Just inside the entrance to the Tunbridge Wells museum stands one of the most spectacular, and popular, objects in their whole collection. Recently described as ‘one of the best 19th century dolls’ houses in existence’ by a BBC Antiques Roadshow expert, it stands at an enormous 6ft x 4ft 8” and is a real showpiece. Yet hidden behind its brief museum description lies a touching tale of travel and kindness.
Two lucky little girls received this dolls’ house as a gift from their father, a London stockbroker, during the 1840’s. There was a great fashion for dolls’ houses at this time but even by the standards of its day it would have been an impressive piece and it was designed, not just as an expensive gift for the girls, but as a way of displaying the family’s wealth and standing in the community. For if this was the quality of the dolls’ house can you imagine how grand its setting must have been?
It was originally thought to have been built in Brussels but it is now known that, although the carpets were ordered from there, the house itself was made by a skilled craftsman in England and owing to its size was most likely made close to where the family were living. It was obviously much loved and when the family moved to Buenos Aires in South America it followed them.
One of the sisters, Mary Searle, grew up to be a missionary and when three young boys were orphaned she adopted them. Mary died at the age of 87 in 1935 and the house was left to her housekeeper Mrs Pegrum. Having nowhere to keep it, however, she passed it on to the eldest of the boys, Dr Rigg, who was now living in Southborough, nr Tunbridge Wells.
The house, now known as the ‘Rigg Dolls’ House’ stayed with his family until 1957 when it joined the museum. Having donated the house Mrs Rigg, Dr Rigg’s widow, became a frequent visitor and on one occasion in 1984, when she was in her 90’s, she ‘weeded out’ the pieces that had infiltrated the house since her donation to leave a true record of the contents as she knew it. During Mrs Rigg’s lifetime, however, the house had seen some changes and museum records state that ‘Mrs Rigg had various repairs done by her chauffeur; the roof and chimney were added and some of the pillars of the balustrade were made from miniature skittles cut in half.’ She had also added the toilet roll and the mangle.
Sadly, the last family link to the Rigg family has now been broken as Mrs Rigg’s son, Alan, who also made regular trips to see the house, died in 2011. Dr. Ian Bevis, the Collections Management Officer, said that the museum has ‘always known that it was something special’ and were thrilled when at the end of 2012 Fergus Gambon, an auctioneer and specialist on the BBC Antiques Roadshow, declared ‘it was one of the best 19thcentury dolls’ houses in existence’ and compared it to the Audley End dolls house on display at Audley End in Essex (English Heritage) and The Killer Cabinet, a dolls’ house created with a Japanned cupboard on display in the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood (V&A).
Fergus, who is also the President of the Dolls House Society, kindly explained the reasons behind his declaration as follows:
‘Prior to the 1830’s, most commercially made dolls’ house furniture available in shops was made in Britain. As the main centre of consumption, London must have been home to numerous small workshops that made such things but there were significant makers elsewhere. From the 1830’s on, cheaper furniture imported from Germany was available and mid 19th century houses often have a mixture of British and German products, later 19th century one are usually exclusively German furnished.
What is so unusual about the Rigg house is that most of the furniture appears to have been specially made and is not simply what was available commercially at the time. It is of much higher quality and must have been made by a skilled cabinet maker, copying the furnishings in use in English upper middle class homes. The dining room even includes a stand to hold the leaves from the dining table when they were not in use. Such things are rare in the full-sized world but no other dolls’ house examples are recorded, to my knowledge.’
With this in mind it is good to know that its future is also assured and it has just been sent away for some tender loving care. Due to its enormous size and weight, the base now needs stabilizing and as it has ‘a truly modern gloss paint job on it’, the conservator will also investigate to see what lies underneath. If the original paint surface is still there it will restored but, if not, the house will be repainted in a more appropriate contemporary style. The interactive display lights originally fitted in the 1950’s will also be replaced with more cost effective and less bulky LED’s and the Dolls House Society will be taking the opportunity to fully catalogue its contents.
The house will then be returned to its position of pride of place so many more children, of all ages, can enjoy this beautiful plaything of the past.
The Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery is based at Civic Way Mount Pleasant Road, Royal Tunbridge Wells, Kent TN1 1JN and you can find out more details here – http://www.tunbridgewellsmuseum.org/
Many thanks are owed to Fergus Gambon and Dr Ian Bevis for taking the time to talk to me and to Tunbridge Wells Museum for kindly allowing me to reproduce their images. The copyright to all images is owned by the museum.