Handcrafted miniatures that look as loved and playworn as the things you once played with and loved

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Ysabel Birkbeck’s Westacre Dolls’ House Furniture

“Go on, til you can’t do anymore. 
Then do another hundred bucket fulls.”
 Ysabel Birkbeck
The young Ysabel Birkbeck 
picture by kind permission of Philip Taylor   

Indulge yourself in a flight of fancy...

Westacre - Private Collection - Castlefrank
 ©Jill Shapiro
No true lover of dolls’ house miniatures can be averse to a flight of fancy every now and then, so indulge yourself, and us, and imagine if you will that you are a child in London, in those less than cheery times between the two world wars. Now press your nose up against the window of Morrell’s toyshop in the Burlington Arcade, London. See there, alongside the Britain's lead soldiers for boys and the pretty AM Dream Baby dolls for girls an array of exquisite Westacre dolls’ house furniture…

Westacre furniture, so called after the Westacre Village Industry company that produced it, was all handcrafted, so naturally here at CasaBijoux we're particularly enamoured of it.

West Acre - sign on the village green 
1" tall original miniature watercolour of
High House by a CasaBijoux artist
Private Collection
‘Westacre’ was the brainchild of Mrs Ysabel Birkbeck, a woman who might be described as ‘a character’, and a formidable one, at that. Westacre Village Industry’s registered address was Westacre High House, Castleacre, Kings Lynn in Norfolk, and a grand one it is too - the property neighbours the Queen’s Norfolk residence, Sandringham

Ysabel Birkbeck’s Westacre Village Industry produced a wide range of miniature pieces, all artfully constructed, using meticulous plans and measurements of her own design. Where upholstery was required, small Liberty print lawn cottons were used. 

Liberty print fabrics
Baroque cabinet with chinoiserie- a style
 that would have inspired Ysabel Birkbeck
Walters Art Museum
In a time before the term ‘up-cycling’ was common parlance Westacre was made from materials that were readily to hand in everyday life: card, paper, beads, wire and string. Most of the miniatures reflected furniture styles from times that were bygone even then, with perhaps the exception of the bucket shaped faux canework chairs which have a distinctly 1920s feel. Conjecture would have it that Mrs Birkbeck based some of her miniature designs on actual pieces of furniture that were in situ at High House.
Granny Birkbeck had snow white hair...

Ysabel was fondly regarded by the local children who were enrolled to make some of the Westacre furniture. The young crafters were paid for every completed piece and, clearly happy with this recompense and enjoying their creative pursuits, they tenderly called Ysabel ‘Granny Birkbeck’. In a short film by composer Philip Taylor the narrator, Philip’s wife, the playright Marsali Taylor, gives this description of Ysabel Birkbeck: “She had snow white hair that stood out in a halo around her head.”

Ysabel Birkbeck
picture by kind permission of Philip Taylor

In keeping with the ideals of the time, and the conventional gender roles still prevalent, it was the boys who were put to work constructing the dolls’ house furniture that is now highly collectible, while the girls were given the task of upholstering and making miniature books, they were paid tuppence for every batch of a dozen of these minute volumes.

Makers of the furniture need only make a small personal investment to be part of the industrious little business, buying the Liberty fabrics and the beads which were used on the handles and as embellishments on the furniture. There was too, the milliners’ wire, which formed the basis of the armatured legs of the little chairs, which cost fourpence a roll. Card and paper was provided to workers at no charge.

4d for hat wire, 2d for a finished piece...

4d for hat wire, 2d for a finished piece

She was anything but a lady of leisure...

Westacre Village Industry was far from a whimsical or hobbyist pursuit set up to amuse a lady of leisure. Ysabel Birkbeck founded the company as a means to offer much needed employment to local people, not just the village children, during the Depression and she was anything but a lady of leisure, despite hailing from a privileged background with links to the peerage. She was the 4th daughter of Robert Elwes, Esq., of Congham House, during the 1st World war (which claimed the life of her son in 1917) she did her bit for King and country as an ambulance driver in Russia. In her fifties at the time, she detailed the experience in her diaries and told how transporting the wounded impacted on her: "It was for them the horror, and I to lessen it as far as possible and so I drove them back and the memory of it will be there always til I die." Mrs Birkbeck's determined nature is further confirmed by the story of her manually rolling and heaving heavy loads of boulders in order to build a landing plate for her clinker dinghy. “Go on, til you can’t do anymore," she told her young assistant, "then do another hundred bucket fulls.” Ysabel's written diary accounts are accompanied by exquisite and moving illustrations in her remarkably fine hand.

"It was for them the horror, and I to lessen it as far as possible and so I drove them back and the memory of it will be there always til I die."

Details from WWI diary illustrations by Ysabel Birkbeck
images by kind permission of Philip Taylor

The ladies who gilded the lilies...

It was to this fine artist’s hand of hers that Ysabel Birkbeck turned when it came to the matter of decorating the minute Westacre pieces with their distinctive gold chinoiserie. She was assisted by the Cross sisters, Minnie Cross being the headmistress of the school in the village, the latter was appointed Westacre’s head ‘caneworker’, creating the Bergere-like appearance on the diminutive chairs and sofas using pillow lace stiffened with starch and possibly varnish. The vicar’s wife, Mrs Titley, also took up her brush to gild Westacre’s lilies. Ysabel Birkbeck’s work was notoriously fine and the pieces of Westacre that exist today featuring what might be called superior detailing are attributed to her.

Superior detailing on a Westacre piece
attributed to Ysabel Birkbeck herself
Private Collection - Castlefrank
©Jill Shapiro
Beautiful but ferocious dragon on a Westacre occasional table
Private Collection - Castlefrank 

©Jill Shapiro
Stiffened pillow lace was used to create canework
Private Collection - Castlefrank 

©Jill Shapiro

Ysabel Birkbeck died in 1934, her Westacre furniture increasingly continues to enjoy popularity and inspire fondness in the hearts of collectors and enthusiasts today. In homage to this fascinating lady and her beautiful miniatures CasaBijoux has revisited Westacre style furniture and launched its own range of replications, known as Burlington. Crafted by hand in the same way the original Westacre was and to the same exacting designs, using similar materials, our artists consider their creations a very warm nod in the brilliant Mrs Birkbeck's direction.

A tough act to follow - Westacre meets CasaBijoux's Burlington Furniture...

Left: Original Westacre. Right: CasaBijoux's Burlington replica
Westacre from the private collection - Castlefrank 
©Jill Shapiro & ©CasaBijoux

Note: CasaBijoux's handcrafted Burlington furniture is openly produced as modern-made Westacre style miniatures. The pieces are clearly labelled on the back so as to distinguish them in a stand alone situation from the originals on which they are based.

For enquiries and commissions contact us here - casabijouxminiatures@gmail.com

This is the only Ebay account currently selling genuine CasaBijoux items

* Please feel free to link to images and content on this site using the appropriate acknowledgements. It must be pointed out that the original hand-painted artwork on the façades of our houses and other miniatures is copyright protected and is the intellectual property of the artist/s. It is not permissible to copy or reproduce our original artwork for commercial purposes. © CasaBijoux 2012 


With thanks to Philip and Marsali Taylor for permissions for image use and quotes.

Reference works: Family Dolls' Houses of the 18th & 19th Centuries - Liza Antrim - Cider House Books

©Uksignpix (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Walters Art Museum [Public domain, CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

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