Monday, March 29, 2010

"Collecting Short Storeys": Molly Fox's Dolls House Collection

Recently I scanned and uploaded to flickr some photos of Erna Meyer dolls in roombox settings from a book called Dolls' Houses - A Personal Choice, by Jean Latham (published in 1969).


My grandmother sent me the book in 1973. We visited her over Dec 1972 / Jan 1973, and saw the Lines' dolls' houses she had bought for us for the first time. I loved them, and my sister and I were inspired by them to create a mini scene from moss, pebbles, etc, on a tree stump in the garden. We visited the studio of Oxshott potter Rosemary Wren, and, among her pottery mice and birds, I spotted a china doll's head on a shelf. Rosemary said that she had found it on the Oxshott heath, and very sweetly gave it to me. I took it home to my grandmother, who was delighted, and called her Hitty. She planned to make a body for Hitty. After that visit, during 1973, my grandmother bought me the Cupboard House, destined to be Hitty's house (I've never known what actually happened to Hitty, or more accurately Hitty's head).

Long before I saw the actual house, my grandmother sent me Jean Latham's book, as it had photos of the Cupboard House in it. My grandmother bought the house from Miss Nancy Betteworth, who had bought it from "an American collector, Mrs Fox", who owned it at the time that it was photographed for the book.


The Victorian Cupboard House, as it appeared when Mrs Fox owned it.

I only recently realised that Mrs Fox also owned the Erna Meyer dolls pictured in the same book! I uploaded them to flickr because photos that are dated help to date the dolls themselves. Then I started thinking about Mrs Fox as a collector - one of the early collectors, like my grandmother, and someone who once owned a house which is now mine, and liked the Erna Meyer dolls I love. So I thought I'd try to do a bit of a profile of her. In the course of my research, I learned that Molly Fox called her first baby Rebecca (after the heroine of A Coat for a Soldier, about a girl who stitches a coat for an American soldier in the US war of Independence). So I feel that there are many connections between Molly Fox and me!


Molly Fox was born in the USA, at Fort Benning. Her father was in the US army, and was killed in WWII; later, her brother was killed in Korea. After that, she became a Quaker, and was delighted to acquire a Quaker dolls house, which had belonged to a Quaker girl born in Reading in 1784. She married an Englishman, and lived in London, where her employment included running training courses for executives at IPC and working at Sterling Professional Publications.

"We travelled around so much when I was a child, that I never had a proper dolls' house, though I made room settings in shoe boxes and orange crates. So perhaps my dolls' house collection is a compensation for that, and also for not having had a settled stable home. It is also escapism ... I can put a parlour maid, a cook, a nanny into different rooms. If I want a pink bedroom, instantly, there's a pink bedroom - and indulgence one can't afford in real life." (The Times, 1972)

Mrs Bernard Fox, as Jean Latham called her in the parlance of the time, began collecting in about 1965, and she was one of three collectors chosen by Jean Latham for her chapter entitled "Dolls' House Collecting Today", in Dolls' Houses - A Personal Choice. The others were Miss Faith Eaton (later author of The Ultimate Dolls House Book) and Mrs McQuade.

"The three collections described above are chosen almost at random from amongst an enormous number. They are not in the class of those who are lucky enough to be able to spend freely on anything that catches their roving fancy, foraging in the most expensive antique shops or the greatest salerooms. My three representative collectors have in common a flair for picking out gold from dross, unquenchable enthusiasm, a sense of history, good taste and unbounded energy in pursuit of their fascinating hobby."
At the time this book was written, Mrs Fox had five houses and furniture for another six rooms, which she kept on shelves in a cupboard.


One of Molly Fox's modern furniture room settings. Mrs Fox made the patchwork quilt, petit point needlework, "oriental" rug, and the doll's dolly made from toothpicks, herself.

One of the houses Mrs Fox owned at the time the book was written was, of course, the Cupboard House. The photographs above show it as furnished by her. The original pieces - the dining and drawing room fireplaces, the drawing room rug, the bedroom curtain, the tiny views of Hampton Court by the drawing room door - remain in the house, along with some that I suspect may have been added by Molly Fox or another owner - the kitchen and landing curtains, and the tapestry rug on the landing. Among the furnishings which Molly Fox had in the house, but which she (or the next owner) did not sell with it, are brass goblets in the kitchen made out of WWI bullets, and a kitchen dresser made by disabled veterans of that war. The kitchen range, ca 1860, looks very like the one my grandmother placed in the house, but I can't see it clearly enough to be sure. Molly Fox made the black and white pictures from illustrations "after Phiz" taken from Charles Dickens' novels.

Another, sadly not illustrated or described, was "Alexandra House, Finchley Road", from about 1914, "and peopled only by women as the men are all fighting in the war!"

