Saturday 30 June 2012

Going Dutch - or anyone for coffee? Part 1

It's appropriate that the first house (if you don't count my granddaughter's which I am about to release from the museum) which I prepare for display in the Czech Republic should be linked to coffee.

When my father arrived in wartime England from Czechoslovakia he joined a coffee merchant's office and  soon he set up his own company, which is still in the family.   I kept well out of it, life in the City never appealed to me and so I took a very different route from my brother.   But I still enjoy the bonus of a monthly delivery of Pure Colombian coffee - as do my friends!

So when on a visit to Dordrecht in Holland many years ago I saw a perfectly preserved 18th century coffee shop on the market square, I was immediately tempted to try to reproduce it as faithfully as I could.

This is one of the houses that was not banished to the garage ten or so years ago and it was therefore an obvious one to bring to Bavorov in the back of the car this year. Firstly it was accessible, unlike all those covered in dustsheets and cobwebs, and it was in a reasonable state so suitable for a quick restoration.  

The coffee shop is downstairs, and upstairs is a music room, also late 18th/early 19th century in style.   The shop is full of tiny containers of coffee and many pots and coffee machines so I emptied it into a series of shoe boxes (market stalls have provided most of our packing cases so far for the big move!) and carefully swathed the delicate grand piano in tissue paper before packing it into yet another shoe box.

It's just as well that I did empty the house since when we came to pack the car we discovered it had to go in on its side......

I've enjoyed revisiting it because it's reminded me of all the things that I did to create it, so many years ago.

The house was built, some time in the 1990s, from a plan that I found in a Dutch dolls house magazine.  The builder, Norman Randall, was the newly retired husband of a CAB colleague.   She was wondering out loud what she could suggest for him to fill the time hanging heavy on his hands.   A blessed inspiration made me ask if he enjoyed woodworking.   Not only did he enjoy it, but he launched himself into dolls house making with great enthusiasm and ended up making several houses for me.    Both he and Sheila became avid miniaturists, joining the local Herts group.   There will be more about Norman's skills and Sheila's amazing miniature knitting abilities in a later blog.

Norman handed over a bare wooden shell and I was then left with the interior and exterior decorating.   I was determined to find a way of reproducing brickwork rather than resorting to brick paper.   I am fairly sure that the method I finally settled on came from the wonderful book, Decorative Dolls' Houses, by the founder of the Kensington Dolls House Festival, Caroline Hamilton.   If you only have one dolls house book, this is the one I would recommend - she gives so many brilliant tips for how to achieve the effects that you want.

Getting a brick effect on the walls would have been much easier had the house still been in pieces so that the walls could have been flat on the table, because the method involves mixing up a strange concoction of white paint, powdered polyfilla and white glue. This then has to be applied to the walls very fast so that it doesn't dry before you can mark out the bricks.  It's also tricky to get the right consistency so that  it doesn't slide down as fast as you get it on.   

Once you have it on an area of wall you take a sharp tool - I used one of these so that I could draw multiple lines
across the walls at once - and then I marked out the bricks individually with vertical lines.   Then you mix up some brick colour, trying to keep a sort of swirly effect rather than a one-colour mix, and carefully sponge it over the surface so that the white "grouting" still shows through. Very, very messy!  

But I was pleased with the effect and so then turned my attention to the roof.   Some years earlier I had stocked up with wooden shingles which had been languishing in a bag at the bottom of a cupboard for use "one day".  

Cue for a short digression: 
Dolls house and miniature making is a terrible "one day" hobby - "One day I will make that shop I have been planning for years", "One day it might be fun to make a Japanese house" (it was - great fun), "One day I will think of a use for all those empty party poppers"... Actually I did manage that too as you can see in the photo of the bar in a wine box I made for a friend.
He was proudly showing me the box and without thinking I said "Oh,that's perfect for a miniature setting! "  So he took me up on it.  I think by the time he got it (that "one day" syndrome again!) he had forgotten he had ever owned a wine box....

But back to Holland...

The wooden shingles clearly couldn't be used straight out of the bag.   The colours had to change.   I went and stared at some roofs in my road and realised that tiles weather to different colours so that I definitely should not just stain them all one colour.   I can't actually remember how I got round the problem - I certainly didn't stain each tile individually.
 I know that I glued them on first and then stained them.   The gluing is very fiddly, you start with the bottom row and work upwards, carefully overlapping them.   This was the end result and once again, I was quite pleased with the effect.

The last bit of the exterior that had to be tackled, apart from painting the very tiny window bars dark green on the outside and blue on the inside to match the interior decor, was the decorative gable.   I maybe couldn't quite rise to this:
but I thought I would have a go.....I wonder if anyone reading this remembers Liden whitewood furniture?   One used to be able to buy plastic curlicues and other ornamental bits to stick onto drawer and cupboard units to make them more interesting.   I had found some in a shop dealing in bankrupt stock and had immediately transfixed  them with a miniaturist's eye.   Everything is grist to the mill (I feel another blog post coming on....)

