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A Liberal Little Library

Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House and the changing status of women in the 1920s

Woman reclining on a beach
C.B. Gulley, 'Repose' (RCIN 927045) ©

Among the miniature rooms in Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House at Windsor Castle, one of the most fascinating is the walnut panelled Library of tiny leather-bound volumes, many of them written by renowned authors of the 1920s. The furniture includes a pair of walnut veneered cabinets designed to contain portfolios. In 1922 Princess Marie Louise, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, set about inviting artists to produce drawings, watercolours and prints that would fill these portfolios.

The Library©

As well as writing to artists who were members of various institutions such as the Royal Watercolour Society, Princess Marie Louise was prompted by word-of-mouth recommendations to contact others, with the result that 643 artists accepted the invitation to contribute a tiny work to the Dolls’ House.

The artists were restricted to producing works measuring 3.8 by 2.5 cm (1 ½ in. by 1 in.). These would be fixed to uniform mounts before being placed in the portfolios. Many of the artists must have viewed this unique commission as a light-hearted project, though working in miniature presented unique challenges, testing their dexterity and eyesight.

The collection of 774 miniature works on paper represents a panoramic snapshot of British art in the 1920s, although there is an absence of contributions from artists involved in contemporary artistic movements; several avant-garde artists, such as Wyndham Lewis, were asked to contribute but declined the invitation.

The subjects chosen by the artists were wide-ranging. Inspired by the Dolls’ House setting, many chose whimsical or fairy tale subjects. There are many watercolours of landscapes within the British Isles, and others of far-flung locations, such as Kashmir and Jerusalem. Portrait submissions included several of royal family members. Other contributions reflected sombrely on the First World War.

The shock of the war had resulted in an eroding effect on traditional ideas of duty and sacrifice for the greater good. Several Acts of Parliament had ushered in a new era of relative social equality. In 1918 the Representation of the People Act had extended the right to vote to all men over 21 and most women over 30, although it was not until 1928 that all men and women over 21 were enfranchised. In 1919 the the Sex Disaqualification (Removal) Act had allowed women access to professions such as the law.

Most of the works produced for the Dolls’ House reflect the traditional values and tastes that a visitor would expect to encounter in a respectable domestic setting. However, new ideas and contemporary social trends can perhaps be read in the content of others. Around 140 works focus on women or girls as subject matter (of which 30 or so were produced by women). Several allude to the changing role of women after the First World War, their altered social standing and a degree of hard-won freedom.

The income from your ticket contributes directly to The Royal Collection Trust, a registered charity. The aims of The Royal Collection Trust are the care and conservation of the Royal Collection, and the promotion of access and enjoyment through exhibitions, publications, loans and educational activities.