Report: Escape from the dolls' house

Vivien Greene, the widow of Graham Greene, has decided to sell the extraordinary dolls' house collection she has built up over the past half-century. The novelist Charlotte Cory went to explore the houses, and found herself caught in a magical, sometimes nightmarish world

Charlotte Cory
Sunday 29 November 1998 00:02

MOVING HOUSE is a traumatic business. In terms of emotional upheaval, it ranks with marriage, divorce and the death of a partner. Imagine, then, the plight of the families displaced by this wholesale and unprecedented disposal of real estate. A vast range of richly appointed period homes are up for grabs. It is very rare for this number of architecturally outstanding buildings to come on the market at the same time, complete with contents. Entire households are being sold, with every last pot, pan, table lamp and teaspoon. Indeed, the occupants themselves - master, mistress, children, sundry pets and even servants - are also on offer to the highest bidder. I went to see them all last week, packed up and tagged, in a secure storeroom at Bonhams, the auctioneers. It was a disconcerting experience on a cheerless November afternoon.

Vivien Greene, widow of the novelist Graham Greene, began collecting dolls' houses during the war. She never stopped. This auction is the result of more than 50 years' dedicated collecting, in the course of which she acquired and restored more than 50 houses and wrote several authoritative books on the subject. Her famously undomesticated husband, meanwhile, was busy writing his novels and leading an altogether independent life elsewhere.

The habits of a lifetime die hard and although, at 94, Mrs Greene is still tricking out a dolls' house, meticulously choosing authentic paint, wallpaper and furnishings, the sale of her private museum is the brave act of a benign guardian who needs to know that her charges have all found good homes. She will be acutely sensitive to their current state of dislocation, though, since she ascribes her love of houses and their contents to an itinerant childhood in which her father "was constantly moving, and we lived in what seemed an endless number of different towns in England and abroad ... I was miserable and grew to hate the impermanence of our life and to long above all for a settled home."

Her interest in dolls' houses started when the Greenes were bombed out of their own comfortable early Georgian home on the north side of Clapham Common in October 1940. Having lost most of their possessions they moved to a big unfurnished house in Oxford and, as it was difficult to buy new things at that time, she started going to auction sales in the area. At one of these, in Burford, she found her first dolls' house and took it home on the bus. This was quite an achievement as the house was nearly four foot high and three foot wide. "I needed a hobby, the wartime evenings in black-out were long and dark, so I started to furnish the house, to make carpets and curtains for it." In the same way that her husband would go off to Mexico before writing The Power and the Glory, or to Indo-China for The Quiet American, Vivien Greene began assiduously researching her subject, travelling all over the country, undaunted either by the needs of two small children or the problems of transportation. "During and after the war it was difficult to get film for a camera, so I filled notebook after notebook with drawings and descriptions of some 1,500 dolls' houses."

When the war was over and her children were at boarding school, she pursued her interest with terrier-like trips to Cape Town, Denmark, Sweden, France, America. She went to Austria several times and Germany eight or nine times. Her visit to Walterhausen in East Germany, home of one of the finest toy manufacturers, sounds like something out of The Third Man: "For the next six days I walked to and from the Politzei and the Ministry of Culture." When at last she obtained a permit to travel, she was "allowed to visit other towns where I might find information about the toy-furniture-makers ... but if I stayed the night I had to report to the local police station." The KGB must have had teams of men poring over files on this resourceful spy who had the temerity to use dolls' houses as an ingenious cover. "I arranged to have some of the earlier patterns photographed and they were sent to me as microfilm."

It would be easy to see the intensive domestic activity involved in restoring countless antique dolls' houses as the work of an abandoned wife applying her thwarted home-making instincts on a concentrated, miniature scale. In many ways, though, Vivien Greene's dolls' houses are a curious counterpart to her husband's writing. Each is a thoroughly worked visual novel. The various rooms, comprising intriguing little vignettes, are set scenes linked together not by chapter headings or narrative but by staircases, party walls and opening doors. Tension between the characters is conveyed by the careful positioning of the dolls in relation to one another and to the objects that surround them. Great attention has been paid to quirky, telling details. Everything in the houses hints at the secrets of the occupants' lives. The closer you look, the more clues you see.

These elaborate, intriguing dolls' houses are not like the plywood toy I had as a child where nothing was to scale and everything ended up higgledy- piggledy when my sisters and I fought over what went where and which horrid plastic bendy doll did what with whom. Even after my father magically rigged up some lighting with an Eveready battery one Christmas, it was all a bit limited, and we soon lost interest. I think in the end my mother bestowed it on my clarinet teacher's children. Vivien Greene's dolls' houses are not for playing with. (When the museum she built for them - a special rotund building attached to the side of her own house - was open, admittance was strictly forbidden to anyone under 16.) These are meticulously researched historical fictions, every room a fixed scene in a tiny but intricate social drama. You would no more tamper with the stories she has created than you would rework the plot of Brighton Rock.

Mrs Greene called that first house, bought in Burford, "Belgravia", and named its family the "Bosanquets". When she acquired it, it was filthy dirty and covered in five layers of different coloured paint, which she painstakingly scraped away with shards of glass from broken bottles until she revealed the cream-coloured bottom coat that the outside of the house is now. She then set to work making the place habitable, and finding it some inhabitants. The house dates from about 1850 and everything in it is either contemporaneous or at least in keeping with what was fashionable then.