Molly Fox's modern house, called "Dolly's House", dated to the 1920s. It had a brass nameplate, letter box and keyhole, and was built as a square, with rooms opening at both the front and the back. The house was mounted on a swivel platform, so that the kitchen, bathroom and laundry at the back could be accessed, as well as the four rooms at the front of the house.

Dolly's House, ca 1920s
The house, as you can see in this photo, has two storeys and a hallway, with stairs, running from front to back of the house. It was wired for lighting - even the fireplaces glowed red. The dining room had a hatch through to the kitchen (the hatch is just visible in the photo, on the left side of the bottom right room).
Molly Fox furnished this house with Barton and Dol-toi furniture and Grecon dolls. She added some American-made accessories, and framed postage stamps depicting Old Master paintings as pictures.

Dolls' Houses - A Personal Choice also describes Mrs Fox's late Georgian house, ca 1825, which had four rooms but no stairs. All the chimney pieces were built in, and, as Jean Latham puts it, "suitable fireplaces added", with a grate and stove in the kitchen. I'm not sure, but this phrasing suggests to me that the fireplaces may not have been original - not uncommon in houses of this age.
Molly Fox had traced the history of the house "as far back as the third generation of its owner", who was a Miss G. Baddeley, and so she called it Miss Baddeley's House.
This may be the dolls house mentioned in the 1972 article (see below), which says that one of Molly Fox's first purchases was a box of dolls' furniture in the Portobello Road, for £50. The man who sold it to her said "I'll give you the Georgian house that goes with it." Mrs Fox was sceptical, but the V&A verified from samples of the wallpaper that the house was pre-Victorian.

Possibly the kitchen of Miss Baddeley's House? The caption reads, "The kitchen of a late Georgian house. The pink and grey wallpaper is modern. The maid who is cleaning the old Britannia metalware is in her original clothes. Notice the chamber candlestick with the snuffer on a chain."

Molly Fox had repapered the house with modern wallpaper (I do hope she left the original paper underneath, as this is vital for future owners wanting to verify the date or origins of a house!), and furnished it with a towel rail complete with an old linen towel, a toilet mirror and chest of drawers with an ivory hand miror, and a sideboard containing unusual ivory tablespoons and knives and a rare cradle (I think this may mean ladle?).


Some of the pieces from Miss Baddeley's House. The furniture was described as "Duncan Phyfe" in Jean Latham's captions; this term had been used by Vivien Greene until her research in the then GDR identified the manufacturer as Gebrüder Schneegas. The doll on the left wears a dress made by Molly Fox from antique silks, ribbon and velvet; the gentleman doll wears his original velvet suit with scarlet silk lining and revers, and a shirt with minute tucks sewn with tiny stitches.


I've also found an article in The Times of 1st April, 1972, 'Collecting short storeys', by Bevis Hillier. From this, I learnt that Mrs Molly Fox founded the Dolls' House Society in 1970 as an offshoot of the Doll Club of Great Britain.
"We are the Jesuits of the doll world," Mrs Fox says. "To qualify for membership, you have to own at least a nineteenth-century dolls' house, and you have to have a skill - woodworking , repairs, needlework or so on. Among our members, for example, Mrs Beryl West has made an exquisite silver Queen Anne teapot. She also has a lathe for turning miniature furniture, and she makes tapestry carpets. Mrs Winifred Warren is a needlework teacher, and makes pillow lace with bobbins. Miss Faith Eaton is a specialist in doll repair, especially wax faces. She has done repairs for Buckingham Palace and many major museums."


For their AGM, the members of the Dolls' House Society held 3 day weekends. In 1971, they stayed at Shepton Mallet and visited the American Museum at Bath and Titania's Palace (then at Wookey Hole). In 1972, they planned to stay at Fittleworth in Sussex, and view Lady Samuelson's collection of dolls' houses, and the Uppark dolls' house.

At the time the newspaper article was written, Mrs Fox owned what she described as a small-scale model of the first commercially made house, with bay windows and a balcony (ca 1885-1890), bought for £25. This sounds like it could have been a boxback-type house, which were sold by companies such as Silber & Fleming (established ca 1860), C. E. Turnbull (established 1872), and G. & J. Lines (ca 1890s). Much of what we now know about these firms was of course only just being discovered in the early 1970s.

Also in her collection was a Seaside Villa, ca 1890-1910, purchased for £50 - the photo below shows some of the dolls in the Seaside Villa preparing for a night at the opera. The dolls and furniture usually cost more than the house - the dolls in the Seaside Villa were priced at £100.


The prize of her collection was a 1775 house (perhaps an architect's model) with a distinguished neo-classical facade, which she bought at a shop called The Lacquer Chest, Church Street, Kensington.

