Friday, 16 April 2021

A Box Of Memories & Dementia

 A tiny room box I made for my stepmother's 80th birthday has suddenly become useful in a way that I had never anticipated when I first made it for her 13 years ago (she is now on the cusp of her 93rd birthday). 

Sadly, after several weeks in hospital through January of this year, the powers that be finally deemed that her physical and mental deterioration was such that she could no longer stay in her own home and was going to need round the clock nursing home care. Dementia is advancing with a vengeance and we are at the stage where she dips in and out of lucidity constantly.  

Her room in the nursing home (she calls it her flat) is small and modest, therefore due to space and safety limitations, much thought had to be put into the decision of which possessions to bring from her old house. However, she did specifically ask for "her little room box" and it appears that not only does it continue to give her enjoyment in the same way that it always has, but it is also proving therapeutic in helping to stimulate her memories and conversation. 

Almost every single item in the little box has some sort of significance for her, as it includes family photos, certificates, books, items of clothing, magazines, Jim Reeves & Val Doonican LP's, etc., all replicated and miniaturised down to 1/12th scale. 



She played tennis and badminton for most of her adult life, right into her late 70s, and then laterally took up bowls which she then played until her late 80's. I had managed to replicate one or two of her special sporting trophies in miniature too. All the photos that you see in this post were taken 13 years ago when I had just completed it. Since then, she has added her own bits and bobs, including flowers and a stunning artisan made tennis racket in 1/12th scale - sadly I do not have any updated photos of the additional items in situ. 

Many of her early family photos were incorporated into this little scene, including some of her parents and sister. It never ceases to amaze me how at times she can talk lucidly about her childhood or something from years ago, but bless her, her short term memory is fraught with confusion. 

Her little memory box has created a lot of interest amongst her new carers. It has been mentioned that the concept of these little room boxes can be helpful to people with dementia, and how my stepmother is clearly benefitting in so many ways from it. So it has got me thinking....

An Old 1950s Room Box
I still have this old 1950s Living Room/Kitchen room box that I made for a "how to make" article in the Dolls House & Miniature Scene magazine (August & September issues - 2006)....it is literally gathering dust in my old loft workroom. A few years ago I had planned to sell it but in the end  I could not part with it...you know how it is:) 

But times have changed, and priorities have changed. My plan is to create some additional carefully chosen relevant props and then donate the room box to the nursing home. Hopefully I will be able to bring an update on this 1950s project very soon and bring you more photos. 
Celia



Wednesday, 10 March 2021

Some Inspirational Hand Painted Wallpaper & Other Ideas For Your Dolls House By Jane Parkin!

The other day a customer mentioned that she was making wallpaper for her latest dolls house. I was so intrigued that I enquired on how she was making it. Further communication ensued, resulting in photos dropping into my inbox. The designs were unique and beautiful, and quite different from anything I have seen before.  I asked the lovely lady if it was possible to feature her wallpapers on this blog, as I know that many of you would find them inspiring. Not only did she agree to allow her hand painted wallpapers to be shown on here, but she has also shared some other photos plus useful tips that she has discovered along the way. 

A pastel horse scene by Jane Parkin. 

 Jane Parkin is an equestrian artist from Yorkshire. Although the majority of us will not have the level of Jane's artistic skills, you could still have a go at creating your own in some way, perhaps by adapting and simplifying your patterns/designs. I love some of Jane's other creative ideas too, including the thatched roof!

The following text and photos are Jane's...enjoy!


DOLLS HOUSE WALLPAPER

By Jane Parkin

Jane's First House Bought As A Present - A Kit House

I never had a dolls house when I was a girl and often longed for one.  It was a complete surprise when the Christmas 5 years ago, my daughter presented me with one.  When it came to applying the wallpaper, I made so many mistakes I soon became very frustrated by the whole thing.  Eventually after three attempts it was passable (just!)

Dolls House With Coir "Thatched Roof".

The next house I found at the side of the road outside a junk shop in a very sorry state, without windows upstairs. I made new ones out of margarine lids and the roof from coir, which you use for lining hanging baskets.  

Beamed  Dolls House Walls By Jane Parkin

I decided to try a heavier wallpaper in this house and used the plain side of some paper we had left from our real life size dining room.  This was much easier to manipulate, and I realised by this time that to have any success, I needed to cut each wall out separately.  I then cut strips of floor covering to make the beams. (Getting better)

Tri-ang No. 42 Dolls House - Jane Parkin

The next house was my Triang no. 42. I love this house and wanted it to be as authentic as possible.

Kitchen Of Tri-ang No. 42 Dolls House - Jane Parkin

The exterior was original but had some damage on the side of the roof, however I was amazed how easy it was to put this right.  I made two false internal doors and found some 1930’s style wallpapers.  I added picture rails and bought most of my furniture of that period from KT Miniatures.  The papers were a bit on the thin side and so I decided that with the next house I would try and design my own paper to get what I really wanted and a good weight.

Lines Bros. DH8 Dolls House - Jane Parkin

The next dolls house was my Lines Bros. DH8.  This house I think has been much loved,  it is very grubby inside with not much of the wallpaper still on, and has two new chimneys.  

