Dolls’ houses: it’s a small world at Fonsie Mealy Castlecomer sale

A collection of dolls’ houses once owned by writer Graham Green’s wife Vivien are to be sold along with miniature furniture

The forthcoming Chatsworth summer sale in Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny by Fonsie Mealy on July 23rd will offer a number of interesting lots. These include three very old dolls' houses once owned by Vivien Greene, the British writer considered to be the worlds' foremost expert on dolls' houses, who died in 2003 aged 98.

Greene was a published poet at the age of 13, and worked for Sir Basil Blackwell, the noted Oxford bookseller who was knighted in 1956.

Having grown up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), at the age of 15, she was forced to write on behalf of her mother - to her father - to end their marriage, on account of his infidelities, Of her growing up, and moving home constantly, she once said, “I was miserable and grew to hate the impermanence of our life, and to long, above all, for a settled home.”

Greene was also the wife of distinguished novelist Graham Greene, who became so infatuated with her that in their early years of courtship throughout the late 1920s, he wrote to her more than three times a day, in a collection of letters said to exceed 1,200 love notes.

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Though having an interest in dolls’ houses since the age of 14, it has been suggested that her real interest developed after the breakdown of her own marriage due to his infidelities.

She found solace in collecting pieces from the 17th to the 19th centuries, after her home with Greene was bombed during the second World War. Though she feared he was at their home during the blitz, she later stated that: “Graham’s life was saved by his infidelities” as he had been in the arms of his mistress rather than the family home in London during the bombing.

The couple separated in 1947, though never divorced, as Greene was a devout Catholic, and as the marriage disintegrated, her devotion to dolls’ houses grew, which culminated in a vast collection from all around the world. She also wrote three volumes on the subject.

In 1962 Greene opened a museum devoted to dolls’ houses, but curiously no one under the age of 16 was admitted.

The sale

Listed in the sale are three key pieces from her collection, which have until recently, been on display at Tara’s Palace, Museum of Childhood in Enniskerry, Co Wicklow.

Items include her first serious collector’s piece, that of Belgravia, which dates from 1850, with the tiny details inside showing the splendour of a typical Victorian house, down to the minute details of chamber pots and bibles. Greene totally renovated and decorated the house “during the long and dark” wartime evenings (€6,000-€8,000).

The second is Portobello, which is one of the oldest known dolls’ houses in Britain and Ireland. Dating from 1700-1710, it features impeccable historical accuracy of interiors from that period (€8,000-€12,000).

The third is the Travelling Baby House from around 1810, a smaller mahogany portable house with brass handles for travelling. In Gulliver's Travels (1726), Jonathan 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, in a similar type to this portable dolls' house (€3,000-€4,000).

Also included in the sale are a selection of apprentice pieces of furniture, from the collection of the late antiques dealer Ronald McDonnell, which were on display at Malahide Castle, Co Dublin, prior to their exhibition at Tara’s Palace.

The 20 pieces were made by apprentice cabinet and furniture makers while learning their craft and despite being tiny they are perfectly to scale. Until Edwardian times, furniture apprentices had to prove their ability by producing meticulous tiny pieces, prior to progressing to full size commissions.

Lot 435, is a particularly attractive Edwardian miniature long-case clock, carved in rosewood with marquetry, at only 43cm (17 inches) high (€180-€250), as it lot 446, a William IV mahogany miniature combined games table and work box, measuring just over 22cm (nine inches) (€350-€450).

The proceeds from pieces which originally came from Tara’s Palace, including Greene’s and other dolls’ houses, toys, teddy bears and the miniature pieces, will be split between Irish children’s charities.

Forming the rest of the auction lots are some old guns and military items including swords dating as far back as the early 17th century and a collection of ships' portraits and memorabilia from the estate by descent, of Lord Admiral Charles Beresford, whose son-in-law owned Castletown Cox in Co Kilkenny.

Beresford or Charlie B as he was known, was credited with the modernisation of the British Navy and grew up at Curraghmore in Co Waterford.

Another Charlie is also featured, that of former taoiseach Charles J Haughey. His hexagonal leather-bound portable wine cooler with a CJH inscription is listed with a €150-€200 estimate. See fonsiemealy.ie