A shop she recommended for collectors was The Dolls' House, at 4 Broadley St, NW8 (ph 723-1418). It stocked a wide range of houses, from cardboard houses at £1 to a ca 1830-1850 wooden house at £160. In the mid-range at the time of the article were four pretty French houses with balconies at about £38 each. The Dolls' House specialised in reproduction hand-made furniture - it was, said Mrs Fox, a good idea for the beginner to furnish their houses with reproduction pieces, and gradually replace the new with old pieces as they were able to acquire them.

Molly Fox herself did just that, buying artisan-made reproduction furniture for her Georgian houses. In an instance of serendipity, one of a set of 6 issues of International Dolls' House News, which I bought last year from a collector who was disposing of her duplicate issues, has an article by Molly Fox! The article (My Missing Treasures, IDHN 6:1 Spring 1977) is about miniature furniture which had been stolen, and which had been destined for her Georgian dolls' house (which had been featured in the IDHN of Summer 1975, if anyone has that issue).

The globe pictured here had been bought at Willoughby's 18th Century, in California. The library furniture were bought from a London dealer. "The collection had belonged to Anna Massey, the actress, so I was able to put a possible date on the furniture. I think it was made in the Forties and Fifties and purchased in New York at the oft-mentioned shop on East 53rd St. One of the drawers of the sideboard had a trade sticker of E. Kautter."

Mrs Fox also lost some pine kitchen furniture made by Warren Dick, a hooded mahogany cradle from the Chestnut Hill Studios, and a small bureau bookcase which had a twin in the display cases at Windsor Castle, and probably dated from the 1920s.


Molly Fox's husband Bernard made the longcase clock and "Queen Anne" chair in this room setting; Molly Fox herself made the carpet and screen in petitpoint needlework. Most of the furniture is modern American, but the butler's tray and folding stand are English. Fimo was not available when Mrs Fox started collecting; she and fellow members of the Dolls' House Society "cooked" and painted plaster of paris food!

She had begun to replace the furniture she lost, buying from artisans working in the 1970s: a four-poster bed from J. Huthwaite of Coventry, an oak trestle table by Don Slater, a basket spit by Alf Atkins, and Regency chairs and a pedestal table described as "made in Columbia and bought at FAO Schwartz in New York". This last sounds like Sonia Messer (Lynnfield/Block House), which is still much sought after by collectors. I'm not familiar with the other names myself, but perhaps some of their furniture is also appearing in online and live auctions?

Perhaps some other UK-based collectors will know whether Molly Fox still has her dolls' house collection. Of the eight houses mentioned in the book and newspaper article, I know that she sold at least one (the Cupboard House). I wonder where the others are now - Miss Baddeley's House, Dolly's House, and the others? If they have new owners, do those owners know that their house was at one time owned by Molly Fox? Unlike real houses, dolls' houses unfortunately don't come with title deeds, and a few changes of ownership can be enough for any history that earlier owners have discovered to be forgotten.

9 comments:

  1. I know I used the word treasure in a previous comment also, but I can't find a more appropriate word for your book by Jean Latham!
    So wonderful to have a book with so much about the history of both the cupboard house and it's previous owner! Thank you so much for sharing!

    And great research on Molly Fox! I was so impressed you was able to find that article in The Times! And what a fun coincidence she called her daughter Rebecca! Seems you was destined to own the cupboard house :-) She sounds like a remarkable woman and so does the other members of her Dolls' House Society! Strict rules for membership indeed!

    You mentioned how they were using stamps for pictures and not having fimo. Actually I still feel I'm "cheating" when I copy pictures from art books or find them on the net. When I first started upgrading my first doll's house about 15 years ago, I always was on the lookout for miniature prints and used stamps as well as paintings, I even cut out a picture I wanted to use from one of my art books! I sometimes find the overwhelming source of possibilities we now have to get pictures,printies, buying all sorts of furniture and accessories online a bit overwhelming. And I can't help feel that I perhaps had more fun doing it the "old fashioned way" :-)
    Have I mentioned I also have visited Titania's palace? (Actually twice) It really is the most spectacular doll's house I have ever seen in real life!

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  2. Wow! I LOVE this. Thank you for passing it on. C

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  3. What a fascinating history of dolls houses and their owners that you have shared. It is always interesting to know about the people who first selected the furniture and decorated these older houses; but to actually have one of the houses, how wonderful that is! Of the ones shown, the Cupboard House is my favorite. But I think I like it better with the furnishings you have added and also the little people who now live there and the ones who visit!
    Curious about one thing, when your grandmother gave you the Cupboard House, did you play with it, or was it only for display?
    Also like the "modern" Dolly's House...and you have tweaked my interest, as I just went to AbeBooks.com and ordered a copy of Jean Latham's most interesting book!
    Great post Rebecca!