Lines Bros. DH8 Before Renovation - Jane Parkin

The pictures above and below show two rooms that I have done already in the DH8. 

Lines Bros. DH8 Dining Room With Hand Painted Wallpaper - Jane Parkin

I recommend using a good quality watercolour paper and cut it exactly to the size of each wall - one piece of paper to each wall.  I started by painting the wall facing as that is the focal point.   I then marked the other two pieces of paper where the design needs to follow on.

Lines Bros. DH8 Dining Room - Matching Up Hand Painted Wallpaper - Jane Parkin


Lines Bros. DH8 Upstairs Room With Hand Painted Wallpaper - Jane Parkin

I used plenty of PVA glue and with a dry clean cloth smoothed it over.  In doing so I used a hair drier to help it dry quickly and avoid bubbles.  If you have a go and find that bubbles appear again a few hours later, repeat with the hair drier.

Lines Bros. DH8 Staircase Before Renovation

 
Lines Bros. DH8 Staircase After Renovation

In my experience I found it best to leave the old remnants of wallpaper on and give the walls a really good sanding down with a medium sandpaper.  As the staircase was so narrow I painted it completely with cream matt emulsion, then used a cotton bud and my fingers to try and make some sort of a pattern.  The carpet I made myself using a simple design in cross-stitch.

Repeat Pattern Idea - Jane Parkin

Design Idea - Jane Parkin

Small Check Design Idea - Jane Parkin


One of my ideas, the small check as seen above, I think would be suitable for the kitchen.  I will try another idea, similar, only more muted, so as to not fight with the existing floor.  Yes the floor is scuffed, but I want it to look lived in. I have learnt quite a lot from my previous experiences and I feel much more confident.

Good luck if you have a go, it can be great fun!

 © Jane Parkin

Huge thanks to Jane for allowing us to take a peek at her images and sharing her tips. We really hope that this has inspired you to have a go, whether you have an old dolls house with none of the original papers left, or a modern reproduction dolls house! 

Celia

KT Miniatures

Thursday, 18 February 2021

NEW BOOK: Miniature Mania II By Sue Passmore

 Remember Sue Passmore’s Miniature Mania Book that came out a short while ago in 2020, which featured part of her dolls house and miniature collection?

http://ktminiatures.blogspot.com/2020/11/miniature-mania-by-sue-passmore-new-book.html

Well, with the ink scarcely dry on her first book, I am delighted to tell you that Sue has now brought out her second book - Miniature Mania II.

Miniature Mania II By Sue Passmore


This second book is different from her first, in so much that the second half of her collection is more eclectic, plus it includes some more recent examples of houses, as well as one or two not so recent. The book is split into the following sections: Houses, Shops, Room & Shadow Boxes, Box Files, Book Scenes, Entertainment, Modern Plastic, Paper houses, pop-Up Books and then finally Odds & Ends.  

Sue's Prefab House, made from a magazine project.


Sue's French Book Shop made inside an old wine box. 

Among some of Sue’s creations featured is a prefab that she made using instructions from a dolls house magazine project, a French book shop made from a wine box, a furniture warehouse, a school room inspired by one seen in a book, and so much more. 

Sue's Dowlais House complete with "Mrs Jones, her mop, duster and packet of Craven-A.


Dowlais House started off as a Chinese wall decoration that Sue found on an animal charity stall, which she then turned into a 1/24th scale Welsh terrace house. ("Mrs Jones" is instantly recognisable as one made by my old mate Robin Britton of Coombe Crafts, from many moons ago).

Sue's model of a crofter's cottage. 

Sue’s Crofter Cottage was inspired after a trip to the Hebridean islands, complete with sea rounded stones to weigh down the roof and protect from high winds!

Back Cover Of Miniature Mania II

If like Sue, you love dolls houses and all things miniature, and enjoy seeking out bargain mini treasures to collect or use creatively, then you may find this book useful.  Sue’s lateral thinking and ability to adapt all kinds of containers and objects into clever tiny abodes or scenes is rather inspiring, and this book may help you kick start your own ideas, whether you are new to the hobby or a well-seasoned collector. Sue has also included some more modern miniature dolls houses in this book such as Fisher Price, Sylvanian, etc. 

As with Sue’s first book, this second book is only obtainable direct from the publishers lulu.com.  

CLICK HERE FOR MORE DETAILS


Wednesday, 10 February 2021

PART TWO: The Story Of Bertha & Ralph Wright Plus Their Miniatures Revealed!

 Here is the much awaited second part to the story that derived from a bundle of unusual old dolls house furniture which I had purchased back in 2016. That bundle of furniture turned out to have originated from the 1930s and had been made by Bertha & Ralph Wright.  It was through the power of the internet that Richard Wright (grandson of Ralph Wright) and Patrick Daw (grandson of Bertha) got in touch and who kindly forwarded information about their grandparents and their dolls houses/miniature furniture, picture boxes, etc. If you have not read Part One of this story from the previous post on here, I strongly recommend that you read it before you read this second part:

http://ktminiatures.blogspot.com/2021/01/part-onethe-story-of-bertha-ralph.html

So here we go....PART TWO: The Story Of Bertha & Ralph Wright Plus Their Miniatures Revealed!

