Motifs in Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s three-act play, A Doll’s House (premiered 1879), include appearances, the power of money, and women’s place in a patriarchal society. A work of its time, there is a clear divide between those who lived upstairs and the servants living below. Actual doll’s houses, those little microcosms of everyday life, dating back to the 16th century and reflecting similar societal values, were created not as toys but often as a teaching aid, to instruct a future lady of a grand house on the running of the establishment. Think Downton Abbey with its defined rules of behaviour both below and above stairs.
The Uppark doll’s house is one of only a handful that have survived from the 18th-century in amazingly good condition. The little four-poster beds alone are around 300 years old.
Made, it is believed, sometime in the 1730s for the Lethieullier family, the house came to Uppark in 1746, along with Sarah Lethieullier on her marriage to Sir Matthew Fetherstonhaugh.
The conservation team at the National Trust think it unlikely that this particular ‘baby house’ was intended for instruction purposes as the house is incomplete (there are no service areas). But it doesn’t require a whole replica house to impart the overall principles of upstairs downstairs. Opening as they do to reveal all floors they provide an instant picture of how the two levels coexist.
The lady of the house, tucked up in a sumptuous four-poster bedchamber, the female domain and part of the ‘gilded cage’ in Ibsen’s parlance, is ‘lying-in’ having recently given birth. Her maid attends the new baby in a crib at the foot of the bed. Far below, the cook or kitchen maid is busy in the kitchen, which is equipped with an impressive array of pots and pans. The social order seems pretty clear.
Doll’s houses were also created to display wealth and a certain good taste. The detail at Uppark, is exquisite. The materials used for the rooms ‘up and down’ differ in quality and detail. Above stairs, the figures are made from wax, and wear elaborate fabrics trimmed with gold thread. By contrast the servants are carved out of wood and wear far simpler clothing.
There are richly carved mahogany chairs, seat cushions made from ivory with silk and leather seat cushions. Other tiny pieces of furniture have actual intricate inlays and marble tops. The silverware is hallmarked and the candles are real wax. Interestingly, there are little glass hoods suspended from the ceiling to prevent smoke stains, something I have never seen before.
The good thing about dolls houses, like this one, is that not intended to be played with, they have survived in remarkable condition. Nonetheless, the Uppark doll’s house has in recent years undergone conservation work. Even the clothing, damaged from years of creases and folds, and the 300-year old beds have undergone careful and loving cleaning and restorative care under the supervision of Maria Jordan, conservation studio manager at the National Trust Textile Conservation Studio in Norfolk, somewhere else I’d like to visit.
Read more about the fascinating conservation project.
Uppark House is open Thursday to Sunday only. The best time to see the doll’s house is in the week as it can get busy at weekends and the room in which it is displayed is relatively small. The garden is currently open 10am to 4pm daily, as is the cafe and the secondhand bookshop. Tickets, house and garden, adult standard £11.00.