Belgravia's elaborate front facade, with tall Italianate windows separated by columns and urns, is composed of two asymmetrical doors hinged at the sides, which swing open to reveal three storeys. Each storey has a room on either side of the carpeted staircase that runs steeply up and down the middle of the house. At the top are two nurseries. In the day nursery on the left, a demure china nursemaid holds a small girl while a pair of well-behaved twins in matching red dresses sit quietly on either side of her. At first, you think they are doing nothing: the tiny treadle sewing machine stands idle; they are not reading from their set of encyclopaedias or feeding the canary. Then you notice on the table a musical box with a big brass handle and realise that they are actually clustered round listening to it; those slightly vacant doll expressions are in fact due to them paying rapt attention to the tinkling strains of some tune such as "Home Sweet Home". It is an amicable scene and, sure enough, the legend on the moorland landscape hanging on the wall exhorts them to "Love one another". Next door, an old nanny sits anxiously over a new-born baby with the ominous framed motto "Prepare to Meet Thy God!" in bold gothic letters behind. She is singing a lullaby - or, more probably, in view of the pious decor, a hymn - but there are plenty of buckets, jugs and other practicalities for when a nappy should need changing.

Meanwhile, in the larger, more lavishly appointed rooms on the first floor is the main bedroom, where the mistress of the house reclines in a four-poster bed while her son reads the Bible to her. Another son hovers outside the door, nervously awaiting his turn. His mother is obviously deeply religious, for she holds rosary beads, and there is an icon by her bedside and a print of the baby Jesus cuddling a lamb over the bed. Her religiosity is far from puritanical: everything in the room is luxurious. She wears a red satin gown edged with lace, the wallpaper is bright and covered in roses, and there is an elaborately embroidered bell-pull beside the bed which she can ring whenever she wants anything.

In the cluttered drawing room across the landing, tea is being served from a silver service. There is a red tinsel fire in the grate and little footstools and papier-mache tables, not to mention a wall-to-wall needlepoint carpet. These creature comforts are all very well when the grandmother of the house will insist on thumping away at the piano, ruining any chance of conversation. The daughter of the house listens politely, while her pretty visitor looks politely bored. She had come round to gossip about potential husbands they met at the ball last week, not listen to Chopin! Photographs of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are proudly displayed in the family album for, clearly, these Bosanquets are patriotic folk.

Below stairs, things are more relaxed. A bewhiskered policeman pays court to the housekeeper who, although she has an important-looking chatelaine of keys hanging from her waist, is by no means averse to his attentions. The kitchen clock stands at 10 to three, but it isn't honey he wants for his tea - rather, a slice of that vast plum pudding, or the succulent sirloin of painted plaster beef, visible on the kitchen table. The plump puss wouldn't mind a modicum either, though by the look of the velveteen mouser he does not go short. Next door, in the dining room, the white- haired patriarch of the family grunts to himself as he reads his newspaper and knocks back vintage claret. A host of military and church Bosanquet ancestors keep him company from their gilded frames on the walls. The house is quite noisy (though you have to look carefully to hear all the sounds) so it takes a while before you realise that the breadwinner of the family is not present. Perhaps he has conveniently absconded to his office in the City. Vivien Greene knew only too well about husbands who shirked the domestic routine. The Belgravia is on sale at Bonhams, fully furnished, with an estimate of pounds 8,000-12,000.

The house I covet, though, is the compact, portable 18th-century "travelling baby house". This is a simple mahogany box, a foot wide and 18 inches tall, divided into two with a front-opening facade and neat little steps up to a door, beautifully proportioned windows painted on the inside with dark-green curtains, and pieces of inlay in ivory and mother of pearl. In Gulliver's Travels, published in 1726, Jona- than Swift describes the giant Princess of Brobdingnag keeping Gulliver in a travelling house which she takes in her coach as a child might take a pet mouse: "A nice workman who was famous for little curiosities undertook to make me two chairs, with backs and frames, of a substance not unlike ivory, and two tables with a cabinet to put my things in ... I had an entire set of silver dishes and plates, and other necessities, which, in proportion to those of the Queen, were not much bigger than what I have seen in a London toy-shop for the furniture of a baby-house."

The Princess could not have believed her luck when Gulliver showed up in Brobdingnag and she suddenly had a real live doll to put in her dolls' house. This must surely be every girl's dream. Being cooped up in that chicken-wire cage at Bonhams with so many displaced tiny persons and all those chimney stacks sticking tantalisingly out of cardboard boxes, however, was more like a nightmare. I soon felt the odd one out, grossly over-sized in a small world. Like Gulliver in Lilliput, I found myself oscillating wildly between fascination at all the beautiful tiny things, and terrible claustrophobia at this concentration of pointless bourgeois bric-a-brac. What had the little people done to deserve all this clutter? I was both frightened at being sucked into an enthusiasm which is clearly addictive and at the same time I had this irresistible yearning to belong - to be small enough to knock on the front door of the Belgravia and be invited in for tea. "So sorry about Grandmama and the Chopin! Come upstairs and see the new baby ..." It was a relief when Bonhams' staff turfed me out.

Whenever you close the covers of a good book, a strange sensation lingers of having been in another world. As I made my escape through the main auction rooms, piled high with rugs, chandeliers, embroidered footstools and papier-mache tables, I kept wondering if I wasn't back in the cage with all the tiny things which were not life-size; if I had shrunk like Alice.

Outside in the rapidly fading light, the gleaming towers of Chelsea Harbour compounded this. The taxi that came seemed normal enough, but on my way home I stopped off at a friend's house to cadge a cup of coffee and restore my sanity. She opened her front door - which I noticed had an overlarge brass knocker, and a letter box which did not belong - and said: "Oh good, I'm glad you've come. You can help me hang my pictures." I made an excuse and left.

! The first part of the Vivien Greene dolls' house auction will take place at Bonhams, Montpelier Street, London SW7, at 6pm on Wednesday 9 December. The houses can be viewed from next Sunday. Enquiries: 0171 393 3900. The second part of the sale will take place next May

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in