I dug them out from yet another cupboard, along with a similar ornamentation in metal.   No idea where that came from.  I suppose it might have been intended as a belt buckle.   I then bought some sampler pots of stone paint, which is slightly gritty, and mixed up a pleasing colour.   I painted all the exterior that wasn't brickwork with this concoction, after first gluing the plastic and metal thingies into appropriate positions.   The date I formed using a tube of polyfilla.  It ended up like this:

If you've stayed the course so far you finally get a view of the exterior of the finished house. 
The next post will delve into what went on inside.   And maybe by the time I write it I will have seen the room the town council are thinking of for my museum. I'm very excited.....

Hope you are still with me on the journey!

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Thursday 28 June 2012

Why a museum in the Czech Republic?

Because of the amazing eggs? 

I suppose the true short answer is that I could not afford to set one up in England.   The long answer is that some twelve years ago I had a massive "back to my roots" experience when I visited the Czech Republic to attend a summer language school.

My parents had escaped to England from wartime Czechoslovakia and I was born in London.   But although I grew up speaking English at home (my parents fought in Czech!) I have always been fascinated by the country and, in particular, the language.   I collect not only dolls houses and Girls' Own literature but also languages.....

So when I visited South Bohemia in 1998 I decided that somehow I was going to spend part of the rest of my life there.   How that came about could be the subject of another blog!   Suffice it to say that I took early retirement from my job of twenty years - managing a large Citizens Advice Bureau - took the three year training course to become a teacher of the Alexander Technique, and set off to build a home for six months of each year in a small town (we would really consider it a village) called Bavorov, not far from the Austrian and German borders of the Czech Republic.   Directly below Prague if you want to find it on a map.....

The spur to rescue my large collection of dolls houses and other miniature items from durance vile in the garage at the bottom of my English garden, and set up a proper home for them somewhere, is the sad fact that we are now selling our much-loved home of forty years because it is too big for our needs.   So what to do with the dolls houses?


When I bought and renovated an old village house in Bavorov (and yes the name is easily misheard as something much less polite!) I had thought that the converted cowshed (on left in "Before" picture) would be large enough to serve both as a teaching room for the Alexander Technique and a small dolls house museum.   

But it isn't and so the project of moving the houses to the Czech Republic - where the hobby (like the Alexander Technique) is almost unknown - stalled for a while.

Now needs must and so earlier this year I set about enlisting the help of a Czech friend to find a suitable room in the village for the houses to be displayed.   I knew already that the town council were interested in exhibiting one or two of them in the local museum but a formal museum isn't really where I want them to be.   
In fact they have borrowed my granddaughter's dolls house for the summer season and I feel sorry for it, trapped in the secure glass case!

But I plan to set it free very soon....

In my next post I will talk about preparing the house that will take its place in the town museum for this summer -  by next year I hope that my very own museum will be open.   

And watch this space for more about the negotiations with the town council. 

Tuesday 26 June 2012

How it all began

I suppose it began with the Christmas just before my fourth birthday, nearly seventy years ago.   Although it was just after the war had ended, and there were few toys in the shops, my father commissioned someone to make me a dolls house - standard design, front opening, four rooms inside including a proper staircase and fully furnished, with soft furnishings made by my mother.   
It was my favourite toy and I was devastated when it disappeared just before my eighth birthday.

It came back in a new incarnation, repainted,  with the roof gone, two extra rooms at the top, balconies and a fabulous roof garden.  I was thrilled and the house always had pride of place in my bedroom

Years passed, I left home, became estranged from my mother for a while, and when we became friends again I was horrified to discover she had given the house away to the granddaughter of a friend.   I tried frantically to locate it but by then it had passed into other hands and I never found it.

Part of my collection before it ended up in the garage.
 Daughter's house is the white one bottom centre.
I suppose you could say that I have been looking for it ever since and when my own daughter was four I decided that it was time to find a house for her.   Nothing in the shops pleased me so I advertised in the local paper for a large old dolls house, condition immaterial.   I ended up with four large old dolls houses, none of which went to my daughter - she ended up with a very plain one, as close to my childhood dolls house as I could find (though I always felt the roof was on the wrong way round) - and that's where the collection started, forty years ago.   At the last count, which was some time ago, it appeared that I own about thirty houses and forty more miniature items such as shops, market stalls, creations in unusual containers and a substantial library of dolls house books and magazines.

At the moment I can't actually check the numbers because most of the collection, with the exception of a few particularly cherished houses, has been in storage in the garage for over ten years. This blog aims to chart the journey as it comes to life again and moves to a small museum in a village in the Czech Republic where I now make my home for part of each year.

Next time -  stage two of the museum adventure.....