'My childhood was spent moving house, which I hated," said Vivien Greene, wife of novelist Graham Greene. She was born Vivienne Dayrell-Browning (1905-2003) and had a notoriously flighty husband. After their house in London was bombed during World War II, Vivien and her children moved to Oxford. She started going to auctions to replace some of their lost possessions. At one of these, in 1944, she found a dolls' house and brought it home on the bus. Then, during the long dark evenings of the blackout, she began to decorate it.
It was a three-story English townhouse, dating from around 1850. She called the house Belgravia and its inhabitant family were "the Bosanquets". She carefully furnished it with items from the time, or which would have been fashionable then. It was the first of a world-famous collection of antique dolls' houses, on which she became an authority. Her first book, English Dolls' Houses of the 18th and 19th Centuries (1955), helped establish dolls' houses as a serious field of study and collecting. In 1962, she opened a dolls' house museum in the grounds of her home in Oxford. No children were allowed. Vivien Greene's collection was auctioned at Bonham's in 1998 and much of the information about her life and the weirdly haunting quality of her dolls' houses comes from an article by the novelist Charlotte Cory, published in The Independent in November of that year.
Then, Belgravia came to Ireland. Until recently, it was one of the attractions of the Tara's Palace and Museum of Childhood collection in Powerscourt House, Enniskerry, Co Wicklow. Now, it's up for auction at Fonsie Mealy's Summer Sale on July 23 (est. €6,000 to €8,000).
Belgravia is a three-dimensional lesson in social history. Eternally, it has an elaborate façade, painted white, with a Doric colonnade. Open the façade, and a steep narrow staircase runs the height of the house from the day, with rooms on either side. On the top floor is a day nursery with fringed curtains, a painted wooden table, a hanging bookshelf, an assortment of chairs, two wall clocks and a pewter treadle sewing machine. The night nursery on the other side of the staircase includes a snoozing nanny, a cradle, and a chamber pot. You'd need it, with those stairs.
Below, there's a bedroom and a drawing room, both heavily furnished and occupied by dolls. Vivien Greene was a religious person and, from the prayer books and religious ornaments, her doll family was also devout. Much of the furniture comes from Waltershausen, in Germany, which was the epicentre of dolls' house furniture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: a meticulously upholstered sofa, two chairs and footstool; a display cabinet with a collection of miniature glass, a pewter music stand, a mirror, light fittings, and a silver tea service on a papier-mâché and mother-of-pearl tea tray. The effect is both atmospheric and claustrophobic in the way that a real Victorian house must have been. Downstairs, there is a dining room and a wonderful kitchen with a tinplate cooking stove; pots, pans and utensils; a table chaotically laden with food and a plush cat with beady eyes.
A second dolls' house in the sale, Portobello (est. €8,000 to €12,000) dates from between 1700 and 1710 and is one of the earliest known dolls' houses in Britain and Ireland. This too came from the collection of Vivien Greene, via the Tara's Palace and Museum of Childhood collection, and is decorated with the same level of historic consistency and attention to detail. The furniture and fittings, in fitting with the period of the house, are both sparser and more elegant than Belgravia. Again, the kitchen is the most dynamic of the rooms - in real life it probably was too.
The most beautiful of the dolls' houses in the sale, at least externally, is a Travelling Baby House (est. €3,000 to €4,000) dating from around 1810. It's a small two-room house, finely crafted in mahogany, with five glazed arched windows painted on the reverse with glazing bars and green curtains. It has a brass carrying handle on the roof, reminiscent of the "travelling baby house" that Jonathon Swift describes in Gulliver's Travels (1726).
The highlight of the Museum of Childhood collection, Tara's Palace, has found a new home with the Little Museum of Dublin where it is due to go on display. The 22-room palace, was made by Irish craftspeople in the 1980s and 1990s. It was conceived by Ron McDonnell of the Irish Antique Dealers' Association after its predecessor, Titania's Palace, was sold at Christies in 1978. Titania's Palace was made by Irish cabinetmakers James Hicks & Sons to designs by Sir Neville Wilkinson and is now a tourist attraction at Egeskov, Denmark, where it is advertised as: "Probably the most amazing dolls' house in the world."
Fonsie Mealy's Summer Sale at Chatsworth takes place in The Old Cinema, Chatsworth Street, Castlecomer, Co Killkenny, on July 23 (fonsiemealy.ie). See also egeskov.dk and littlemuseum.ie.
Milltown County Auction Rooms
What is a mule chest? Is it (a) a chest that was carried on the back of a mule; (b) a chest that people used to keep their mules, or slippers, in; or (c) a hybrid piece of furniture that, like a mule, is a cross between two different things. Answers on a postcard please… An 18th-century mule oak-panelled mule chest (est. €400 to €500) is one of the items coming up for auction at Milltown County Auction Rooms on Sunday at 12 noon. The auction is held in conjunction with Lev Mitchell & Sons and also includes a Georgian oak grandfather clock (est. €800 to €1,200); a Victorian walnut-inlaid lady’s davenport (est. €400 to €600); a mahogany leather-top pedestal desk (est. €400 to €600); and a 19th-century French armoire (est. €400 to €500). See milltownauctionrooms.com and easyliveauction.com.
The head of jewellery at Bonhams, Emily Barber, will be offering free and confidential valuations in Belfast (on Monday) and Dublin (on Tuesday). For more information or to book an appointment call (01) 602 0990 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The following week, Eric Knowles, of the BBC Antiques Roadshow television series will be offering free valuations of small items and collectibles at the 50 Plus Expo at the Hodson Bay, Athlone, on July 16 (12 noon to 5pm) and July 17 (11am to 5 pm). Larger items, like furniture can be valued from photographs, so don’t bring the piano. See seniortimes.ie.
Antiques & Vintage Fairs
Hibernian Antiques Fairs will be running their twice-yearly Kilkenny Antiques Fair in the Lyrath Estate Hotel on Sunday. The fair runs from 11am to 6pm with more than 30 stands. Admission is €3.50, including a raffle ticket and children go free.