Homes and Antiques : Miniature Furniture

The world of miniature furniture is as fascinating as it is mysterious. So loved writing about this for Homes and Antiques magazine.

Mighty Miniatures by Kate MacDougall

Aesthetically delightful and charmingly enigmatic – miniature furniture has it all in a small but perfectly formed package.

Tucked in the back of a furniture workshop in the long shadows of St. Paul’s, a young cabinet maker finishes the inlay on a bureau, his final piece before he completes his apprenticeship, while a mile away in a Bloomsbury townhouse, a Baroness admires an exquisite mahogany chest given to her for her birthday.

We are in London, the middle of the 18th century, and while these two Georgian characters are poles apart in their class and lineage, what they have in common is that they both hold miniature furniture in their hands.

Alongside the meticulous craftsmanship, one of the considerable appeals of miniature furniture is that there is an element of mystery to it. Although antique dealers and historians can make educated assumptions on the function of these beautiful pieces, there is still a bit of guesswork involved.

While some believe that smaller versions were made to show potential buyers by travelling salesmen, others prefer to see them as purely decorative or the work of apprentices in training. Lack of transport could have made the movement of heavy sample pieces logistically complex, although it is entirely likely that cabinet makers displayed miniature versions in their shop windows. What could be more appealing to a potential customer than being able to see and touch a smaller version of the furniture they were going to buy?

What we do know is that the Georgians were very interested in the childlike, a reflection of the art, literature and philosophy of the day, and once we reach the Victorian era, with a love for the sentimental reaching its peak, the market for miniatures was booming.

‘The 18th century elite started the fascination with objects being scaled down,’ says David Macdonald, Senior Director of Furniture at Sotheby’s. ‘Small furniture was not designed for children and these miniature pieces were curios for adults, commissioned and collected by the well to do to display in their homes. It was a sign of wealth and refinement.’

One of the largest commissions of this type was Queen Mary’s Lutyens designed dolls house, now residing at Windsor Castle, although with the pieces available on the market today, it is far harder to give them a provenance or even a purpose.

‘We know that apprentices did work on pieces to complete their tenure with a cabinet maker and allow them to join a guild’, continues Macdonald. ‘However, it is not always possible to tell whether a piece was made by the apprentice or the master and whether it was a client commission or not.’

The quality of the materials used can sometimes indicate whether a piece was a sample or a commission, but what all of these miniature pieces do share is their painstaking attention to detail and their impressive show of artistry. Working in such reduced sizes meant that the craftsmen had to be particularly refined, and while many of these pieces were simply for show, some could also be functional, for example bureaus that could store jewellery or miniature pianos that opened to reveal a work box.

‘These are art objects in their own right,’ says Macdonald. ‘And still attract much interest at sale today.’

The advent of mass produced furniture in the Victorian era means there are more examples from this period on the market, with prices ranging from (£200 – £1000). The finer 18th century pieces can go for in excess of £3000, but as with all beautiful old objects, you are buying the chance to hold a piece of history in your hands.