The doll’s house of Kew Palace was made for the young daughters of King George III around 1780. But before the close of the century, the princesses presented their doll’s house (or ‘baby house’ as they were known in the Georgian period) to the children of the Flag Captain on the King’s yacht and it was moved to a house in Weymouth. A paper label inside the door reads: ‘This doll’s house was made by the children of George III then staying at Weymouth and given by them to the children of Sir George Grey, my grandfather who was Flag Captain on the King’s ship. Mary Bonham Cater, October 1804.’ Over 200 years later the toy that Mary Bonham Carter signed away, has helped curators at Kew Palace with their restoration project. Susanne Groom, who has been studying the works accounts on Kew Palace in the National Archive for about 15 years says: ‘When we received the doll’s house and opened the front, various features leapt out at me from the accounts relating to Kew in the late 18th century.’
Historic Royal Palaces acquired the doll’s house in Spring 2004 for display at Kew Palace but up until then curators had been unaware of its existence. It was only when a collector approached them and described a house they had seen at auction that the Kew curators found out about it. The house had failed to sell for nearly a decade and had ended up with a New York art dealer, still looking for a suitable buyer. Historic Royal Palaces thus bought back the Kew baby house and began scanning royal archives for references to it.
According to records, the wooden doll’s house was made by the carpenter onboard the Royal Yacht for the young daughters of King George III around 1780. The princesses would have played with the house around 1780-1790. Princess Mary wrote about a doll’s house at Kew Palace and it is very possible that this is the same one. It is an incredibly rare survivor from the Georgian period and remarkably most of its original features and furnishings – some of which were made by the young princesses – remain intact.
The house provides a fascinating insight into the royal princesses’ taste in interior decoration and their highly skilled handiwork. But it has also given restorers at Kew Palace invaluable help in retracing colours and styles. Painted furniture, made in the fashionable style of George Hepplewhite, bares striking parallels to pieces found in the Palace itself and other decorations and furnishings, such as fitted carpets, working bed-pulls and fine grained paintwork are also very similar.
Wall Paper: Both the house and the palace have blue/green verditer wallpaper. The paper inside is patterned and Kew’s is plain but according to Ms Groom, it is definitely the same colour. Kew Palace also shared the same colour cream paint as the doll’s house. Although this paint is no longer there, a fragment dated 1804 notes ‘cream paint runs through much of the house’.
Skirting boards: The dark chocolate brown skirting boards lining one room of the doll’s house are similar to those found in the pages’ chamber of Kew Palace (unearthed through paint analysis).
Doors and chairs: Grained doors and chair rails are found in both house and palace.
Doll’s house bed: Wonderfully hand made tufted mattresses and embroidered bed hangings. The princesses, particularly Sophia and Amelia were known to have been skilled needle workers and the embroidered hangings certainly bear stylistic comparisons with an example of Amelia’s work on display in the case next to the doll’s house.
Chairs: Wheel back green and white painted chairs, similar to some in the Royal Collection were, until quite recently, found at Kew.
Dressing table: The dressing table in the house bears some resemblance to that pictured in the Zoffany painting of Queen Charlotte with her two eldest sons as young children.
The doll’s house and furniture have required some conservation work, as would be expected with any piece several hundred years old that was used as a toy. Saliva has been used to gently clean the interior wallpaper of the house. Containing no chemicals, saliva has been sympathetic to the delicate paper surface, removing the grime and dirt but not the historic paper and ink. Some minor structural repairs were also undertaken on both the house and the tiny furniture. Specialist textile conservators at studios at Hampton Court Palace have been caring for the fabrics which including the mini state bed (complete with multiple mattresses, individual sheets, pillows and cases, and canopy with hangings), a rug and upholstered chairs.
The doll’s house is displayed in the King’s Breakfast room on the ground floor of the palace. For a full account of the restoration of Kew Palace, see Jeremy Musson’s article in the April 27 edition of Country Life.