An amazing house, and a remarkable focus on detail
LOWELL — It’s Christmas again in the tiny village of Littlebury, and the Knightly family is bursting with anticipation. The tree has been trimmed with ornaments, and stacks of presents have been placed carefully below. Logs roar in the fireplace. The fine china has been set on the table for the coming feast.
As Father comes in the door from a trip to London, carrying gifts from the finest shops, everything is immaculate. And very small. For Littlebury, and the Knightly family, do not exist except in the mind, and the meticulous handiwork, of a 48-year-old Lowell woman named Wendy MacLean.
Since 1994, MacLean has been creating a Victorian-inspired dollhouse — and a story for the family she imagines living in it — with painstaking detail. Most of it is handmade, with a precision that defies belief.
There is running water in the kitchen. Each room is wired for electricity. In the drawers of the handmade furniture are tiny period linens, miniature silverware, and stacks of letters written by the members of the family, each with their own unique, very tiny handwriting.
“I don’t usually tell anyone about it, because they’ll wonder what a grown woman is doing with a dollhouse,” MacLean said. “I can get really self-conscious about it because I know it sounds a little crazy, but it’s just something I enjoy.”
It is also something she excels at, for it is a culmination of a lifetime of craftwork, and a degree from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, where she specialized in glass blowing but studied everything from textiles to sculpture.
Her professional life took her elsewhere — she became a labor-and-delivery nurse — but she had a dollhouse when she was a young girl. So shortly after graduating from MassArt she decided to build a new one, a better one, as a way to put all of her artistic skills and passion into one very tiny space. Everything is at 1:12 scale; one inch equals one foot.
The dollhouse has gone through several iterations and additions through the years. In 2007, she ripped it down to the studs and started over (something she has also done, her two children like to point out, with the walls in their actual house).
She has a passion for Victorian history, and long ago settled on decorating the house in the fashion one might find in a period from roughly 1850-1870. But it was when someone in the dollhouse community suggested she would be better able to curate the house if she created a family to occupy it, that everything came together.
“Once I had that story, I could go to a dollhouse show and see something gorgeous, but I’d know my family would not have something like that because they couldn’t afford it,” she said.
The family — the Knightlys — are by no means poor. The fine china on the table was not made by MacLean, but by a craftsman that she spent great effort trying to track down, and at great expense. The porcelain table setting cost her more than $1,000.
“But those days are long over,” she said. “Right after I ordered the china I found out I was pregnant, so I wasn’t spending $1,000 on tiny china anymore.”
Her son, Henry, is 10 now, and was followed by a daughter, Audrey, who is 7. Both kids love the dollhouse, and are very protective of it. When friends come over, they guard it; if the cat goes near it, they tattle.
MacLean’s adult friends, on the other hand, are not above some mischief. It has become a regular occurrence to find, after a party, that someone has slid something into the diorama. Once she found a tiny book about Austin Powers on a bookshelf, hidden among the Victorian books MacLean had made. Another time she found doll-sized see-through lingerie in a drawer.
“They wouldn’t have had that in the Victorian era, but I loved it so much I kept it,” she said as she slid the lingerie back into the dresser. “I still have no idea who did it.”
Then there are some of her own touches that tickle her, like the tiny bottle of Jameson that has a tiny bit of actual Jameson inside; the toys strewn about here and there by Jane, the young girl who lives in the dollhouse; and the fact that the wallpaper in the entryway is much nicer than the wallpaper on the second landing floor right above it, because the Knightlys would want toput their best foot forward for company.
There are certainly times when the dollhouse can feel like a long list of things that need to be done. But most of the time, MacLean said, she can admire, and even chuckle at, what she’s been able to accomplish with a magnifying glass, tweezers, and a patient, steady hand.
Will it ever be done? Probably not. But there’s already a new task. Her daughter wants a dollhouse of her own and, naturally, wants her mother to help her make it.