If these walls could talk …

Robert DawsonIf The Miniaturist by Jesse Burton left you wanting more, head to the London Museum of Water and Steam formerly known as the Kew Bridge Steam Museum. Inside, you will see reproductions of houses from the Tudor, Georgian, Victorian and modern eras designed by Robert Dawson to illustrate water supply through the ages. And if you wander off further into the courtyard, you will notice, without fail, a series of little doors tucked away on the left hand side. Green Dragon Lane, as it happens to be called, will no doubt conjure up images of Harry Potter but behind one of these doors, you will find Robert Dawson in person, a model maker by trade, actively working on a private commission that will take him at least a year to finish.

The Georgian HouseOne of Robert’s earliest memories is of spending time on TV studio sets. Since his father worked in TV, Robert familiarised himself with stage props and decor very early on. He evolved in the make believe 3D visual world of theatre. Quite naturally, once grown up, Robert decided to embrace the career of Theatre Designer. He started working at the English National Opera in their design studio. There, he worked on making models: a very important stage in the process of designing theatre sets.

room boxModelling was already a passion of his. Indeed, early on, his father, a model enthusiast himself, had encouraged his son’s creativity in making all sorts of things. Robert made Airfix planes, trains, spaceships, tanks and the models shown on Blue Peter. So, as an adult, he felt a natural inclination to combine both stage skills with modelling. He also familiarised himself with architectural models using plasticine, resin, and polystyrene cement and learnt from the best as he watched Denys Lasdun‘s master model maker, Philip Wood, work with balsawood to create the most exquisite and intricate models. Denys Lasdun was himself a renowned architect whose most famous and disputed work, the National Theatre, a Brutalist building in all its splendour, was compared to a nuclear power station by Prince Charles.

After a while, Robert Dawson decided to make modelling his full time occupation. He picked up a few clients from the worlds of theatre and architecture and launched his company, The Model Room, in 1988. In the early 1990s, the recession hit England hard and jobs in architectural model making were scarce! Robert was struggling to find work when one day, walking in a doll’s house shop (The now defunct Covent Garden Doll House Shop), he incidentally overheard a conversation about shipping a doll’s house to Milan. Subsequently, he decided to make doll’s houses of his own and presented them to doll’s house shops with little success. Until one day, he made a decisive encounter in the person of Caroline Hamilton who ran The Doll’s House Festival based in Kensington which started in 1985. The Doll’s House Festival is a very well regarded and much sought after festival that attracts the world’s collectors. Robert’s first commission was a Georgian room box, a model of a single room, based on one in the V&A Museum.

St Peter's basilica next to the Doge's PalaceAt the festival, Robert met a couple of American collectors, Carol and Barry Kaye, who were model obsessives and had their minds set on creating a Museum of Miniatures which they eventually did build on Wiltshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. The idea was to show a whole range of models from a 12th scale-model of the Fontainebleau Palace to a fairy dell. With the financial support of the Kayes, Robert embarked on making a model of the Doge’s Palace, St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican (10 foot six). Robert’s collaboration with the Kayes stopped when the museum closed down and its collection was passed on to The Naples Museum of Arts in Florida. However, year in, year out, Robert has managed to carry on perfecting his trade. He diversifies his creations from limited editions of box collectors to large scale models. The Model Room specialises in fine models of historic and contemporary buildings and interiors for architects and designers as well as 1/12th scale architectural miniatures for museums and private collectors around the world. The emphasis being put on the personal and bespoke approach.

The Naples Art MuseumOver the years, Robert Dawson has worked on various exciting projects. Being conveniently located close to The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, means that Robert has been able to work on a small scale model of the Victoria Gate and a master plan of the whole of Kew Gardens amongst other Kew projects. But one of the projects that he regards as a highlight in his career is The Kidosaki House.

Mr Sekiguchi whose company manufactured dolls for many years, decided to build a museum for them. Thus was founded The Sekiguchi Doll Museum. Robert Dawson was asked to make a replica of Versailles (one of four he made over the course of several years) for the museum. Invited for the occasion to Japan, Robert, a Tadao Ando aficionado, enquired about the possibility of visiting some of Tadao Ando’s architectural works. It turned out that, Mr Kidosaki, the architect of the Sekiguchi Doll Museum was a very good friend of Ando. And that Ando had designed Mr Kidosaki’s own house! Robert fondly recalls how he walked round The Kidosaki House-a master example of Tadao Ando’s minimalist and sobre approach in architecture-and how he even got to visit Tadao Ando’s studio. The trip ended with Mr Kidosaki commissioning Robert to make a model of his own house known as the Kidosaki House.

La gallerie des glacesThe Boyle Family is another example of artists who have made a very strong impression on Robert and who have profoundly influenced his work. The Boyle Family, a fantastic group of collaborative artists (in effect a mother and father and their two children) back in the heyday of the 60s and 70s, became famous by reproducing perfectly three dimensional casts of the surface of the earth which were randomly chosen somewhere in the world. Their World Series initiated in 1968 as part of the exhibition Journey to the Surface of the Earth at the Institute of Contemporary Arts London were an instant hit.

Being able to translate to the finest details the intricacies and anfractuosity of a piece of earth has left Robert Dawson, to this very day, fascinated and excited. In a way, that is what he is trying to achieve with his small replicas of model houses and room boxes. But Robert wishes he could go one step further. The fine historian that he has become over the years, he wishes people who look at miniature houses could not only imagine how these people lived but who they truly were. He wishes he could tell their stories across the centuries and breathe life and a certain atmosphere of the place into the miniature models he makes.

Boudoir of Madame de SérillyThe Boudoir of Madame de Sérilly is exemplary in that respect. It was originally built as a playroom in 1778 by her husband for his new bride, Anne-Marie Louise de Pange. Madame Anne-Marie de Serilly, as she is remembered, even though she married twice more after her first marriage to Antoine Mégret de Serilly, was a very refined lady and lady-in-waiting to Queen Marie-Antoinette, a prestigious position in the court of Louis XVI. In 1794, at the height of the Revolution, the couple was accused of plotting to assist Madame Elisabeth, a sister of Louis XVI. Her spouse was guillotined and she only narrowly escaped the same fate by pretending to be pregnant. She died of tuberculosis when she was 36 years old.

Robert made a room box of her boudoir that is now on display at the V&A Museum. With this model room, Robert wanted to give an idea of who this young lady was. Bearing that in mind, he included a tiny silk-lined drawer in the room box which houses a rare copy of her biography, The Pursuit of Happiness by Joan Evans, published in 1946. Robert is hoping that this will bring something of the spirit of this young girl back to life and make viewers engage with her life.

If you want to see houses that still retain the atmosphere of their time and that are fairly untouched, Robert recommends heading to The Carlysle House or the Emery Walker House and of course, an absolute favorite of his is The Wallace Collection where you can come and take a look at the artefacts while being physically in a building that retain much of its history in its walls.

The Catherine PalaceTo his knowledge, Robert Dawson is the only doll house model maker in London. However, Kevin Mulvany and Susie Rogers in Wiltshire pursue the same interest and are great inspiration to him. Describing his working relationship with them, he uses the beautiful expression “of standing upon the shoulders of giants”. Robert is not worried by the future of model makers as he believes that there are a lot of people out there whose passion for modelling will keep the trade alive. As for the actual professional part of the business, he kindly acknowledges that the future is already assured thanks to the likes of Spanish miniaturist David Iriarte.

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