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Blaise Castle, House & Toy Museum in Bristol

Situated in the beautiful parkland of the Blaise Estate at Henbury, Bristol - the Museum is incorporated into an 18th century house and contains exhibits of everyday life from centuries past, including an impressive domestic equipment gallery, a Victorian toy room including the museum's popular model train collection, old period costumes, other items of everyday life and a beautiful picture gallery. blaise_castle_house_museum.jpg

Blaise Castle House was built in 1796-98 for John Harford, a wealthy Bristol merchant and banker. At the same time the grounds were laid out by Humphrey Repton (1752-1818) a leading landscape gardener. Parts of Repton's designs still exist, notably the impressive carriage drive which winds its way from the house. The Regency architect John Nash was responsible for the addition of the dairy and the conservatory.

The museum has a large display of domestic equipment, including: stoves, fireplaces, cooking utensils, vacuum cleaners and other everyday items. The same floor houses the fourth largest Victorian Costume Collection in the South West. A huge Picture Gallery was added in 1832-33 in the museum's ground floor and was designed by Charles Cockerell. It is now restored to its mid-Victorian glory. The Toys Room includes many old dolls, board games and the popular model trains and is exceptionally popular with visitors of all ages!

picture_room.jpg Blaise Castle Picture Room
This is a picture of the Blaise Castle picture room, with a view towards the fireplace. Almost all of the paintings in this room are by 19th century Bristol artists, many of whom moved to London in pursuit of their careers. The most famous is William James Müller (1812-45). He has been acclaimed as the best of all artists born in Bristol.
Despite its brevity, his life was extraordinarily productive. At the age of 15 he had been apprenticed to the landscape painter James Baker Pine (1800-70) and in the mid 1830's he made a continental tour with his friend George Arthur Fripp (1813-96). The large fireplace in the picture is marble and cast iron.

Blaise Toy Museum
Rocking Horses. Toy horses are among the oldest and most popular toys. In the past it was important that children, especially boys, learnt to ride a horse. Early rocking horses were used for training. In the Middle Ages children played with hobby horses, a stick, with a wooden horses head attached. 400 years ago, children could ride wooden horses on wheels, or crudely made rocking horses, with solid curved rockers.

rocking_horse.jpg 200 years ago, rocking horses became more realistic. They usually had glass eyes, manes and tails of real horse hair and large curved rockers. Rocking horses reached the peak of their popularity in the 19th century and wealthy children often had one in their nursery. 1880 to 1930 was the golden period of the English dappled grey rocking horse which were produced in a wide range of sizes, with the most popular being around 3-4 feet high. As in this picture, early Georgian and Victorian rocking horses were mounted at full stretch on deeply curved bow rockers. However, many accidents occurred as this type of rocker too easily yielded to youthful exuberance, and they were soon replaced with the now familiar 'swinger' or 'Safety Stand' patented by the American inventor Philip Marqua, of Cincinnati in 1880.
From the 1850's tricycle horses also became popular, but in the 20th century horses were replaced in real life by cars, and in the toy world, by toy cars and other motor vehicles.

Picture details above: Rocking Horse c.1880. A typical late nineteenth century carved wooden rocking horse. The manufacture of rocking horses was a skilled craft which flourished in the 19th century.

A head was carved from solid pine and the body covered in layers of gesso (plaster and glue) to smooth over the joints while the manes and tails came from slaughter houses. The harnessing of the horse was done by leather craftsmen and the details of the saddle and bridle were usually correct in size and detail.

