dollhouse built for czar of Russia

Antique Dutch Dollhouses Fit For A Czar?

Below is a scan from the December 1923 issue of The Mentor; the page is an article by Vincent Starrett entitled A Doll’s House Built For The Czar Of Russia:

As usual, the discovery of this article about an exquisite eight-foot tall, six feet wide dollhouse leads to something even more fascinating than supposed!

The article tells the story of Peter The Great who “was living in Holland as a young man of twenty-four, working at various jobs to acquaint himself with the arts, commerce, and industry of the Dutch” and “chanced to see one day a tiny model of a seventeenth-century dwelling, and promptly fell in love with it.”

“No matter what the cost,” he declared, “I must have one like it.” But the miniature house and its lovely furnishings were not for sale, and the creator would make none for pay. The artisan’s name was Brandt. He was a successful merchant of Utrecht, who, having amassed a fortune, had retired from business and in his leisure made diminutive houses, furniture, toys, and ornaments for his amusement.

The article continues to say that Brandt’s creations “became the rage.” His hobby of making “exquisite toys” and “houses of Lilliputian dimensions” quickly provided him with a market, and possessing one of his creations “became a passion, and fashion, with collectors.”

The Antiquarium Museum at Utrecht, the old Dutch university town, still treasures one of Brandt’s sumptuously furnished little dwellings, with thumb-nail paintings on the wall by Dutch celebrities. It was probably this very model that so enchanted Czar Peter and stirred his desire to own one like it.

So, the article goes, Brandt graciously offers to make one of the dollhouses for Peter, “a little palace excelling all others in delicacy an ingenuity of workmanship, furnish it appropriately, and equip it with all the necessaries of life in a patrician Dutch household of the times.”

With his own hands he constructed a three-story house of about six feet wide. All of the furniture it contained was made by him. He made the molds, which afterward he destroyed, for the articles of plate and for silver and copper utensils. Regardless of expense, he had suitable carpets manufactured, and ordered chests of table and house linen woven in Flanders. The books that filled the miniature library shelves came from Mayence; each volume had golden clasps and was of a size to be enclosed in a walnut. The hanging chandeliers and services of glass were of Dutch manufacture; in the picture gallery paintings two inches square adorned the walls.

For twenty-five years Brandt labored to create this royal gift. At last he sent word to the Czar that the task was completed. His townsmen protested against such a masterpiece being lost to the country, but the model had been promised to the monarch, and Brandt had expended effort, time, and a small fortune to redeem that promise.

When Peter received Brandt’s message he had just concluded an advantageous peace with Sweden and was turning his attention to conquests in the East. But he had not forgotten the desire he had expressed a quarter of a century before, and he directed that a reply be sent asking what he would have to pay for the possession of the masterpiece. Deeply offended at Peter’s gross tactlessness and disposition to bargain, Brandt replied that even a czar had not money enough to pay for twenty-five years of a man’s life. Forthwith he presented the house to the nation. It is now in Amsterdam in the Royal Museum, none of whose treasures better exemplifies Dutch patience, industry, and love of decoration than the little house that Brandt build for Peter the Great.

That’s where the article ends — but my work begins.

If I thought I could just post this scan from a vintage magazine and, should I be so lucky as to find it, include a link to the czar’s dollhouse at the Royal Museum, I was to discover differently.

Yes, there’s an antique dollhouse at the Rijksmuseum — and it looks to be the same one shown in this articles photo (minus the glass doors on the cabinet — but the furnishings are too specific to be another dollhouse, and the dimensions are about the same), but from there it gets weird…

The museum doesn’t credit the maker of the dollhouse, but it does specify the owner as Petronella Oortman. Oorman was married to a silk merchant named Johannes Brandt — is that were the name Brandt comes from? If so, that might be explained away easily enough, I suppose… But given the strong relationship between Holland and Peter the Great, certainly if this dollhouse — or any dollhouse — had any connections to the czar, the museum would mention it.  …At least I think so.

There’s another fabulous antique dollhouse, this one was owned Petronella de la Court, that sits on display at Utrecht’s Centraal Museum.

I don’t know if this is the other “Brandt” Dutch dollhouse from the “Antiquarium Museum” at Utrecht that Starrett, in The Mentor article, suggests “enchanted Czar Peter” or not, but it certainly is enchanting.