Dolls Houses & Dolls House Furniture

While Bertha was making her picture boxes, Mr Chris Hoad, (the carpenter making Bertha’s wooden boxes) helped Ralph hone his carpentry skills. From then on Ralph began to make “beautiful original doll’s houses” (Bertha’s description) and eventually dolls house furniture. Various pieces of the furniture were unusually carved out of wooden blocks. Ralph did all the constructing of the dolls houses and furniture, and Bertha did the painting.

Ralph & Bertha’s Price List

Patrick kindly unearthed and forwarded an old price list of Ralph & Bertha’s dolls houses, etc. but says that the date of this list is unknown. It certainly makes fascinating reading, as not only did they make various dolls houses, furniture, shops, and stalls but they made other products too, including three carved bears and a zoo cage suitable for lead animals. I have to say that the seven roomed "L-shaped" dolls house fitted out as a bookshop in a two thirds of an inch scale, would have been quite unusual for its time. So too, the five roomed shop fitted out as a grocer and fishmonger shop. Another surprise to see on their price list was miniature handmade wax food, flat plates of fruit plus carved bowls, fancy dishes, servers and even crocuses in a bowl. Which goes to show how varied and innovative both Bertha and Ralph’s creations were.  

Bertha & Ralph Wright Price List - Page One. Image courtesy of Patrick Daw. 
Bertha & Ralph Wright Price List - Page Two. Image courtesy of Patrick Daw. 

Bertha & Ralph Wright Price List - Page Three. Image courtesy of Patrick Daw. 


Tudor Dolls House

Images of Tudor dolls houses made by Ralph & Bertha Wright. Image courtesy of Patrick Daw. 

The only dolls house that appears on the price list that we actually have photos of, is the Tudor dolls house, hence this section of the article. The price list shows that Ralph was making a large Tudor dolls house, and that it was being offered unfurnished as well as fully furnished. However, it appears that the Tudor dolls house was known to have been made in a medium size too. Various images of Ralph’s Tudor houses can be seen above. It is believed that Ralph modelled this range of dolls house on their Marden house (The Old House), a 16th century timber framed house.

Tudor dolls house with inscription. Image by courtesy of Marden History Group.

An image of another version of Ralph and Bertha’s Tudor house can be seen above, by courtesy of the Marden History Group’s archives. This dolls house was purchased from an antique shop by a couple who after finding the inscription on the house, sent photos to the history group for their archives.

Market Stall

Market Stall By Ralph & Bertha Wright. 

Bertha and Ralph described their market stalls on the price list as “Brightly coloured little stalls with hand modelled goods plus a carved and painted vendor. Each has a small door behind.” In the photo above you can see one of these stalls that came with the bundle of furniture, but sadly there were no goods or carved vendors amongst them. The variety of stalls that Bertha & Ralph offered included Bookseller, Greengrocer, Cake, Pork Butcher and Fishmonger. The bookseller particularly would have been an unusual toy for a child during the 1930s, I am assuming that this was heavily influenced by Ralph’s great love of books.

Furniture

Assortment of furniture, including some that are specifically mentioned on Bertha & Ralph Wright's Price List above. 

The list of furniture seen on the price list is a little more extensive than I was expecting, so could prove useful for identification purposes to antique dolls house collectors, as I suspect that there are pieces of Ralph and Bertha’s creations out there in various collections yet to be identified. So as not to repeat myself too much, I have included some different images of the furniture below not seen in the 2016 article.  

Please see “A Collection of Miniature Treasures Made by Bertha and Ralph Wright” for further photos of the furniture.

A chest of drawers with Bertha's green lacquer hand painted Chinese design, with each drawer having been carved out of separate blocks of wood. 

What makes Ralph’s dolls house furniture so unique is the fact that construction wise, many of the pieces have been carved out of single blocks of wood such as all the drawers of the chest of drawers, as seen above. Quite remarkable! Usually, the drawers of dolls house furniture are constructed from separate components.

A wardrobe with Bertha's green lacquer hand painted Chinese design, looking well at home in a 1930s dolls house bedroom. 

Bertha and Ralph offered a bedroom suite in an enamel cream finish with Chinese green lacquer painting. Bertha’s painting was stunning, you can see here in the above photo the wardrobe that was part of the suite. The wardrobe looks well at home in the bedroom of an old 1930s dolls house. The Chinese design was replicated in various forms on other pieces of bedroom furniture by Bertha, as well as on a folding screen which can be seen further down below.

Two single beds in a cream enamel finish with Bertha's floral hand painted design. 

In the photos above is an example of two beds from another bedroom suite with Bertha’s hand painted flowers in a vase design, so very evocative of the 1930s style.

A sofa and armchair with Bertha's "flower chintz" hand painted design shown in situ in a 1930s dolls house. 

The sofas and armchairs were carved out of single blocks of wood, their framework superbly and skilfully shaped.  Seen here is the sofa and armchair that were described on the price list as having a “flower chintz” finish. Bertha’s painting of these pieces is quite beautiful and so unique, one would certainly need a steady hand and creative ability to be able to paint staggered rows of multiple tiny hand-painted flowers. I know these may not be to everyone’s taste, but personally I love them! They look well at home in this c1930s dolls house.

