Queen Mary’s Dollhouse: Imperial Artefact12 minute read

Queen Mary’s Doll house, now on display at Windsor Castle, was originally showcased at the Exhibition of Empire of 1924 -25 in Wembley (Bryars and Harper, 2014). The exhibition showcased art and craftsmanship from the colonies and the doll house was one of Britain’s own contributions. In an exhibition that advertised itself as ‘the empire in microcosm’ (August, 1993), the doll house seems an appropriate symbol. In many ways, the doll house acts as a metaphor for London, embodying how empire had entered ‘the home’. It also marks a domestication of empire where people are shown to be living of its proceeds, its commodities and in its structures. Through the doll house, imperialism is shown to be more subtle but also more salient. This has relevance today for how imperialism is engaged with. Designed in Palladian style by the colonial architect, Edwin Lutyens, and filled will all the latest gadgets of ‘modernity’, the doll house presents the commodification of empire with the stately front that Statham (1897) declared London lacked. By connecting the domestic setting with such imperialist ambition, the doll house supports Kuchta’s (2010) argument that suburbia, and the particular lifestyles it imposed, grew as a result of imperialism and continues to colonise how people live. Through the lens of the doll house, it is possible to see how London’s imperial past continues to relate to its contemporary politics. Following Doel’s (2010) chapter, ‘Analysing Cultural Texts’, I attempt to analyse the doll house as an imperial text that is still in dialogue with the present and can be ‘read’ in terms of contemporary London politics. This essay tries to address some aspects of this relationship, focusing on the doll houses implications for London’s politics of scale, property, surveillance, consumerism and memory.

The distortions of scale that the Doll house provokes has implications for contemporary London’s politics of scale. The Doll house holds a miniature map of the empire in its library. This enacts the metaphor of London as a container of the world, reflecting commercial branding such as Harrods’ ‘Everything, London’. This inversion and distortion of space and scale, where the world is envisaged as fitting within the confines of London is still relevant to London’s politics of scale. London is still described in terms that distort spatial scales. It is a “global city”, a “cultural capital”. The attempt the doll house makes at compressing all of London’s culture, wealth and new found ‘modernity’ into miniature may be seen as a formula for London itself. London continues to accumulate wealth, generating more than a fifth of Britain’s income (Davis, 2014), and wealth is increasingly interpreted into smaller and smaller spatial units. The extravagance of investing so much energy and money into the making of the doll house could be seen as a microcosm of the investments that are increasingly focused around London. Davis (2014) describes London as “an invention for crowding the largest number of talented people into the smallest area”. Davis (2014) sees this as the key to London’s success. Culture, ideas and money are generated through this compression of people and space. The doll house might be viewed as a satirical result and optimum solution, compressing what was described as ‘the best of our empire’ into the smallest possible space.

However, as a doll house made rich from the legacy of empire, London is also unobtainable. Doll houses cannot be physically entered and London’s current housing crisis highlights the cultural relevance of this in contemporary London politics. The recession made it harder to enter the housing ladder, with the price of housing growing faster than wages, the majority of households in London renting, and rents continuing to increase. These issues, in their global connections, could be compared to the imperial networks that fed into speculative building and housing anxieties around the time the doll house was built (see Kuchta, 2010). The speculation and the housing bubbles that can be linked to global forces interconnect the imagined and the material in a way that can be reflected through the doll house. Dollhouses are material objects, but they also exist in imaginary worlds. In this way, the doll house reflects the coupling of the imaginative and the material that is present in London’s relationship with world. The doll house could also be seen to offer a satirical solution to the financial issues that London faces in terms of its inflated rent and the networks of debt that also connect its politics with the global. As Mr Jarndyce says of Mr Skimpole in Dicken’s ‘Bleak House’, “a habitable doll’s house with good board and a few tin people to get into debt with and borrow money of would set the boy up in life” (1853: 57).

The doll house also has implications for the politics of ownership and questions concerning property inheritance that played an important theme for Victorian and Edwardian writers such as E.M. Forster, Masterman and Conrad, and continues to carry resonance today. In novels such as E.M. Forster’s ‘Howards End’ and Conrads ‘Almayer’s Folly’, houses are not safe places and are subject to changes linked to imperial networks. The doll house might be compared to the impractical housing venture linked to imperial ambition that is undertaken by Almayer in Conrad’s ‘Almayer’s Folly’. The house is a dystopian utopia. There is a deception implicit in a house that functions in every respect, with running water, electricity and all the latest commodities, yet is uninhabitable. The Doll house is tantalising to the person struggling to maintain a London home. This unobtainability reflects the politics of ownership and the cuts to housing benefits that displace people with an almost imperial hand of control. As well as inspiring wonder, the doll house taps into anxieties of the imperial age that continue to be relevant today.

Given these anxieties surrounding housing at the time, there is a contradiction in the celebration of empire as house. Furthermore, by the time of the exhibition, the empire was in an unstable position with anti-colonial movements in the colonies (Kuchta, 2010). However, the doll house could be seen as an attempt to rebuff such fears, replying to Masterman’s (1909) criticism of suburbia as being ‘dull’ and ‘sedate’ by placing the exhibition in Wembley and applying to prominent writers to contribute to the miniature library, thereby appearing to fill the domestic setting with ‘culture’. The doll house could even be a reply and a defiance of the criticisms made of London by Statham in 1897 who declared that London was “almost entirely devoid of the qualities of spaciousness and stateliness” (1897: 595). The doll house shrinks space further and gives it a Palladian front. However, it could also be seen to partake of these criticisms beneath the façade of celebrating London’s imperialism at an exhibition of empire. Bearing in mind all the literature that followed the motif of the ultimate instability of houses, the doll house could be seen as a premonition of the fall of empire, directly relating to contemporary London politics. This could be seen in terms of how London negotiates it’s supposedly ‘post imperial’ state and also in the different forms of imperialism that London still could be seen to engage in.

