‘The Evans Baby House’ is a fascinating object of layered history, physically in terms of its construction and contents, and symbolically as an item much-loved by generations of owners. Having been rescued and renovated over the years, it is a rare survivor of the mid-18th century. Where so many other dolls’ houses have come and gone, ‘The Evans Baby House’ lives on nearly 300 years after its conception. Vivien Greene details the house in English Dolls’ Houses of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (1979), where she writes how special it is to find a house so well documented: “...the inventory of its contents seventy years ago lies in the drawer below, together with…letters and journals all labelled and listed…” and thus it still remains.
Dolls’ houses or ‘Baby houses’, meaning ‘small house’ or ‘dolls’ house’, were originally the conversation pieces of wealthy adults, with the earliest known example dating to the mid-16th century. The term ‘baby’ was used to describe hand-built houses, mostly in Germany, the Netherlands and England, until the late 1700s. One of the earliest examples, made for Albert V, Duke of Bavaria, was the ‘Munich Baby House’: a cabinet of curiosities in the shape of a building, providing entertainment whilst symbolising wealth and social status. They were not meant to be used as toys, but as objects of wonder of a world in miniature. Dolls’ houses were also educational tools, being used as visual aids to teach both mistress and servant how to run a household.
By the early 1700s the concept of the miniature house had travelled from Europe to England, and over the following years the architectural style of the ‘Baby house’ developed. Although many examples were just elaborately furnished cabinets or cupboards, increasingly the exteriors were made to resemble actual houses; ‘The Evans Baby House’ arguably straddling the two. It is within this period that ‘The Evans Baby House’ was conceived, with its original construction dating to the mid-18th century. The empty house reveals simple early features, including the Georgian dressers to the kitchen and corner fireplaces to each level. It is believed that the façade has had some later upgrading, in the form of the treillage and mouldings, with the portico also being added at that time, complete with its fan light and columns.
During the early 19th century, it came into the ownership of the Evans family, accounting for its name. An ivory plaque attached to the wall in the upper floor of the house documents the provenance:
“Miss Hancock has sent Anne a large old-fashioned baby house which was made for her great grandmother. It possesses little furniture but has given great delight.”
- From Mrs Evans at Britwell Court, Burnham Beeches, to her sister Mrs Phelps in Madeira, May 6 1825.
Anne Evans (1820-1870) was an English poet and composer, and lived at Britwell Court, which her parents rented from 1822. The aforementioned Miss Hancock is thought to have been her godmother. During the early 19th century, the popularity of dolls’ houses grew significantly throughout Britain, and pieces were often commissioned (in this case gifted) not just for adults, but for children too.
An account by Emma Hubbard (née Evans) (1828-1905), Anne’s sister, details that at some later stage ‘The Evans Baby House’ was given to a young member of the Hancock family, and little was heard of it for many years. However, on 8th January 1886 the house was discovered by Emma at the Evelina Hospital for children in London, by remarkable chance. Although Emma was unable to find out how the house had made its way there, she managed to purchase it for a donation of 4 guineas in 1890. It was at this time that the house was renovated including the addition of woodwork to the windows (which had previously simply been painted on), the removal of wall paper and the refreshing of paint to the two upper rooms. Emma references the tinted prints in the upper and middle floors (“which had evidently been part of the original decoration of the house.”), one of which depicts the gothick tower at Whitton Park, Middlesex, as well as a small sepia drawing by her father, which remain with the house. It is thought that much of the current furniture was sourced and added around this time. Included is a fine little chest of drawers on the ground floor, and 19th century bedroom furniture. A turned wood wash set with handles imitating coral sits upon the dressing table, just as life-size versions of ceramic sets adorned the bedrooms of Victorians. Added to this is a 19th century earthenware dinner set in the kitchen, for which its original box remains. The dolls, also later additions, include children in the nursery and ‘a male doll with mutton-chop whiskers’ who ‘sits…with his top hat on a table instead of under his chair in the conventional manner’.
One of the most enchanting aspects of the house are the miniature photographs hanging in the first-floor drawing room. These show some members of the Evans and Hubbard families - “lovers and conservers of the house and its traditions’ - and indeed they are a story in themselves. Anne and Emma Evans (Hubbard) were the sisters of the archaeologist, Sir John Evans (1823-1908), who went on to become the treasurer of the Royal Society (1878-98) and president of the Society of Antiquaries (1885-92). They were also the aunts of Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941): Keeper of The Ashmolean Museum, and the man who directed the famous excavation at Knossos on Crete. He too was president of the Society of Antiquaries, as well as a trustee of the British Museum, and a founding member of both the British School at Athens, and of the British Academy.
'The Evans Baby House’ was possibly passed from Emma Hubbard (née Evans) to her brother, Sir John, and through him by descent via his daughter and granddaughter into the possession of his great-granddaughter, the late Mary Harley.
Mary Harley (née Weir) was brought up in rural Suffolk before being educated at Mount School in York. She attended both the University of St Andrews and the University of Oxford, where she met her husband, Christopher Harley. Mary’s family on her mother’s side included her great grandfather, the archaeologist Sir John Evans (1823-1908), and his son Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941), the Longmans of Longman Publishing, and the influential Dickinson stationery family. It is thought that various items were passed from Sir John by descent via his daughter and granddaughter, into the possession of his great granddaughter Mary. Through these family members her estate includes pieces previously housed at Britwell Court, Buckinghamshire, Bosworth Court, Upp Hall, Hertfordshire, and latterly Ulladale, Strathpeffer.
The joy and fun which the baby house gave the Evans family is revealed in a memoir by Emma Hubbard, as detailed in Greene’s book:
“…it was only on rare occasions when I was very young that I was allowed to play with it. Dances, dinners and other festivities went on in it and to this day I recollect the fine appearance of the mistress of the establishment, Lady Delany…”
Whilst Lady Delany may have come and gone, ‘The Evans Baby House’ continues to provide great pleasure, for even the most grown up of children. We were pleased to present ‘The Evans Baby House’ in our Five Centuries sale on 24th February 2022.
The Works of Art department sells a wide variety of antique items covering nearly 400 years of European and British design. Sold as part of our Five Centuries: Furniture, Paintings & Works of Art sale series, items offered at auction range from the esoteric to those of popular appeal and include sculpture, mechanical items, textiles, decorative objects and artworks. Primarily focused on works produced during the 18th and 19th centuries, our team of specialists and consultants are able to value and advise on the current market.