A carved armchair with a plain terracotta painted finish. 

Above is an example of a carved armchair painted in a single colour, this one is in a terracotta colour.

Two of Bertha & Ralph's chairs, quite different from each other. 

Here are further examples of Ralph & Bertha’s chairs, quite different in finish from each other. The chair with the bright yellow seat pad that has a tiny floral repeat pattern in rows has a very “Bloomsbury” feel to it.  

Ralph's grandfather clock, kitchen cupboard and room screen, all beautifully painted by Bertha. 

The grandfather clock has been carved out of one single piece of wood and the clock face has been painted by Bertha in such a beautiful way. Her painting of fish, vegetables and fruit on the kitchen cupboard is exquisite. No doubt this is one of the items off the price list that is described as a “gaily painted” kitchen cupboard.  The room screen, which is not on the price list and the only piece of furniture which I had in my possession that Bertha signed, has Bertha’s very distinctive hand painted Chinese design.  There is no doubt that both Bertha & Ralph had been extremely creative and innovative in their dolls house furniture… quite different from any of the commercially produced dolls house items being offered by the leading toy manufacturers at that time, such as Tri-ang, Pit-a-Pat, etc.

The Mystery Of The Modern Dolls House

Scanned image from International Dolls House News magazine, Volume 22, No. 2 - Summer 1993. 

In my original article about Ralph & Bertha that appeared in a 2016 issue of Dolls Houses Past & Present magazine, the editor (Rebecca Green) by chance had come across an image from a two-page spread in an old International Dolls House News magazine on Flat-Roofed Houses of the 1930s & 1940s (IDHN Volume 22, Summer 1993, page 46). The image can be seen above, and the house No. 2 (on the left) clearly names Ralph Wright as the architect and that Bertha Wright was the interior decorator.  When I first saw this, I assumed that it was likely meaning the Ideal Home Exhibition and perhaps it had been a joint project with Heals specifically for the exhibition? However, Patrick forwarded a snippet from Country Life December 1934 with more information about that model, as seen below.

The Modern Movement In The Dolls House - Country Life 1934. Image by courtesy of Patrick Daw. 

So, from the information given above, I am now assuming that Heals manufactured the dolls house and furniture, based on Ralph’s architectural plans and Bertha’s interior design plans, and it was then sold under the Heals brand name. Oddly, there is no mention of this dolls house in Bertha’s memoirs and neither Patrick nor Richard know of any specific details about this. 

Modern Dolls House - Designed By Bertha & Ralph Wright, Made By Heals. Images by courtesy of Patrick Daw. 

However, Patrick did forward these photos of the modern style flat roof dolls house that the family had, showing it in more detail. Due to lack of further information, I can only guess on such points as to how did this deal come about? My gut feeling is that it would not be inconceivable for the Wrights to have had social connections to Heals. The famous Mansard Gallery was situated on the fourth floor of Heals, and where some of the leading artists and designers would have exhibited, including some of the Bloomsbury Group and their acquaintances. Interestingly, you can see that the date on the Country Life snippet is stamped December 1934. Although one or two flat roof dolls houses had just begun to make an appearance around then, Tri-ang did not bring out their flat roof range of “Modern Dolls Houses” until 1935. So, had Bertha and Ralph been clever and anticipated a niche in the market? They had already shown an aptitude for innovation in their furniture design and Bertha’s picture boxes.

An Unexpected Discovery – The WW2 Bombing Of Maidstone Road, Marden.

This image shows the actual devastation that took place from the 1941 bombing raid at Maidstone Road in Marden. Image by kind permission of Marden History Group. 

An unexpected discovery from my online research whilst compiling this article led to finding a sad and tragic end to Mr Christopher Harral Hoad, the carpenter who made Bertha’s wooden boxes and who taught Ralph carpentry. He lived at No. 3 Maidstone Road (Marden), but on the night of the 4th February 1941, a German plane randomly dropped its leftover bombs (presumably after a London raid). It landed on two houses and two shops in the Maidstone Road. Five people were killed on that fateful night, one of whom was Mr Hoad. How tragic for those people and their families. It is believed that he had been playing cards in his house at the time. However, the Kent village of Marden was described to have been situated in “bomb alley”, a common route for German planes heading to and from London, so this was not an isolated case. This tale and more can be found on the Marden History website. http://www.mardenhistory.org.uk/home/

 

And Finally…

Huge thanks once again to Richard Wright and Patrick Daw, for their wonderful communications and efforts on passing on such glorious information about their grandparents, all given so readily and so freely. Special thanks also to Patrick’s brother Peter Daw, his brother James Derville, and to his sister Daisy Macdonald, for sending photos of Bertha’s picture boxes that they have in their possession. Also thank you to the Marden History Group  (www.mardenhistory.org.uk/home/) for their kind permission on allowing the use of their photos, and to Eunice Doswell of the group for her input.