In The Speaker (Volume 11, 1905, Mather & Crowther), Edward Verrall Lucas writes of an antique dollhouse from the same Dutch craft period.  I feel compelled to share a snippet not only because it might just be the de la Court dollhouse and the “Antiquarium,” but for the author’s descriptions.

At the north end of the Maliebaan is the Hoogeland Park, with a fringe of spacious villas that might be in Kensington ; and here is the Antiquarian Museum, notable among its very miscellaneous riches, which resemble the bankrupt stock of a curiosity dealer, for a very elaborate dolls’ house. Its date is 1680, and it represents accurately the home of a wealthy aristocratic doll of that day. Nothing was forgotten by the designer of this miniature palace ; special paintings, very nude, were made for its salon, and the humblest kitchen utensils are not missing. I thought the most interesting rooms the office where the Major Domo sits at his intricate labours, and the store closet The museum has many very valuable treasures, but so many poor pictures and articles—all presents or legacies—that one feels that it must be the rule to accept whatever is offered, without any scrutiny of the horse’s teeth.

(This piece by Lucas, with a stated copyright of 1904, appears to be what he published as a book in 1906, A Wanderer in Holland (Macmillan) — just in case you’d like to read more.)

Starrett never mentioned nudes paintings in the old Dutch dollhouse — but maybe he was less flappable in the Roaring Twenties than Lucas was at the turn of the century. And the commentary on the museum itself is rich — Lucas could be describing a lot of my collection and collection practices! *wink*

But still, the whole point of Starrett’s little story was right there in the article’s title, that the dollhouse shown had been made in Holland for Peter The Great; yet I could find no connection between Peter and Dutch dollhouses whatsoever.

So, I continued to research, like any obsessive would do.

I then found this bit in Dutch And Flemish Furniture, by Esther Singleton (The McClure Company, 1907):

In the Rijks Museum are several models in miniature of old Amsterdam houses. The finest one is of tortoise-shell ornamented with white metal inlay. According to tradition, Christoffel Brandt, Peter the Great’s agent in Amsterdam, had this house made by order of the Czar, and it is said to have cost 20,000 guilders (£2,500), and to have required five years to produce.

There’s that name, “Brandt,” again.

Or maybe not.

Seems the name of the czar’s Netherlands associate was actually Christoffel Brants, aka Christoffel van Brants after Brants was knighted by the czar. And while it seems Peter received actual houses from Brants, there’s still, no mention of houses specifically for dolls.

So, without further documentation, I’m left to conclude that Starrett’s story is just that, a story. (The man did love his stories! Among other things, Starrett collected books and was a Sherlock Holmes scholar.)

Or maybe you’d prefer the terms Singleton uses, “tradition.”

Either way, that would explain a number of things, such as the name Brandt being recalled, even if inaccurately, and the number of years it took to create the dollhouse changing by five-fold.

However, by the 1950s this traditional story of Peter The Great’s Dutch dollhouse has changed a bit with the telling… As most legends do.

In 1958, many American newspapers ran what appears to be a wire story; the uncredited story is exactly the same in each vintage publication. Here’s a copy from Kansas’ Great Bend Daily Tribune (June 22, 1958) — which reads pretty much like copyright infringement case for dear old Starrett (unless he was the one paid by the wire service), except for the first two lines:

Once there was a dollhouse so lovely that the czar of Russia, Peter the Great, wanted it very much. He hadn’t money enough to buy it however, believe it or not!

Cold war press copy conveying the anti-Russian sentiments, perhaps?

Then, in South Dakota’s The Daily Republic, February 19, 1977, the legend of Peter the Great’s Dollhouse gets tweaked again:

Those dollhouses were so expensive that only a few people could afford them. Peter the Great of Russia once ordered a dollhouse but when it was delivered, he refused it. The price was just too much.

The czar may have ordered and owned at least one fine Dutch dollhouse; but I can’t find any proof.

(See, I’m not just obsessive with my research as some sort of personality quirk; it’s necessitated!)

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Deanna

Deanna is the founder of Inherited Values, among other sites. She is also an antique dealer.

2 thoughts on “Antique Dutch Dollhouses Fit For A Czar?”

  1. When working on my husband’s genealogy, I discovered he had a family link to this dollhouse. Perhaps some of the info I collected might be of help? Also, I’m interested to know if there was any truth behind the Jessie Burton work “The Miniaturist” (novel about this dollhouse) that Johannes Brandt was gay, or just complete fiction?

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