Alice Forkes, NMS Conservator, reports…..
‘Baby Houses’ are miniature buildings which were commissioned by wealthy adults in the 1700s and early 1800s to entertain and amuse. They are substantial objects, beautifully constructed, with their realistic architectural details and sumptuous interiors based on fashionable building styles of the day.
Baby houses are quite rare, so Strangers’ Hall Museum is fortunate to have one in its collections, known as the Norwich Baby House, believed to date from around 1720. Knowing that the V&A Museum of Childhood’s exhibition Small Stories – at Home in a Dolls’ House was booked to tour to Norwich Castle in Spring 2017 provided the impetus to get our own house in order and plan to make the most of the Strangers’ Hall own collections. In view of its early date and important, the Baby House was the front-runner for conservation work and more sympathetic display. So the house and its contents, which are mostly nineteenth century additions, were brought to the Norfolk Museums Service conservation department for the work to take place in preparation for the Small Stories at Strangers’ exhibition, which runs concurrently with the main show.
The house had suffered some wear and tear over the years. The painted wallpaper had lifted away in some places and the inside of the house was particularly dirty, obscuring the vibrant wallpaper and limiting the view through the glass windows to the front of the house. After detailed assessment and documentation, the house underwent conservation cleaning. Cleaning an object such as this requires a great deal of consideration and often a variety of techniques. For example, the dirty windows were wet cleaned using cotton wool swabs, the walls, ceilings and floors were all cleaned using a museum vacuum cleaner and soft brushes, and the painted and patterned wallpaper was gently cleaned using a natural rubber sponge. Small repairs were undertaken, to secure the lifting wallpaper. These were all documented and carried out using reversible conservation grade adhesives.
Other than the addition of fluorescent lights in the 60’s, it appeared that the house had been virtually untouched since coming into the collection in the early 1950’s. The curator at Strangers’ Hall had asked me to play detective and pay particular attention to the variety of surfaces and features that would only be visible under close inspection. How was the house constructed? How many layers of wallpaper and paint were visible? What was underneath the wallpaper, which was most certainly a more recent addition? And so the investigation began.
Intriguingly, in areas where the wallpaper had lifted, around the edges and corners of the rooms, a blue painted surface and a white painted skirting board could be seen, there was also evidence of a painted picture rail. In the kitchen, the walls, floor and ceiling appeared to have been white-washed at some point. Faded black lines, painted to mimic large floor tiles were also visible. When propping up the dresser in the corner of the kitchen, an earlier creamy beige surface with the same style of painted black lines could be seen. Such a large object, constructed from multiple materials, requires careful observation of every nook and cranny to uncover the story of how it was constructed, what changes had been made and how fashions in interior design affected its appearance.
The contents of the house were also in need of conservation treatment. These included a complete Staffordshire ceramic dinner set, tiny watercolour pictures, a long case clock, a glass chandelier and even a pet spaniel. The only doll we know to be an original occupant of the Baby House, is the smartly-dressed butler. The painted surface on his papier mache head needed particular attention as it was damaged, vulnerable, flaking and at risk of further losses. Each individual flake of paint was carefully softened using controlled humidification so that it could be adhered back in place. This allowed the painted surface of the butler to be safely cleaned using tiny cotton wool swabs. After careful cleaning and numerous repairs, all the Baby houses’ furniture could be reinstated and reunited with some larger textile pieces, including the bed with its bolster cushion, blue velvet chaise and the early animal print wing chair that the Butler now resides in.
The conservation process did not end after treatment in the conservation lab. The installation of the Baby House in the Strangers’ Hall Toy Room and the addition of new LED lighting required conservation supervision and input. Both the lighting and new audio interpretative stories now really bring the house to life. Minute paint samples were also collected during the conservation process, which will help us to identify the numerous paint layers. These will be sent for analysis, which will hopefully enable us to discern the stratigraphy of the paint layers, and even which pigments were used.
It has been a privilege to work on a house with such a long history. I often found myself thinking about all the different people who have enjoyed and admired it over the years.