Richard, whose father was Christopher Wright – Ralph’s youngest son, told me that one of the most important aspects of his grandfather’s life was that he and Bertha were able to keep such a close bond with their children, despite divorce and that it is a tribute to the legacy of Ralph and Bertha that the bond between the families has continued to this day.

On a personal note Patrick, who is a professional sculptor and commercial artist based in Bristol (UK) and whose mother was Sheila - the eldest daughter of Bertha & Alec Penrose, poignantly says “I am privileged to own some of Ralph’s woodworking tools, principally his many carving chisels, which I regularly use in my pattern making workshop. The role model set by Ralph and Bertha at The Old House was a potent unconscious influence upon me and helped to mould my own professional making and painting practice in adulthood. Ralph always had a penknife handy and even on walks near Marden he would whittle up a little sailing boat for me from a small branch.”

Well what else is there to say, other than I hope you have enjoyed reading the story behind Ralph, Bertha, and their miniatures. It is rare to obtain such in depth information about a pair of wonderful makers who are no longer with us. Needless to say, if anyone out there reading this has any further information on Ralph & Bertha’s creations, particularly the furniture, dolls houses and some of Bertha’s commissions where no known photos to date are in existence, I would love to hear from you.

Celia Thomas – KT Miniatures

©ktminiatures.com


Saturday, 30 January 2021

PART ONE:The Story Of Bertha & Ralph Wright Plus Their Miniatures Revealed!

This story began for me back in 2016 when I received a bundle of unusual dolls house furniture from an online auction, which resulted in this following article called "A Collection Of Miniature Treasures Made By Bertha & Ralph Wright".

 https://www.dollshousespastandpresent.co.uk/Magazine/Issue-28-29-Mar-Jun-2016/Page-5

Well, here we are four years later, and I am delighted to say that through the power of the internet my plea for more information about the Wrights and their miniatures has been answered twofold, as not only did Richard Wright (grandson of Ralph Wright) kindly get in touch, but so too did Patrick Daw (grandson of Bertha). Huge thanks to Richard & Patrick, and their respective families for all the information that they have given so freely. There is so much to tell that for logistical reasons I have had to split this article into two parts. Here below you can see Part One of their input and what a story! Part Two will follow shortly on my next posting. I hope you find it interesting. 


Bertha Gwendoline Wright (Formerly Penrose) (née Baker)

Bertha as a child plus her father, stepmother & half siblings, from "Bad Aunt Bertha" (a publication collated and printed by the Baker-Penrose family). 

Bertha Gwendoline Baker was born in London into a Quaker family in 1897. Her mother Mabel (née Main) was an Australian and her father Philip Baker was Canadian, one of four Baker brothers who all worked for the family’s London based firm Joseph Baker & Sons Ltd., (later became Baker Perkins). Tragically her mother died when Bertha was just 3 weeks old. However, in 1901 her father married Amy (née Dell) and much to Bertha’s great delight gained two half siblings – Olive and Barton. After school, although Bertha initially trained and worked as a secretary, she clearly had artistic ability and yearned to get a place at the “Slade School of Art” in London.

Her wish was finally granted, but it appears that early on during her time at Slade in 1918 she also began courting Alexander (Alec) Penrose, and due to the distractions of her courtship and life, her studies suffered. She left after only a couple of terms and married Alec in 1919. He was one of four brothers from the wealthy Penrose family – see “A Collection of MiniatureTreasures Made by Bertha and Ralph Wright” for more information about the Penrose family. They had two daughters together - Sheila and Angela but unfortunately, according to Bertha’s memoirs, her marriage was not a happy one almost from the start it seems. They finally divorced at the end of the 1920s. David Garnett (prominent member of the Bloomsbury Group) had introduced her to Ralph Wright in the mid-1920s, and their relationship progressed over time. They would eventually go on to marry a few years after her divorce.

 Bertha Wright aged 35, from "Bad Aunt Bertha" (a publication collated and printed by the Baker-Penrose family).

She married Ralph in Marseilles in 1933 which is around the time their work in miniatures began. In the latter half of the 1930s Bertha joined the Communist Party (influenced by Ralph who had already joined), spending many hours assisting at meetings and visiting houses on behalf of the party for the “Care Committee”. During the years leading up to WW2, both Ralph and Bertha attended regular meetings, rallies, marches, and demonstrations. Bertha remained married to Ralph until his death in 1961. In the 1970s she moved over to France to live with her daughter Angela and husband Jo, and it is there that she lived out the rest of her days until her death in 1985.

“Bad Aunt Bertha” – The Memoirs Of Bertha Wright

The loaned copy of Bad Aunt Bertha.

Richard very kindly lent me a copy of his step-grandmother’s memoirs “Bad Aunt Bertha”, published as a limited edition by the Baker- Penrose family more than two decades after her death and meant for private consumption only (for obvious reasons). I have read it from cover to cover and will say that she was clearly a colourful character who embraced life, and that the title was apt! Through the social circles that she moved in, she encountered many well-known society characters of the time, including authors, poets, artists, etc. and of course, several from the infamous Bloomsbury Group. One of her affairs which is well documented in the public domain was with Clive Bell, husband of artist Vanessa Bell (sister of author Virginia Woolf) …all prominent characters from the Bloomsbury Group. Interestingly, Bertha’s memoirs only lead up to the beginning of WW2, so the information on what happened to her and Ralph after that time, has mostly been sourced from her grandsons.   

