Saturday, 26 November 2016

Dolly has a Secret...

When I was recently over in Germany with family, my lovely sister-in-law and I had a film night (which then carried on the next morning).  Unwittingly, our film night/morning had two themes.  The first theme was 'films our husbands are too cowardly to see' and the second was 'sodding scary doll films'.  Our films of choice were The Boy...

Oh deary me...

And Annabelle...

For goodness sake...
Now, I always liked dolls, but both films make you reconsider your life choices about having them in the house. As it's me, I got to thinking about art (and making sure the doors were locked)...

So much hair...
The Victorians loved dolls.  Massive china ones, little baby ones, painted faces and rolling eyes, the fancier the better. An icon of childhood, little girls were pictured with mini versions of themselves, or idealised adults in miniature, all stiff and smart and static. When you start looking, these little china 'mini-me's are everywhere...

Young Girl and her Doll Kate Perugini
You'll be unsurprised to learn that a great number of doll pictures involve a little girl wearing lovely clothes and looking cute.  Kate Perugini (wife of Charles Collins, then Charles Perugini, and daughter of Dickens) gives us a very well dressed little lady in one of those puffed-up mop caps you see in paintings of rich people's children, such as Millais' Cherry Ripe. That in turn is referencing Penelope Boothby by Sir Joshua Reynolds, a portrait of an adorable, ill-fated poppet.  Lewis Carroll took photographs of Xie Kitchen dressed as a rather disturbingly Lolita-ish version of Miss Boothby, which is more about the perils of attempting to dress a pubescent young woman as a little girl rather than a reflection of Carroll's taste.  Let's move on...

Alice in Wonderland (1879) George Dunlop Leslie
Here we go, this is much less dodgy ground.  I really like this painting, something about the poses of the the mother and child and the stripey sofa - it's a very satisfying image.  A mother reads Alice in Wonderland to her daughter (back to Carroll again), or is the little girl called Alice and she is in a sort of wonderland as her mother reads to her.  I hadn't really spent much time considering the doll - does it represent Alice falling down the rabbit hole?  It looks very much like the little girl, so is it a play on Alice being smaller and bigger?

Annabel and her Toys (1912) Harrington Mann
Harrington Mann seems to have done quite a number of paintings of girls and their toys, which is a weird thing to specialize in but we all have to make a living.  The disarray of playthings around her feet might signify the riches Annabel's family enjoys, or the opportunities on offer because of her position in life.  More likely it's about the fact that no matter what surrounds her, Annabel's only opportunity is to become a mother, have a little Annabel of her own.  I suspect the doll is wearing a christening gown (which are unfeasibly long and impractical) - maybe it is Annabel's own gown?  The mother in me does want to shout 'look at the state of your room' when looking at this painting...

The Tea Party Agnes E Walker
Moving on from an accessory in portraits, dolls often appear as part of a tableau.  Here we have a little girl holding a tea party.  The dolls on the chair seem a bit rambunctious but I like to think this painting could be titled 'It's not a party until the tiny horse arrives'.  The staging of the dolls up high, then down to the girl, then down to tiny horse, draws the eye nicely down the canvas but also sets up a sort of hierarchy.  The girl seems to be playing maid to the dolls. If the dolls don't get their tea on time there will be hell to pay, thinks Tiny Horse.

Girl in Blue Dressing her Doll James Crayer
Again, an image of a girl playing maid or mother to her doll, this time dressing her up.  She has abandoned her book, just seen peeking out from that icy blue skirt, so that she can play, hinting that girls and reading just don't go together.  Everyone knows that reading overheats the female brain and what we should really be doing is practicing for motherhood.  Or something.  Anyway, I like to think that it is a comment on parenting books, which are by and large a waste of time and money.  Until I write one, which will be marvellous and probably entitled 'I've forgotten how to sleep lying down'.  Actually, that is the least filthy and honest of the titles I have in mind, some of the others refer to stitches, sneezing, hand mirrors, crying in Waitrose and 32 hours of labour.  Let's move on.

Girl Making Clothes for a Doll Philippe Francois Sauvage
There is an interesting contrast between the china doll and her new clothes and the girl in her slightly more rustic surroundings.  Everything and everyone is neat and tidy but the dressing of the doll in her bespoke wardrobe is definitely aspirational, as if the girl is living vicariously through her doll. This is not a little girl in a nice household looking at a reflection of herself, this is a girl making do and being creative.  My grandmother used to make clothes for my Sindy which were the height of 60s and 70s fashion.  My Sindy doll used to go about dressed up like Margo from The Good Life.  Marvellous.

Playing with Dolls Mary Louise Gow
This is somewhat posher, but I'm not sure I like how needy the doll in the pink is.  Is this a comment on favourites, a mother showing favouritism to one child over another?  Little Miss Blue Bonnet is getting all the attention, and she is almost literally a reflection of her owner.  There is no bonnet for Miss Pink.  Oh deary me.

The Tȇte-a-Tȇte Tea George Bernard O'Neill
Sometimes it seems that a doll can stand in for a friend when there are none others available.  Maybe it's something about their inability to argue that makes them perfect companions, and their inability to talk makes them great to confide in and gossip with. This little girl is telling dolly all about what she saw the girl at number 38 doing last Thursday afternoon.  Scandalous.