The doll house reflects the domestication of empire and the way empire was absorbed into the home. The domestic commodities in the doll house relate to imperial networks that are still relevant to contemporary politics of consumerism in London. The doll house is full of commodities and can itself be seen as a ‘commodity fetish’, relating to today’s political economy that continues to disconnect the commodity from its source. This disconnect can also be extended to how commodities are disconnected from their imperial histories. This is reflected by how the doll house is seen today as a tourist attraction, disassociated from its past. The doll house also reflects this political economy through the subtlety in the way it engages with imperialism. All of its features, from the Indian marble it is made of to its many gadgets such as the lawnmower in the garden or the cars in its garage, can be related to imperial networks and functions. However, like today’s domestic structures and commodities, their imperial connections are hidden from sight, guiding everyday engagement with imperialism into an unconscious act. Rao (2010) sees the banks in the city centre as echoes of empire in London today, however, these ‘echoes’ can be extended to the place and politics of the home. Not only does the “imperial landscape live on”, as Rao (2010) acknowledges, but the effects of imperialism continue to be lived. Kuchta (2010) argues that the suburbs that sprang as a result of empire, colonised the people who inhabited them, dictating their lifestyles and their movements through space. This colonisation is still relevant today in the way the suburbs and other imperial structures continue to control movement and lifestyles. The doll house relates to this politics of control and the surveillance that can be connected to colonialism. Dollhouses can be seen as panopticons, laying the domestic sphere open to surveillance. The exhibition was advertised as an opportunity “to inspect the Empire from end to end”, and the doll house, as a panopticon, reflects such imperial scrutiny and control. This has cultural implications in contemporary London politics in terms of the use of CCTV and the collection of the London census data. Such monitoring can be linked to imperialist sentiments and makes London’s structure reflect the doll house in how it is surveyed.

However, through the doll house, the past can also be surveyed and colonised by the present. The doll house is a time capsule of the past, held captive in the present. Like many imperial artefacts, the Doll house has implications for the politics of memory and contemporary attempts to minimalise London’s relationship with imperialism. The doll house could be seen to keep imperial London at the scale of childhood. This could be seen to imply a “cult of nostalgia” regarding heritage, that reflects a “nostalgia for imperial self-esteem” (Lowenthal, 1996: 5). However, it also implies an attempt to hide London’s imperialism behind the supposed innocence of childhood. It literally minimalises London’s relationship with imperialism through its distortions of scale. This has implications for contemporary London politics that attempts to forget London’s imperial history, such as George Osborne’s declaration that the statues of the imperial leaders in Trafalgar square were no longer relevant (see Cherry, 2006). The doll house both reflects and is part of this politics of forgetting.

As I have already mentioned, the doll house is quite subtle in its imperial connections. Now on display at Windsor Castle, it is possible to see how its purpose has been rebranded since it was first displayed at the Wembley exhibition of empire. The historical account provided by the Royal Trust does not mention the doll houses connection with the Exhibition of empire, grounding it safely within the realms of a ‘home’ enterprise, disconnected from imperialism. This has implications for contemporary London politics concerning what children are taught about imperialism, something that has generated much debate (see Yeandle, 2014). One of the purposes of dollhouses, or ‘baby houses’ as they were once called, was to educate children about the running of the domestic sphere. If the children who visited Wembley when the exhibition was first opened were actively learning about the empire and its domestic relevance, the groups of school children who visit Windsor Castle and see the doll house today, are being involved in a process of what Gilroy (2004) refers to as ‘actively forgetting’. If the doll house once served a purpose of creating and guiding the ‘children of the empire’, it now provides amusement for children and tourists by forgetting its past.

There are many layers to the cultural implications of the doll house in contemporary politics in London. Like London, so many people contributed to the making of the doll house that it is difficult to assign it one voice. The doll house could be seen as part of an attempt to trap London’s imperialism into a bounded binary of the past that cannot grow up, out into the present. The Peter Pan theatre set that it holds is a relevant symbol of this. However, like Peter Pan, there are many complexities to this image of stunted time. Both Peter Pan and the Empire conflate death with the eternal. As Cherry (2006) suggests, with the death of Empire comes its continual ‘hauntings’ in the present. The doll house has been a potent artefact through which to examine these ‘hauntings’ in contemporary London politics. Indeed, the doll house even contains a miniature book titled ‘The Haunted Dollhouse’ in its library. As a metaphor for London, the doll house continues to have relevance for analysing how London’s politics possess imperial links and characteristics. The doll house was first contained in a world where the Empire was at its largest and London was growing. The doll house played with scale, refracting and inverting space with imperial control. Today, it continues to interact with these politics of scale, assisted by the irony that the miniature map of Empire that it holds is now a more accurate reflection of its scale. London’s political connections with the rest of the world are no longer labelled ‘imperialist’, yet it’s ‘world’ status and global networks reflect this past and compresses space. In many ways, London continues to be the doll house.


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Yeandle, P. (2014). ‘Heroes into Zeroes’? The Politics of (Not) Teaching England’s Imperial Past. The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 42(5), 882-911.

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