Ralph Fletcher Wright

The Mahler Family - Ralph Wright sitting crossed legged at front, Doro seated right of middle row. Image courtesy of the Wright Family.

Ralph Fletcher Wright was born in 1888 and grew up near Chirk, in North Wales. He was the third of seven children and attended Bradfield College. During the holidays Ralph established a close friendship and romance with Dorothea Mahler. They went on to marry in 1913 and had four children - Margaret, Peter, Roger, and Christopher.

*Ralph & friend Ronald Frankau in WW1 (Frankau went on to become a successful comedian & entertainer in film and radio). Image courtesy of the Wright Family. 

Ralph served in the Army Cyclist Corps during WW1 right through to the end of the war, acting in reconnaissance and communications. He rose to the rank of Lieutenant and was along-side his brother King at Gallipoli in 1915. It was at Gallipoli that King was killed on the beaches, and from which Ralph was sent home with dysentery.  During the final months of the war, Ralph also lost his eldest brother Peter - tragedies from which Ralph was never to fully recover.

After the war, Ralph and Doro lived in Beckenham with their young family. During this time Ralph was working in London at the Central Library for Students, where he met writers David Garnett and Frankie Birrell. Ralph was invited to become a partner in their Soho antiquarian bookshop - Birrell and Garnett Booksellers, a famous rendezvous at the time within Bloomsbury circles.  The company favoured French and English literature from the 18th and 19th centuries, which was an area of Ralph's expertise. Ralph is described by Garnett in his biography as: "... a rather short man, whose head of glossy black hair, brushed straight back resembled a seal's head, emerging from the water. He was sympathetic, sensitive and warm; particularly well versed in French and English literature and a flair for conversation."

Image of Ralph Wright at his desk at the Daily Worker. Image courtesy of the Wright Family. 

All of this meant that Ralph socialised on the fringes of the Bloomsbury Group, along with other famous authors, poets, etc. who were around at that time during the 1920s and beyond. The bookshop changed hands in 1927. It was through his friend David Garnet at a lunch in Soho during the mid-1920s, that he was introduced to Bertha and from then on they met regularly in London and holidayed together in Cassis (France) amongst many of their friends.  His marriage to Doro finally ended, and as already mentioned above, Bertha & Ralph finally married in 1933

During the mid-thirties, Ralph had yet another lifestyle change, as he joined the Communist Party. Ralph was not a passive member and was soon appointed literary editor at The Daily Worker. He would work all week in London and return home to Marden for weekends. Eventually Bertha joined the Communist Party too. They continued their regular visits to France and in fact it was during a family camping holiday in 1939 when they heard news of the outbreak of war. Ralph felt betrayed by the Communist Party and immediately resigned his membership. However, he was to maintain a strong socialist philosophy for the rest of his life. During WW2 Ralph became an ARP warden in Marden. Sadly, tragedy was to strike the Wright family again in 1943 when Ralph and Doro’s second son Roger was killed in action at Salerno during the allied invasion of Italy. 

Shortly after the war Ralph suffered severe heart problems which resulted in him living a more sedate lifestyle in Marden during the 1950s.  Ralph and Bertha continued their trips to France during this time, both to Cassis and to Montcuq where Bertha’s daughter Angela and family lived. He retired to his letters, occasionally reviewing books for The New Statesman and began the mammoth project of translating the Memoirs of St Simon, which sadly he never finished. He died in 1961. Bertha’s youngest daughter Angela was quoted as saying “It seemed such a miracle to Ralph to be alive in 1918 that he asked very little of life after that, just his books, his glass of wine, his log fire, his Times every morning, and the woman he loved….” 

So How Did Ralph & Bertha Get Into Miniatures And Dolls Houses?

The Old House at Marden in Kent. Image courtesy of the Wright Family. 

In 1929 Bertha and her two daughters moved into “The Old House” which was situated in the Kent village of Marden, a house bought by Alec for Bertha, presumably as part of their divorce settlement. Ralph, whose marriage had also ended around then, was a frequent visitor, along with many of her society friends. Ralph’s and Bertha’s romance flourished. From then on, they would set off to France regularly three times each year, alternating residence between the Kent house and France.  The Kent house was rented out during their absence to gain much needed revenue to keep their lifestyle going (*Ralph’s friend from the army days Ronald Frankau, the well-known comedian, was one of the tenants and a regular face in Marden).

A picture of a Cassis house by Bertha Wright. Image courtesy of the Wright family. 

Cassis, a town on the French Mediterranean coast and a Mecca for artists and authors, was one of Bertha and Ralph’s favourite places. It was a place first introduced to Bertha back in the mid-1920s by Alec’s surrealist artist brother, Roland Penrose. Amongst many of their long-time friends in Cassis was a renowned experimental artist and collage maker Jean Yanko Varda.

Bertha’s Picture Boxes

Bertha Wright exhibiting her picture boxes at some time during the 1960s, the exact event is unknown. Image courtesy of the Wright Family. 

