building’s colonnade, in the sun, we became friends. He was already a distinguished photographer. He showed me photographs he had taken of Edith Sitwell, with her medieval face and gnarled, beringed fingers. They were at least as good as Cecil Beaton’s portraits of the old poet.

One day, Jonathan said to me: ‘I think you’d enjoy to meet my god-mother, Vivien Greene; and I think she’d like to meet you. She’s Graham Greene’s wife — they’re separated; but because they’re Roman Catholics, they don’t get divorced. She has an amazing collection of dolls’ houses in a rotunda at the end of her garden.’

(It was said that while her husband wrote novels, she went in for ‘short storeys’.)

The visit was made. Mrs Greene lived in a verandah’d 1790s house at Iffley Turn, Oxford, that had once been the home of Cardinal Newman’s mother. The dolls’ house museum was ravishing. The great thing about these mini-mansions, as opposed to life-sized architecture, is that some of them still contain their original inhabitants, with all their accoutrements. Where they didn’t, Vivien Greene was not, strictly speaking, a purist. But she made considerable efforts to scour antique shops to find the right-sized dolls and miniature furniture of the correct date. There were 18th-century houses, Victorian Gothic houses and one art deco example.

Vivien wrote three books on dolls’ houses (one co-authored with Margaret Towner). Liza Antrim writes:

I vividly recall the delight of first looking into Vivien Greene’s English Dolls’ Houses and finding treasures such as a shelf of bisque foods, so inviting and delicious! I was hooked.

Like me, Antrim became a friend of Vivien; but, more than that, she became her disciple and, along with Margaret Towner, is her lineal successor as an authority on dolls’ houses. And now she has written her own majestic tome on the subject.

Can ‘majestic’ be an apt description of a book about dwarfish dolly dwellings?

Yes, it is — in its size, scope and depth of scholarship. But it is also delightful for its easy style and colour illustrations, which must have cost a fortune. Philip Howard, when literary editor of the Times, called my life of John Betjeman ‘a major biography of a minor poet’. One might call Liza Antrim’s book a major treatment of a minor art form — architectural bonsai, as it were.

Some of the dolls’ houses she includes were made for girls of future fame — among them, ‘Lissadell’, a rare stone house. One of the two sisters for whom it was made was Constance Gore-Booth of Lissadell, County Sligo. Later, as Countess Markievicz, a fiery Sinn Fein politician, she was the first woman elected to the British House of Commons. She refused to take her seat, so Nancy Astor became the first woman MP.

The author might have mentioned Yeats’s association with the big house at Lissadell, and quoted his poem about the two girls for whom the dolls’ house was made, ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markievicz’, which begins:

The light of evening, Lissadell,

Great windows open to the south,

Two girls in silk kimonos, both

Beautiful, one a gazelle...

I once met Liza Antrim at Vivien Greene’s house. On the strength of that she invited me to the launch party for this book. In conversation, she asked: ‘Did Vivien leave you one of her dolls’ houses?’ ‘No’, I replied. (She left me a Regency looking-glass.) Liza looked surprised. ‘Well, she was going to.’

Had she done so, I would have felt bound to follow the example of that inspired, invalided writer Denton Welch, who spent years in the precious, finicking activity of furnishing and titivating an antique dolls’ house — dollying it up, you might say. On the whole, I am glad to have been spared that exercise in micro-taste.