Plague years and doll houses: art in miniature

Emily's miniature house was inspired by Daniel Defoe’s "A journal of the Plague Year". Picture by Danielle Bonica
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New technology is helping to recreate a fabulously intricate past. Danielle Bonica reports

Emily Boutard’s miniature world began as a child creating fairy homes with sticks, but now her imagination takes her to plague-ridden London, in the year 1665.

Lawyer by day and a maker of miniature worlds by night, Emily explores all styles of architectural history with her creations.

Plague years and doll houses: art in miniature
Above and below: Details from the Plague house. Plague house
Plague years and doll houses: art in miniature

Dollhouses have offered a safe space of play for centuries. Carboard boxes, hand-crafted replicas of fantastical architecture, or simple sticks, can invoke an imaginary world of play and creativity.

Recently Emily’s research led her to construct this “Jacobean, early Georgian, gritty London”-inspired house. Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of The Plague Year was her inspiration.

The connection? “Lockdown,” she said.

Another project has been a recreation of Melbourne’s Como House, commissioned by the National Trust in 2021.

The chandeliers were created using a 3D printer. “It has opened up the possibilities for making objects that I was not able to make before,” Emily said.

Plague years and doll houses: art in miniature
Tiny, beautifully detailed chandeliers inside Emily’s replica of Como House for The National Trust. Picture supplied

Trust curator and historian Dr Annette Shiel was part of the working group that commissioned Emily to make the replica. “And of course, she was such a meticulous researcher – making sure that the chandeliers are the same and all of the little details with it,” she said. 

With a particular interest in domestic textiles and pop culture, Dr Shiel sees the creative space of miniature play as ever evolving.

“People have devoted years into making special spaces in that very physical, tangible sense. But people are also doing it in the Minecraft and in The Sims worlds. It’s the same thing, but it’s in a different form.’

Whatever the space of play, tangible or intangible, Melbourne University professor of psychology Nick Haslam agrees. “Cute little things appeal to us.”

“Play is all about imagining yourself into an alternative version of the world or in a completely different world. Small things allow you to do that. But in addition, I think there’s also just a kind of level of fascination with the fact that someone made this,” he said.

Plague years and doll houses: art in miniature
Textiles and details are important. Also from the Plague house. Picture supplied.

That gasp of realisation that someone has made this exquisite tiny thing that so resembles our lives in another space and time. 

“Exercising imagination is a need and a desire, you see it not just in humans, you see it in monkeys and all sorts of other creatures.” All of us have an intrinsic need to exercise imagination, “we are learning to use our brains to explore possibilities, not just realities,” he said.

Emily is already researching her next project and encourages others to give it a go.

“Anyone can do it” she said, just start small with a basic cutting kit.