It was from Varda that Bertha bought a box of modelling wax in every colour imaginable, after finding a discarded wooden box on a beach at Cassis, which once housed little cream cheeses. She discovered that a mirror from her handbag fitted perfectly when slotted into the back of the box. Then using red, pink, and green wax she created tiny fish, and hung them on fine human hair (from her blonde friends) at different heights from the roof. Seaweed was made from frayed knitting wools in green and brown colours, starfish were made of wax, and reefs on the floor were made up of tiny shells. Spurred on by this, she collected more “petit-suisse boxes”, sanded them down and had small mirrors cut to fit the backs. She glazed the front of each box with glass, when the box was tapped the fish moved, and the mirror gave an illusion of there being multiple fishes. Bertha honed her modelling skills and staging of weeds, shells, and rocks so that by the Christmas of 1932 she had a fine collection of “useless fantasies” (her description) to inflict on friends as gifts! After their marriage in March 1933, they returned from France to The Old House full of ideas. It was then that their work in miniatures began properly. They turned the playroom into a workshop/studio and set up a workbench.

Victorian Parlour Picture Box by Bertha Wright. Image courtesy of Patrick Daw. 

Once back in Kent, Bertha paid Mr Christopher Hoad, a local carpenter/cabinet maker, to make the wooden casements for her picture boxes out of American white wood, an arrangement that continued for several years.  Bertha spent hours experimenting with various arrangements of mirrors and was delighted with the little German waxes that she had purchased off Varda. When warmed they could be mixed like paint, but one had to warm the discs of wax thoroughly to body heat- not near a flame or fire, or else the outsides would have melted leaving the centres hard. She discovered an ingenious method of warming the wax by placing the discs down her bra! As well as wax she used other bits and bobs to create her scene.

The Fun Fair Picture Box by Bertha Wright c1933. Image courtesy of Peter Daw.

Apparently, Bertha left eighteen picture boxes behind when she departed the UK in 1976 to live with her daughter in France, and all were distributed amongst the family. A selection of some of those picture boxes can be seen in this article belonging to Patrick, sister Daisy Macdonald and his brothers Peter Daw and James Derville. All have kindly given permission to allow their photos to be featured in this article. The box measurements generally vary from about 7” to 12” wide x 6” deep, with a fully glazed sliding front and each have a smaller glass panel in the top.

French Town Picture Box by Bertha Wright. Image courtesy of Patrick Daw. 

Patrick explains that some of the picture boxes have the rear wall lined with a mirror, and some have additional mirrors angled in such a skilful way to provide interesting vistas using the backs of the forefront features in reflection, or longer views at apparent angles. An illustration of this technique can be seen in the French Town Picture Box, seen above and below.

Another view of the French Town Picture Box by Bertha Wright. Image courtesy of Patrick Daw. 

In some of the scenes Bertha has made a specific feature in part form only eg. a tree and positioned it against the junction of two mirrors to create its wholeness completely (a technique used by ship designers who use a half -hull attached to a mirror). The scale of the scenes internally vary radically from box to box, some figures and animals are inches high, others are tiny. Portions of the features such as buildings have been carved out of wood. All the sculpted items within the boxes are made from coloured wax rendering them very fragile, while other bits and pieces are wood or found objects eg. a mother of pearl button for a clock face. As you will see in one or two of the photos, some of the wax models have succumbed to a little heat damage over time, particularly those that belong to Patrick’s brother James who lives in Toulouse where the hot climate particularly has taken its toll. However, Patrick believes they should not be too difficult to restore.

Victorian Bedroom Picture Box by Bertha Wright. Image courtesy of Patrick Daw.

In the summer of 1933 Bertha took some of her picture boxes to a highly sceptical Mr Honeyman, manager of Lefevre Galleries in London. But it turned out that he was completely enchanted when he actually saw them, and described her work as “pure Dounaier Rousseau”, resulting in an invitation to exhibit her picture boxes in the December of that year at the gallery. She had to work flat out to supply around 24 picture boxes for the exhibition and it was a great success, so much so that the gallery invited her to travel up to Glasgow to exhibit her picture boxes there too. Unfortunately, the Glasgow trip was not quite as successful and apparently, she only sold two picture boxes.

 Circus Picture Box by Bertha Wright c1936. Image courtesy of James Derville. 

Bertha says in her memoirs about that time in her life: “I was living in a fairyland, a Lilliput of my own conception and was carried away by the excitement and success of creating these little people, animals and scenes out of wax with my own fingers. They became real tiny characters to me- the villages, jungles and so on, real places I had dreamed of, all tiny and perfect. I always make sketches from life or in museums or zoos of everything I wanted to model and took a lot of trouble over costumes.”

For those miniaturists amongst you reading Bertha’s statement, I am sure you will be able to relate to these sentiments completely. Possibly part of the attraction of the miniatures hobby is that one can switch off from the real world, and totally immerse oneself into a make believe and more perfect world of our own creating, which can be incredibly therapeutic.  

Jungle Picture Box by Bertha Wright. Image courtesy of James Derville. 
Chimps In The Jungle Box by Bertha Wright c1933. Image courtesy of Peter Daw. 

As time went on, she obtained various commissions. One noteworthy order was by Clough Williams-Ellis to make a model of his famous Italian village hotel at Portmeirion in Wales, sadly there is no known photo of this creation. Her model incorporated a slot for people to drop 3d into which enabled the scene to light up momentarily. As part of the preparation for the commission, she spent a week drawing to scale every building in the place, including the trees and statues. It took her weeks to make but Bertha felt that it was not as interesting as her own little invented scenes, which I find quite a curious statement.

Flower Show Picture Box by Bertha Wright. Image courtesy of Patrick Daw. 

Another memorable commission was for Misha Black (a distinguished British architect) of the Industrial Design Partnership to make a number of models measuring 2’ x 1’ x 1’ depicting English village life. They were to be exhibited at THE WORLD’S FAIR, an exhibition in New York during the summer of 1939. The room box themes included A Working Man’s Club, A Play By The WI, A Young Farmer’s Heifer Show, Armistice Day In The Village and A Flower Show. I wonder if the Flower Show Box seen above was like the one Bertha made for the exhibition. Sadly, there do not appear to be any photos of Bertha’s specific creations made for the exhibition and presumably they stayed in the US. Apparently, she was paid £200 for this commission, which was a lot in those days – I understand the equivalent in today’s money is around £13,000!

French Landscape Picture Box by Bertha Wright c1947. Image courtesy of Patrick Daw. 


Ship In Ice Picture Box by Bertha Wright. Image courtesy of Peter Daw. 

One of her last commissions she talks about in her memoirs was one ordered by her cousin Nettie around the early part of WW2 (this was Jannette Braithwaite who was married to John Braithwaite, who later became chairman of the London Stock Exchange after the war). She asked her to make a model of an imaginary air raid in the east end of London. It was three feet long, incorporating as much gory detail that she could muster, including a dead horse, a lot of blood lying around and a little boy being sick. It took many weeks to make and ended up in a Hendon “peace shop”. It was fitted with penny-in-the-slot lighting. Now this is another of those picture boxes that I would have loved to have seen, I wonder if that still exists somewhere too.

Chinese Picture Box by Bertha Wright c1936. Image courtesy of James Derville. 

The French Landscape picture box seen just a little further up on here is dated 1947. The photo of Bertha exhibiting her picture boxes seen even further up is believed to have been taken in the 1960s and I had assumed that by 1960 she was no longer creating…but then more photos of Bertha’s picture boxes landed in my inbox, taken by Patrick’s sister Daisy!

French Street Market Picture Box By Bertha Wright, c1966. Image courtesy of Daisy Macdonald. 

One being The French Street Market seen above which is dated 1966. And another, Persian Palace seen below is dated 1970.  What strikes me after seeing all these wonderful images of Bertha’s picture boxes is that she was clearly an accomplished artist and sculptor, with great innovation and imagination. To have had the ability to create such diverse scenes in her picture boxes and special commission models, was something quite extraordinary indeed.   

Persian Palace Picture Box by Bertha Wright c1970. Image courtesy of Daisy Macdonald. 

I hope you have enjoyed this first part of Bertha & Ralph's story, and seeing Bertha's truly stunning and innovative miniature picture boxes.  Many thanks to Richard Wright, Patrick Daw and their respective families for supplying not just their photos but information too, and of course giving me permission to publish it all on here. 

©ktminiatures.com - Celia Thomas

Coming shortly will be Part Two of "The Story Of Bertha & Ralph Wright Plus Their Miniatures", which will include their dolls houses, furniture and much more...


NEW UPDATE

Matthew Bain, grandson of Ronald Frankau, got in touch a couple of weeks ago after coming across the original 2016 article about Bertha & Ralph and sent the following:

'Aunt Bertha' and Ralph (pronounced 'Rafe') were the guardians of my mother Rosie and her sister Robbie during WWII. Rosemary and Roberta Frankau (to give them their full names) were the daughters of Ronald Frankau, a well-known entertainer of the '30s and '40s. Ronald and Ralph met when they served together in the First World War. I met Bertha myself on a few occasions when she came to our house, my mother was enduringly fond of her. My mother sadly died in 2017 (obituary) however I forwarded the article to Aunt Robbie and she has shared the following recollections:

"Well, well Matthew, what a find!  Yes, indeed I remember Bert’s (as she was called then) boxes when Rosie and I lived with her and Ralph in school holidays from about 1943 to 1945/6.  By then they were mirrored and were amazing French bar scenes and tropical animals!  Because of the mirrors they went on and on into the distance. Quite lovely. There was a special insert in their huge fireplace wall (where we lived, in their 16th century house in Marden, Kent) where she put them, changing them intermittently. No memory of doll’s houses.  By that time, we were living with them he was suffering from what we now call PTSD. One of his 4 sons was killed in the 2nd world war, and he had been in the first war (with Ronald). So all he did was read (and to me) and put logs ("Georges") on the fire and play the piano when he was ready for dinner! Rosie and I adored him." 

SPECIAL THANKS to Matthew Bain and his aunt Roberta Tovell (née Frankau), for giving me their kind permission to add their information to this article.