Behind the exhibition: Lauren Child’s Dolls' House

Katie Nairne discovers the story behind Lauren Child's dolls' house - and how it influences her work

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  • Katie Nairne
  • Exhibitions

Over the past few months I've been working with Lauren Child on her Dolls' House exhibition, which opens at House of Illustration today.

As one of the UK's most successful writers and illustrators of children’s books, Lauren Child is always busy working on a new project. Recently, however, I was invited to watch her at work on her longest-running project – a dolls' house that she has been adapting and developing for over a decade. This required a journey outside of London, through the rolling hills of Wiltshire, to find Pat Cutforth's dolls' house workshop on the beautiful Shaw Farm.

Pat has been teaching courses to aspiring miniaturists for nearly 30 years, and taught Lauren the techniques and skills needed to dress dolls' houses when Lauren was a little girl:

"I would spend days with Pat making things – she taught me how to use woodworking tools and create furniture from my own designs. She also taught me that fabric makes very good miniature wallpaper... I would buy a quarter metre of fabric from Laura Ashley with my pocket money. In the 70s and early 80s they had wonderful graphic prints, usually one- or two-colour designs – these made a perfect backdrop for a room. This influenced my work later."

The exhibition shows visitors the influence of the dolls' house on Lauren's illustrations – including original artwork from I Will Not Ever Never Eat a Tomato featuring Charlie and Lola, Clarice Bean, That’s Me and Who Wants to Be a Poodle? Visitors will also have the chance to peek into stunning hand-crafted rooms created by Lauren, which were then photographed by Polly Borland for their collaborative book, The Princess and The Pea.

The dolls' house itself has been carefully transported to House of Illustration, and this week Lauren has been visiting us to arrange the furniture, ready for it to be exhibited in public for the very first time.

Lauren tells me more about the link between her illustration and the dolls' house as we sit in the workshop, surrounded by a treasure trove of miniature objects and craft materials that I'm increasingly tempted to investigate. She explains:

"Arranging the dolls' house taught me what works in a scene – what patterns and colours go together – it taught me how to show a story in pictures and create a design that was balanced, that wasn't too overwhelmed with objects. I brought this layering and three-dimensional quality learnt from creating the dolls' house unconsciously into my work, and it wasn't until later that I realised how linked they were."

After a lunch of homemade soup and bread in the farmhouse, my curiosity gets the better of me and I have a look around Pat's workshop, where half a dozen enthusiasts work on dolls' houses they've brought to Shaw Farm for Pat's expert advice. The shelves are filled with boxes whose labels range from 'mini trees' and 'fireplaces', to 'rugs' and 'mirrors', while rolls of paper stacked on the top of a cupboard reveal themselves to be printed with tiny flooring patterns and tiles.

Lauren then shows me around Pat's home, and I have the chance to look at some of the houses that Pat has created over the years. My favourite had to be what at first glance appeared to be just a mouse-hole in the skirting board. At Lauren's insistence, I crouched down to look inside – and found myself watching a family of mice enjoy a quiet evening in their brightly lit home.

This sense of delight and wonder is something that dolls' house makers have been seeking to evoke in their work for centuries, and it is clear that this has influenced Lauren as she brings magic and playfulness into her illustrations.

An afternoon spent at Shaw Farm has shown me that the appeal of a dolls' house goes beyond nostalgia for childhood – it's a chance to create entire worlds and characters, to evoke emotions in the viewer, and to explore composition, design and colour. By exhibiting Lauren's dolls' house, we will be showing how craft skills and play can translate into enchanting book illustration. We hope you enjoy it!

Katie Nairne
Curatorial Assistant