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Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House: A Glimpse Into Royal Life 100 Years Ago

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The silver crown is set with diamonds. Rubies, sapphires, emeralds and seed pearls are peppered through the design. And the red velvet cap inside would be fit to cushion the head of a monarch.

Except that the whole thing is only an inch tall.

The jeweled miniature, a copy of Britain’s Imperial State Crown, is part of Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, on display at Windsor Castle outside London, where the everyday objects, luxuries and curiosities of royal life in the early 20th century are reproduced at one-twelfth scale.

Scrutiny of Britain’s royal family was supercharged this past week by the announcement of King Charles III’s cancer diagnosis, which followed the hospitalization of Catherine, Princess of Wales, in January.

But while the modern monarchy finds itself under a sometimes unwelcome microscope, the dolls’ house has for a century allowed visitors to peer inside the rooms of a palace — albeit at a tiny scale.

The house was given to Queen Mary, the wife of King George V, in 1924, not as a child’s toy, but as a carefully constructed depiction of the best of British craftsmanship for a royal who loved all things miniature.

A January 1924 report in The Times of London described how Queen Mary, then 57, had inspected her gift “and expressed the keenest appreciation of its wonders,” which included running water and electric lifts.

To celebrate the centenary, visitors can now get closer to items normally housed inside, like the famed miniature crown, with a selection presented in a special display outside its walls.

“It’s got this instant charm,” said Kathryn Jones, a senior curator at the Royal Collection Trust. “But also as you dig into it, I think you find it’s quite layered.”

Windsor Castle’s steady stream of guests often gaze upward: at the impressively large Round Tower fortress that looms over the palace grounds, at the ornate ceilings of the formal banquet hall, and at the murals hung high on imposing walls.

But now they are also being encouraged to gaze down at the painstaking details of the dolls’ house, with some of its teeniest artifacts placed in low cases to benefit close inspection.

On a recent winter afternoon, two women crouched to look at the miniatures, which are on display in the Waterloo Chamber. There is a tiny grand piano, complete with working keys; a Singer sewing machine with small reels of thread; and a Hoover vacuum cleaner, its cord carefully wrapped around its handle.

As Ms. Jones, the curator, noted: “You start to see the world in a very different way because you are looming over these tiny little things.”

“You do feel a bit like Gulliver,” she added.

The dolls’ house, in the style of an Edwardian-era townhouse, was designed by Edwin Lutyens, a leading British architect. It was built from 1921 to 1924, and was put on display at Windsor Castle the following year.

The house sits behind a large glass case in a grand room in the state apartments, with its facade lifted to reveal the rooms inside.

Sally Isherwood, 70, lifted her 3-year-old granddaughter, Demi, for a closer view of the dining room. “Can you see the table, Demi?” she asked as she pointed to the wooden table with 14 tiny place settings of plates, cups, glassware, forks and knives.

“Yes!” her granddaughter replied as she pressed her face to the glass and talked about her own doll house. “But I don’t have a big one like that.”

“It’s absolutely beautiful,” Ms. Isherwood said. “For me, it’s amazing, but maybe for the younger children, I think they want to get a hold of it and play with all of the things,” she said with a laugh.

Despite its name, no dolls have ever inhabited the house, and it was never intended to be played with by children.

It was dreamed up by Princess Marie Louise, a cousin of King George V and a friend of Queen Mary, after World War I. She involved Mr. Lutyens, who was also a friend, and they approached some 1,500 artists, craftspeople and manufacturers to contribute.

One of Ms. Jones’s favorite parts of the centenary celebrations has been hearing from the descendants of the original makers who created elements of the house, she said.

“I think a lot of people think of the 1920s as slightly whimsical, but I do think it’s got quite a serious underlying message of preservation, and it was intended to stimulate British craftsmanship after the First World War,” she said of the dolls’ house project.

Dozens of writers provided works to stock the dolls’ house library, including Arthur Conan Doyle — who sent a new Sherlock Holmes story — A.A. Milne, J.M. Barrie and others.

For the centenary, a selection of books by contemporary authors — including Philippa Gregory, Charlie Mackesy and Bernardine Evaristo — was commissioned by Queen Camilla, although those new titles will not be put in the library of the house because they wouldn’t fit.

Back at the display, a group of young schoolchildren arrived in matching blue high-visibility vests, pressing their hands and faces to the glass as they gazed into the tiny rooms and circled the dolls’ house in single file.

“Look at the cars!” a small boy exclaimed, pointing to the miniature Daimler and Rolls-Royce that peeked out of an underground garage.

One floor up, a study is complete with the traditional ministerial red boxes that are still used by the monarch. Despite undergoing cancer treatment, King Charles will continue to deal with the official documents delivered to him daily in the full-size versions of those boxes, Buckingham Palace said this past week.

In the Queen’s Bedroom, a Tiffany blue vanity set is laid out on a table with a hairbrush, comb and perfume bottles that look poised for the return of their tiny owner.

But it is perhaps the rooms and items that give a window onto the everyday life of the royal household that enchant visitors more than the grandeur. In the linen room, small towels and sheets are neatly folded and placed on wooden shelves. A tiny copper teakettle made out of a penny sits on the kitchen stove.

Allison Thistlewood, 49, who was visiting with a friend, said, “There is that upstairs-downstairs kind of thing, and the behind-the-scenes, which is often the most fascinating.”

“It’s very ‘Downton Abbey,’” she added.

Ms. Jones said she hoped that the fact the items were all made by hand was not lost on contemporary visitors. She has a particular fondness for the kitchen, she said, which was stocked in 1924 with real food from British producers, including mustard, marmalade and conserves. Look closely and you can see where the 100-year-old blackberry jam has seeped into its paper lid.

“I think it’s just the time and trouble that people went to create these things that when you see them up close, you really can sort of marvel at it,” Ms. Jones said. “The dedication they put into creating these things is extraordinary.”

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