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  4. Hello Rebecca,
    I was glancing through looking for grecon dolls on internat when I came across your blog , I was suprised to read of mrs fox as I have one of her houses dolly's house , the house is in excellent condition, although I don't know what mrs fox would say about my additions, the original lighting still works even in the tiny fireplaces , the original painwork internally is excellent and the little dresser in the kitchen has drawers which are made of matchboxes reading 1920, it remains a lovely house opening front and back I have it lit up every night and spend many hours furnishing , love to hear from you.
    Amanda

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  5. Hello Amanda,
    Thank you for leaving a comment! What a wonderful example of serendipity, that I posted this the same day you were googling. I am delighted to hear from someone who owns another of Mrs Fox's houses, and I would love to know more - when did you buy it? do you have photos of it online somewhere? I would love to see how you've furnished it, and who lives there now. That is amazing to know about the kitchen dresser made of matchboxes - if you look at my posts about the Cupboard House, you will see that the lounge suite I now have in the drawing room is a set of matchbox furniture which my mother and her brother made in the 1930s. I don't know what Mrs Fox would think of how I've furnished the Cupboard House either, but as it originally belonged to two little girls, I have tried to furnish it as a family home, with furniture from several periods of the life of the family, just like a real house.
    I would love to hear more from you
    cheers, Rebecca

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  6. Helene, thank you! You know, I still use postage stamps for pictures, and also sometimes pictures from catalogues of art exhibitions. I like them because they are such good quality - much better than I can print, I think - and I like using stamps with designs created in the period of the house I'm furnishing, as they capture the spirit - the colours and the shapes - of the period. I have some stamps of Australian explorers in my school, and a couple of Christmas stamps in the Lundby house.
    No, I didn't know you had seen Titania's Palace! Wow! And twice! I have seen Queen Mary's dolls house at Windsor Castle, but not for a very long time - I don't remember it well.
    The National Library of Australia has a subscription to a number of online databases, and The Times digital database is one of them. The NLA also allows anyone in Australia to become a member, and that gives access to their online resources! That's part of the secret of how I do research :-)

    @ CM: thank you! Glad you enjoyed it :-)

    Hi Florine, glad you found this interesting. I like the Cupboard House best too, but I think that's because I know the physical dolls house! No, when my grandmother bought it for me, it was as an antique, not to play with - just as the Lines houses were. By the time I first saw it, I was about 13. I think we had sold our dolls house that we played with at home by then anyway, but I always knew that GranJean's houses were special.
    Hope you enjoy Jean Latham's book :-)

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  7. Hello Rebecca,
    so pleased you got my mail, I have lots of photos of dolly's house not sure how to send them , I believe mrs fox sold dolly's house at auction in london in the 70s and it remained with this owner for over 30 years the next owner had it for around 5 years and with ill health could not enjoy it and sold it on to me , it was in excellent condition, originally it had a large battery running the lights and this was replaced by a rather complicated electrics board which hides behind the laundry room with a false wall ,enabling me to plug it into the mains, one of the things I dread is when the light bulbs need changing incase a wire has come loose, they appear to run inside the walls ,I cannot see how or if the roof comes off to trace them when they go off, the little downstairs fireplaces lift out and have little bulbs underneath which shine through red and orange plastic to give it the red glow , the little hatch is still in place in working order, and it has the little nameplate letterbox and keyhole, the turntable must have been lost some years ago it still has the little plate underneath where it must have fitted,it had been wallpapered with modern paper which I have taken off and replaced with j hermes ,and am using reproduction aunt gracie's fabrics for curtains, I was lucky to have dol-toi furniture new in boxes to fill most of the house, and I have collected several grecon dolls to go in , the original bathroom suite is still in place , with moving taps, and a moving toilet chain,and kitchen, having original green and white squares on the walls,war shells are used for the chimney pots ,it has a little stove in the kitchen that lights up , the little doors and handles all original and painted picture rails , such a lovely little house I am busy crosss stitching carpets for the rooms which take around 3 months each , the floors have the original paint to match the doors and pelmit, I too often think about mrs fox , I have the book by jean latham which came with the house, and find it most interesting , I wonder how long mrs fox had dolly's house and where she got it from , I can send some photos of the house just let me know how to get them to you.
    Amanda

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  8. Hello Amanda,
    I'd love to see photos! Could you maybe email them? My email address is greenreb41 at hotmail dot com - just replace at with @ and dot with . and remove all the spaces. (I don't like to write it as an email address because of spam.)
    I hope that will work for you - otherwise we'll think of something else!
    cheers, Rebecca

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  9. hi rebecca, you leave me in awe, once again. you have a natural talent for research and i love to read you!! i'bet you were excited to hear from amanda, funny how fate works. i'd love to see her photo's too, maybe you could put them up for us to see? xxx

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