2 November 2016

Small Designs

The Book of the "Daily Mirror's" House for Pip, Squeak and Wilfred
Grand designs on a miniature scale
Kevin McCloud’s amateur house builders are often berated for cutting corners and not getting professionals in to advise them. Well, he’d have been pleased as punch with Alexander Campbell, the Daily Mirror editor of the late 1920s, who conceived the idea of building a model house for three characters from a popular cartoon strip of the time.  Mirror Grange was to be a home for Pip,Squeak and Wilfred – a dog, a penguin and a rabbit – whose adventures ran every day in the paper, spawning all kinds of merchandise as they went.
To start with, the Mirror brought in leading architect Maxwell Ayrton FRIBA, best known for the famous twin towers of the old Wembley Stadium. As a one-time pupil of Edwin Lutyens, a lot of his work had that chunky, austere classicism that crops up in bank headquarters and civic halls of the era. So the Mirror’s brief was a little out of his line, as he was asked to produce something that appeared to date from the 1400s; a half-timbered fortified manor house with haunted tower. As this book explains, it was a job he agreed to do ‘without any financial reward, but wholly inspired by a high artistic purpose’.
In fact, Ayrton was an obvious choice because of his links with Lutyens, whose own foray into the miniature world set a precedent for Mirror Grange. Between 1921 and 1924 Lutyens created the opulent Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House that is still a major attraction of the Royal Collections at Windsor. No expense was spared for Queen Mary, and the Mirror was determined not to stint on costs for its fictional tenants. Alongside Ayrton, they recruited a number of well-known interior, stage and furniture designers and even a group of portrait painters that included Sir William Orpen.
This book of the house consists of contributions by Alexander Campbell and several of the other people involved, including Ayrton and Orpen. The flavour throughout is one of nostalgia and a jingoistic pride in British craftsmanship. The essays reinforce the house as representative of some apparently unassailable British values, particularly strength through continuity. As a paean to the security provided by a rich architectural heritage, it seems appropriate that Mirror Grange is sited not among rural lanes or a half-timbered High Street, but on a solid crag of rock. It may be that the techniques and challenges of making the brickwork and the timbers seem age-worn are described in some detail, but Mirror Grange is intended to be a place where time has stopped. As Campbell says of the meticulously detailed rooms, ‘the modern note has not been heard within the mellow walls of this sequestered domicile’.
And within these mellow walls are all the domestic spaces required to make up a middle-class home of the period. As well as lounge, master bedroom and kitchen, there are a lumber room, spare bedroom, nursery and maid’s room. Every one of them is furnished with precisely crafted miniature items making a complete little world. Some of these things border on the surreal in their diminished dimensions, such as the convex mirror which further shrinks its already shrunken surroundings, or the 28-page copy of the Daily Mirror that can be read in its entirety through a magnifying glass. This place is more Alice in Wonderland than Lilliput.
It isn’t really clear if the book has been written for children who follow the cartoon or adults entranced by miniature reflections of a nostalgic, full-size world. Tiny pots and pans and curtains that you can pull across windows draw gasps from children who may have their own doll’s houses at home, but the house is also stuffed with exact 1:12 scale reproductions of Chippendale pieces and copies of regency glassware. Mirror Grange is really a kind of comfort blanket for all ages – a structure that reflects that glossed English history whose traces in towns and villages across the country act as anchors of continuity in the always troubling present.

Mirror Grange was exhibited at the Grafton Galleries in Bond Street, London and a small charge for admission raised funds for the Heritage Craft Schools for Crippled Children at Chailey in Sussex. Its fate immediately after that is unclear. It seems to have spent a couple of decades being neglected and subject to a few real effects of passing time to add to those carefully crafted signs of decay it was originally made with. It was subsequently saved and restored by doll expert Faith Eton. In 1995, it appeared for sale at Bonhams auctioneers with an estimate of £10,000-15,000 where it was snapped up by a Japanese collector.

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