Wax doll with purple velvet suit. c1860. The doll with the white dress has a bisque head and composition limbs c1911
Dolls have always been universally popular and have appealed equally to children and adults, both in primitive and in modern civilisations, but not all are for playing with.
A doll with a terracotta body, Corinth, Greece, late 5th to mid 4th century BC
Some dolls are for religious use, while others are purely decorative. Dolls have always been very personal toys and children often confide in them. They become friends with names and opinions, taking on a life of their own. Children naturally imitate adult behaviour and treat their dolls as small children, telling them off, dressing them and putting them to bed. Through the ages, they have proved to be a tangible reflection of the culture and period from which they came, providing insights into changing fashions and perceptions of beauty. Dolls range from cheap homemade versions made of wood, clay and rag, to the fantastically expensive wax and china dolls of the 19th century.
The male doll is wearing an Irish 19th century costume and the composition doll is dressed as an old woman, butter seller. Note her knitted butter pats
The French bisque (unglazed porcelain) dolls of that later period, are desirable not only for their finely modelled heads but also for their clothes, often intricate copies of the fashions of the time, with dress and hats, layers of underclothes, socks and shoes, all meticulously rendered. Many even had human hair wigs for the ultimate in authenticity.

Dolls have been popular and played with, for thousands of years in many cultures. This is demonstrated by the little terracotta doll in the picture. The movable arms and lower limbs are lost, but the hole in the top of the head may have been for a string to make her into a dancing doll. Until the 18th century though, most dolls took the form of adults. Baby and infant dolls became popular in the 19th century, when sleeping eye and talking dolls were introduced. In the 20th century, character dolls such as Barbie, created in 1959 became popular.

The doll with black hair is a china doll c1860, and the doll with the waistcoat is a bisque head with wooden limbs c1870

Dolls Houses.
Picture details below: Large dolls house c1800. Two views.
dolls_house_1.jpg This dolls house was made for George Webb Hall and his wife Maria, and was modelled on their family home in Queens Square, Bristol. Most of the furnishings and occupants were added in the 1840's. Some of the dolls were given names by the family. The lady in the green silk dress was known as the Queen. The house remained in the same family for generations, until 2001, when it was generously donated to the museum, by the present owners.

Dolls have many accessories from clothes and tea sets, to houses and prams. Even dolls from ancient times have been found with removable clothes, chairs and drinking cups. Dolls houses became very popular with rich families in the 19th century, but the earliest known dolls house was made in 1558, for Duke Albrecht of Bavaria. In the 17th century, dolls houses were made for wealthy families, to help girls learn about domestic economy. Dolls kitchens first appeared in the 18th century and were used to teach girls to keep kitchens neat and clean. By the 19th century the children from wealthy families had nurseries full of toys which usually included a furnished dolls house. From the 1820's, dolls belonging to well off families had their own tea and dinner services, made by the Staffordshire potteries, and were pushed around in their own prams. The now famous Wedgwood potteries are among the big companies that made dolls furniture.

Picture details below right: with the doll and teddy bear. Composition doll from c1890. The teddy bear is made in Britain, 1926.

teddy.jpg She is an exquisite fashion doll, dressed as an elegant young lady in haute couture. Note the beautiful, big inset blue eyes, with their life-like appearance and lips that are open just enough to suggest a row of teeth.
When collecting dolls, especially bisque, condition is everything. You can have a teddy that is as threadbare as a potato sack, but if it's got a Steiff button in its ear, it seems to make no difference. Not so with dolls. Try to buy mint items, in original boxes whenever available. 17-18th century wooden dolls tend to be the most expensive, but the dolls that win the hearts of collectors are the fine quality French bisque dolls of the 1860's to the 1900's, made by the famous companies like Jumeau and Bru. Good collectors also regard a dolls history as important, and should include things like where the doll lived, who owned it, its name, the maker's trade name and the one given it by its owner. A bit like the way the history of the teddy bear has been documented.
This teddy bear started life in '26, in a toy shop in Rugby, Warwickshire. He was given to a little boy for his first birthday, when he took the name Ted. Ted moved to Bristol in '75 and retired to Blaise Castle in 1985.

Blaise Castle is open to the public and well worth a visit.
Blaise Castle House Museum Henbury Road, Henbury, Bristol, BS10 7QS Tel: 0117 903 9818
Open all year, Saturday to Wednesday (closed Thursday and Friday), 10am-5pm.
A Georgian mansion containing displays of everyday life in Bristol. Blaise has famous connections - it was immortalised by Jane Austen who described it as 'the finest place in England in her book Northanger Abbey.

Author and Photographer: Phil Chave

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