HOUSE AND HOME: Nostell Priory’s Doll’s House


Ruby Rutter, Economic and Social History, University of Manchester, 2017 Cohort

If you’re beginning to feel a little cooped up after spending weeks at home, spare a thought for the dolls in the baby house at Nostell Priory near Wakefield, who have been ‘staying at home’ for nearly three hundred years. That is until earlier this year when staff at the National Trust property were given the green light to begin painstakingly restoring the house and its contents in preparation for a new exhibition, Miniature Worlds. As part of a three-month placement with the National Trust, I have been working with Nostell’s curator Simon McCormack, to better establish what role doll’s houses like this one played in the daily life of the eighteenth-century country house.

Nostell Priory’s baby house- or ‘doll’s house’ as its more commonly known today – dates from around 1735 and is believed to have been made for Susanna Henshaw (c.1710-1742), the wife of Sir Rowland Winn, 4th Baronet Nostell (1706-1765). Instead of being solely a child’s toy, doll’s houses like this one were fashionable gifts for elite girls and women during the eighteenth century and were seen as aids to prepare them for life as a wife, mother and mistress of a large house. In the eighteenth century, the home was seen as the woman’s domain, and good domestic management was deemed to be an overriding principle by which women were expected to structure their lives. Doll’s houses therefore allowed women to have control over a space in miniature as a precursor to the real thing; enabling them to explore their creativity through crafts and construct identities based around domesticity, family, comfort and fashion.

The decorative scheme of Nostell’s doll’s house was originally devised by Susanna and her sister in the 1730s and 40s, but doll’s houses were often passed down from mother to daughter and were constantly re-worked and re-fashioned to reflect contemporary tastes. Nostell’s doll’s house has never left Nostell and as such it contains objects which span the eighteenth century and encompass many different women’s tastes. For example much of the décor in the red velvet bedroom (middle floor, middle room) reflects mid-century tastes, yet two portraits of a man and a woman hanging on the left hand side date from the 1770s.[1] Little details like this demonstrate how much women viewed their doll’s houses as dynamic objects through which they could express and develop themselves; employing them as a kind of sketchbook or mood board for their actual homes. As such, comparisons between the aesthetic of the doll’s house and that of Nostell Priory itself are evident, and the doll’s house’s chinoiserie dining room (middle floor, far right room) and Nostell’s own hand-painted Chinese wallpaper dating from the 1770s, is a nice example. Doll’s houses are therefore important in their ability to represent women’s agency and authority in the home and can tell us a lot about how elite women navigated material culture.

To have influence over the domestic space was vital to elite women and is shown in both personal correspondence and contemporary literature- the most obvious example being the allure of Pemberley to Elizabeth Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813). Lack of domestic authority had the potential to deeply affect a woman’s wellbeing, as is shown in the case of Mary Stephenson (1766-1817), the daughter of a wealthy Westmorland family, who wrote in 1810 about her dismay at having to live in a house chosen by her estranged husband, surrounded by furnishings of his choosing and unable to mould her environment herself,

I wish much to [make] some small purchase in the country…a home where [I can] amuse myself at a trifling expense in beautifying it…in the meantime I must stay in this smaller house on the skirts of this horrid town. [2]

To Mary the distinction between her current house – horrible and devoid of her personal touch— and the home of her dreams where she had full authority is clear, and demonstrates the difference between ‘house’ and ‘home’; a house is a building with four walls and a roof, but a home is made up of objects which reflect who we are. It is a space where we – like eighteenth-century ladies before us— are able to explore what makes us, us.

While being confined to our homes is frustrating, anxiety-inducing and a bit dull at present, it is also a place where the debris of our lives settles, and we can most be ourselves. Be it photographs of family members or your secret collection of souvenir fridge magnets, every item in your house reflects your identity and lived experiences, and provides comfort and sanctuary– particularly when the outside world seems so uncertain. So, even though we might not appreciate the amount of time we have to spend inside them at the moment, there really is no place like home.

If you would like to visit Nostell’s Doll’s House, the Miniature Worlds exhibition is well worth a visit and will be reopening at Nostell Priory once social distancing sanctions have been lifted.

[1] Dr.Serena Dyer analyses these portraits and the materiality of the doll’s house in her upcoming publication Material Lives (Bloomsbury, Jan 2021).

[2] Wigan Archives, D/D St./BundleC10/48, Letter from Mary C. Stephenson to Charles S. Standish, 26 Jun 1810.

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