Feature,  News

KDF & the Mystery of the Unsigned Clock

Queen Mary’s Dolls House must be the most famous dolls house in the world.  The story about how it came about is well known, a gift to Queen Mary from Princess Marie-Louise, the house was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens & is a showcase of British craftsmanship, with over 1500 craftsmen, artists, decorators & writers making items for the house.  Completed in 1924 it has been displayed in a specially designed room at Windsor Castle ever since.  Filled with tiny gems, the highlights being a library full of books written by famous authors of the time & the wine cellar housing a collection of vintage champagnes & wines.

But who were these craftsmen who made these wonderful miniatures for the dolls house? Wouldn’t it be great to find out more & learn their stories?  Working in the unusual world of tiny things, I find that whenever I speak to anyone, they will always have a dolls house story for me, so surely it was only a matter of time…before a good friend of mine called to say she had met a lady whose great, great, grandfather had made an item for the famous dolls house. Perfect timing with the 100th anniversary of QMDH happening this year.

I was put in touch with Kerry, who’s father, Robin William Vickers told me everything he knew about their ancestor’s involvement with the dolls house.

Born in around 1860, Walter E Penn was a clockmaker who did his apprenticeship in Clerkenwell London. At some point around or after the First World War he moved from Clerkenwell to Storrington, West Sussex, where he had a shop with a clockmakers workshop & house at the rear. Here he did a lot of work for the Duke of Norfolk who lived at Arundel Castle nearby, working on his clocks, watches and jewellery. He loved french clocks & would often make clocks in this ornate style.

Walter married Louisa Kate & had five children. They were a musical family & every Sunday evening, the whole family would play music together. He was the clockmaker for the parish, so once a week he would set off in his pony & trap, visiting all the large houses in the area, winding their clocks & setting the time with his pocket watch. He carried on working well into his 80’s & at the end of his life he was still mending around 40 watches a week.

It was always understood that Walter was commissioned to do the piece for Queen Mary’s Dolls House by the Duke of Norfolk who knew the high quality of his work. All the gentry were contributing to the Dolls House at that time; which was filled with presents from all kinds of people, so it was believed that the Duke may have given the piece made by Walter as a gift for the Dolls House, but without any records or photographs, Kerry & her father didn’t know exactly what it was he had made, though they were always led to believe it was a clock. 

We were desperate to find out what Walter had created, so we contacted Kathryn Jones, KDF friend & curator at the Royal Collections Trust & who looks after the dolls house. Kathryn was unable to find Walter’s name listed in any of their documentation, but kept digging, to see if there was a record of the Duke of Norfolk having donated an item to the dolls house. 

Most of the clocks simply appear under Cartier. That is not to say that the Duke didn’t present something personally to Queen Mary which seems likely; therefore it may not appear in the official documentation. Although the official list does suggest the clocks were supplied by Cartier, I have found two which are not marked by the firm and wondered whether either of these might be the one? I am not sure there is any way to pin it down though.

Kathryn Jones of the Royal Collections Trust

One of this is a French style Mantle clock.  Could this be the one that Walter made? It is certainly the style he loved & the face of the clock is obviously a watch face which would all suggest that it is.  This Napoleon Clock is the only remaining piece the family has of Walters.  It should be in a glass dome, long since gone & it is damaged & was actually rescued from the bin as it is not his finest work.  Maybe he was in the middle of repairing it? But to Kerry & her family it is a very special memento.

You can find information on lots of the miniatures in Queen Marys Dolls House on the Royal Collections Trust website.

Our Summer Show came & went & we still had no news from Kathryn as to whether the clock was made by Walter, but in an email from Kerry last week, I was told that YES! Kathryn had confirmed that the clock had now been listed as the clock made by Walter E Penn. Our detective work had paid off & the elusive miniature had be found.

No one is sure if Walter was invited to see his miniature in the Dolls House, although it is possible, however, the story of his contribution to this incredible dolls house is part of their family history & something Kerry, her father & their family are immensely proud of.

It is built to outlast us all. To carry on into the future and different world this pattern of our own. It is a serious attempt to express our age and to show forth in dwarf proportions the limbs of our present world.

A.C. Benson, The Book of The Queen’s Dolls’ House (1924)

More information on the dolls house can be found here www.rct.uk