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Dolls' house - The Forster Baby House

The Forster Baby House

  • Object:

    Dolls' house

  • Place of origin:

    London (possibly, made)

  • Date:

    1720s-1730s (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    Mahogany, carved, turned and incised; pine; oak; glass; brass

  • Credit Line:

    Purchased with the support of the V&A Members and the Hugh Phillips Bequest

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

This dolls' house, or 'baby house', is a rare and magnificent example from the early 18th century, probably made between 1720 and 1740. In contrast to most other baby houses of this date, it is fundamentally unaltered.

The 17th and 18th century baby house was a distinctly different artefact from the 19th and 20th century child's dolls' house. The concept of the miniature house came to England from the Netherlands and Germany in the early 18th century. Its purpose was to train wealthy teenage girls in household management. Furniture and utensils, some in silver and porcelain, were supplied by toy merchants. Girls were encouraged to develop sewing skills by making clothes for the house's dolls. Baby houses are, literally, a model of the social and decorative formation of the home, and a window on the mind of the mistress of the house.

Physical description

A large Palladian-style 'baby house', made from two types of mahogany, with the floors of the rooms made from pine, with glass windows, on a later oak stand. The walls and main structure are of one type of mahogany, the finer details like quoins generally of a lighter variety.

The house takes the form of a three storey, five bay, structure with quoins and string courses, on a separable rusticated basement, with a flat roof, dentilled cornice and balustrade, and with three central projecting bays supporting a dentilled pediment. The front door is flanked by pilasters and is surmounted by a semi-circular open tympanum, the windows are headed with keystones. The small supporting stand is a later addition. The central and side bays are hung on brass hinges to open as three doors, the central one bears a lock. The interior contains nine rooms, each with a fireplace. The style of the fireplaces vary to reflect the status and function of each room. The rear walls, to which the fireplaces are attached, can be removed, as can the partition walls between rooms. The interior walls are carefully scribed to depict panelling. The contrastingly plain surfaces of the pine floors suggests there may once have been carpets and floorcloths. The chimney breast in the lower central room bears two spit racks and the remains of a mechanism for a clockwork roasting jack (this may be a later 18th century addition). The proper left bottom room has traces of 19th floral wallpaper on its walls. The four-pane windows are old, but may be replacements. The external architectural details retain traces of a red stain. Some of the rooms retain the shadows of furnishings, such as mirrors or frames, although the house is without contents.

Place of Origin

London (possibly, made)


1720s-1730s (made)



Materials and Techniques

Mahogany, carved, turned and incised; pine; oak; glass; brass


Height: 2040 mm, Width: 1350 mm, Depth: 670 mm, Weight: 143 kg Dolls House

Object history note

The house descended through the family of William Edward Forster (1818-1886), the Liberal MP who introduced the Education Act of 1870 and was later Chief Secretary of Ireland. The provenance between ca. 1880 and 1980 is secure, but the 18th century provenance is a matter of family tradition. The Forsters, and the women they married, were Quakers. Alongside evangelical and abolitionist activities, the men of the Forster family taught at and adminstered several schools, including their own in Tottenham. One hypothesis is that the house was made in the 1730s for the children of Josiah Forster, the politician's great-grandfather.

The provenance, as understood, is as follows:

By repute, the Forster family of Tottenham, 18th century;
William Edward Forster, Chief Secretary to Ireland (1818-1886) and by descent to his daughter:
Florence Vere O’Brien, and thence by descent to her granddaughter:
Elinor Wiltshire (who wrote to the MoC regarding the dolls’ house in 1971), until ca. 1980 when sold to
Christopher Gibbs Ltd, from whom purchased by
The Hon. Victoria McAlpine (who placed the house on long-term loan to the V&A Museum of Childhood, 1984-1998);
Bonhams London, 18/11/2009, lot 37;
Lord Balleyedmond;
Sotheby’s 24/05/17, lot 200;
James Graham-Stewart Ltd.
Purchased by the V&A Museum of Childhood in 2017/18.

Historical context note

The earliest known ‘Baby House’ (meaning small or doll), was commissioned in 1557-8 for Albert V, Duke of Bavaria. Inventories of 17th century baby houses, which are among the first ever made and mainly originate from Germany or the Netherlands, show that these houses were often commissioned by men eager to demonstrate their wealth and social status, not as toys for children. The house made for the Duke of Bavaria is commonly known as the Munich Baby House. It was created as a cabinet of curiosities for the Duke’s entertainment, and was a copy of a grand ducal residence. It was built and furnished by skilled craftsmen as an item of expensive furniture in the shape of a building, filled with precious items. The German preference in Baby Houses was for an architectural style; we know of a number of houses originating from Germany throughout the 17th century, most notably the four Nuremberg houses ranging in date from 1611 to the late 17th century. Dutch miniature houses were different in that they favoured a cupboard or cabinet, often of the type used for storing furniture, which would open its doors to reveal miniature treasures. There are four exceptional cabinet houses in Dutch Museums, ranging in date from 1674 to 1743.

Baby Houses were also a useful educational tool for teaching young women how to run a household; they provided a visual aid to those unable to read. In 1631, Anna Koferlin in Nuremberg would charge admission to women and girls, children and servants to view and learn from a Baby House that she had commissioned to be built. Anna emphasized the importance of domestic science and the value of learning domestic skills early in life, her Baby House being a useful tool from which to master these.

By the middle of the 18th century, the British had developed a fashion for the architectural style of Baby House, although many early 18th century examples resembled furnished cabinets or cupboards. The Baby House owned by Ann Sharp, Goddaughter to the future Queen Anne of England, was made in 1695 and is one of the earliest examples of a Baby House in Britain. Another notable Baby House is the Tate Baby House, made in around 1760, and now held in the MoC collection (see W.9-1930). These objects were usually referred to as ‘Baby Houses’ until the late 18th Century.

Demand for dolls’ houses grew significantly from the beginning of the 19th Century; an increasing number of families in Britain were in a position to commission large examples for the amusement of both children and adults. In modern times, dolls houses are still designed and created by skilled craftspeople, but are also mass produced at an accessible price, which has made them a fixture of childhood in Britain. Throughout their history dolls’ houses have provided a fascinating insight into architecture, domestic interiors, and the way people lived, whilst usually revealing an adult, idealised version of life.

Descriptive line

Dolls' house, 'The Forster Baby House', Palladian-style, mahogany and other woods, glass windows, made in England, 1720-30

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Greene, Vivien. Family Dolls' Houses. London: G. Bell & Sons, 1973

Production Note

Many baby houses of a similar date and with a plausible provenance can be associated with London's mercantile community, so a speculated London origin for this example is not unreasonable.


Mahogany; Glass; Pine; Oak; Brass


Cabinet making; Carving; Turning; Incising

Subjects depicted



Dolls' houses; Architecture

Production Type



Museum of Childhood

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