The Secret Emily Crawford
Whatever the girl in pink is confiding to her friend will be all over the nursery before supper.  The doll is just waiting until the girls have to go to tea before spreading the gossip. There's a cuddly badger on the shelf who is really judgmental.

Hearts of Oak (1875) James Clarke Hook
Outside the confines of the nursery, the doll's life becomes a little more precarious.  No-one has noticed that the skittle-like doll has been thrown from its little truck.  It must be hard work being an ominous portent and as we are by the sea, near some little boats, I wonder if the father is a fisherman who might not be coming back from his next trip.  Never mind, Mummy will just carve them a new daddy, apparently.  

Repairing the Doll (1867) Alexander Burr
I suppose it is inevitable that dolls get broken.  We have a spate of running repairs on various things in our house, but mercifully stuffed animals (Lily's favourite) can be easily stitched back together. China, wood and other breakable materials must have made solid toys but when they broke it was a skilled job to make them right. 

The Broken Doll (1895) Pedro de Vega Munoz
Broken dolls call for elderly gentlemen to fix them.  In both the pictures above, the doll has been taken to Granddad (or Dad, life was hard back then) for repair.  Grandfather would have been a skilled man, able to make and mend a wooden doll.  In the second picture you get the idea that the doll is a little bit of brightness in the dark house, with her little pink dress.  In a way she is like the leggy pot plant by the window, something that serves no purpose other than provide some pleasure which seems in short supply.

The Old Doll Pierre Oliver Cooman
This is possibly the most horrific painting I've seen for a while.  It took me a while to notice the little hammer in the girl's hand.  The pair are sitting on animal skins possibly hinting at the vicious nature they are suppressing.  Something tells me that dolly's lost leg was not an accident and they are not mending her - look at the way that the child on the left is holding her arm.  It looks like the doll is being restrained and tortured.  Lawks, I'm not sure I'd want that on my wall.

In the Morning Room (1905) William Rothenstein
In conclusion, the more you look, the less innocent dolls look.  They are a reflection of our nature, for better or worse.  They show us to be caring, industrious, vain and cruel.  Girls cradle them, dress them and worry over them when they are injured.  Through their treatment of their dolls they show their willingness and fitness to be mothers, their ability to care for others, often at the expense of their own position and comfort.  In light of this, the two girls pulling the doll apart are either monsters or critics of the patriarchal oppression that forces them into such narrow roles.  Or something.  Anyway, if we are to look on the bright side, the doll stands for the limitless capacity for love which is not learnt but innate.  Often the male counterpart is dressed for battle, like our little native american brave above, or holding toy soldiers.  It would be tempting to speculate the the male and female character is thus summed up as creation and destruction, life and death, war and peace.  Therefore, returning to the films I watched, when we imagine a doll to be malicious, what does that say about our parenting skills? I dread to think...
Kate Matilda Bentley Fred Brown
On that note, can I suggest you read 'The Dressmaker's Doll' by Agatha Christie, a perfect reflection on the nature of dolls and our relationship with them.  Plus, it's damn scary too and Annabelle rips it off something rotten.  Oh, and out of the two films I saw The Boy is eminently the better and the doll is not quite as disturbing. 

Not quite....


  1. Your title grabbed me right away! The Possession reference is a perfect choice. And Christie's The Dressmaker's Doll is one of my favorites...

  2. What a fascinating and disturbing overview of dolls. At least, none of the dolls in the paintings had teeth. Nothing, but NOTHING is scarier than Dolls With Teeth.

    1. They always look a bit bite-y rather than smile-y, I agree...

  3. I think the hammering child is probably a boy, symbolic of his adult role of man and fixer-upper. Reminds me of the bit in Mill on the Floss (George Eliot) when Maggie Tulliver is in the attic and hammers nails (?) into the head of her doll, out of frustration and anger.

    1. Yes, that could well be a boy but I'm not sure if I find the position of the doll to be particularly comfortable. Poor old dolly...

      Thanks for your comments!

  4. Dead of night, ventriloquists dummies. Whoohaahaahaa.

  5. The reference to "Dolly keeps a secret safer than a friend" from Possession is nice. I love the "Alice in Wonderland" painting. I think you featured it in a post that you did on George Dunlop Leslie - the first post I read when I first came across your blog (5 years ago!). I must admit I really hate scary doll films. At the other end of the scale, there is a charming, if sentimental story in the Steven Spielberg "Amazing Stories" series from years ago, where a man buys a beautiful doll for his niece who doesn't want it. He falls in love with it and the dollmaker He doesn't realise that the doll is modelled on a real person and the dollmaker (who has secretly also made a doll based on him), contrives to bring them together. (That's my kind of doll story!)

    1. I do my best :) Yes, I don't much like scary doll films usually, but The Boy was rather good if silly at the end. The Amazong Stories doll sounds a lot nicer...

    2. That moment in Possession when Maud recites "Dolly keeps a secret" is electric - understated slow-burn spookiness from one of the best writers there is.


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx