While much of the world does not want for staggeringly detailed miniatures, there are a handful of enthusiasts who live to balance the whimsical with hyper-realistic interiors to create incredible works of art that, when on display, in all their glory, reflect, in minute detail, the lives and accomplishments of their creators.
Morningside’s Megan Bonnetard (56) is one of these buffs. For more than 12 years she’s used her skills as an artist, and every spare minute, to build, collect, reproduce and create miniature versions of the kinds of homes some might say exist only in a fantasy world. For Megan, a world without miniatures would be unthinkable.
As she sips on her third cup of morning tea in the living room of her 1927 home on Hollander Crescent, she talks excitedly about the decade she’s spent working on her Regency Mansion, and the past two years she’s dedicated to a beautiful French Country House, built to a scale of 1:12, which means each inch of the house represents a foot in real life. She is trying to complete it ahead of the Durban Association of Miniature Enthusiasts (DAME) World of Miniatures Fair at the Westville Civic Hall on 2 November, but says that, the way she sees things, nothing is ever really finished. There is always something more that can be done.
She ushers us to the display room where both dolls houses stand, each in a corner, and it’s clear she is positively bursting for us to enjoy the experience. On the outside alone the dolls houses are exquisite, but there’s something oddly intimate about being shown inside. It’s so perfect; it’s hard to fathom the level of meticulousness that has gone into each project. Every item has been chosen because it coheres to a specific story Megan has constructed about the house’s residents.
“They come in hundreds of wooden pieces and I relish putting all the parts together, painting them, staining shingles (after first cutting two corners on each for a bevelled edge), running electrical tape, wiring up all the lights and gluing in wallpaper. There are colours and designs and furniture to explore and choose, and where these lack, I create my own. With each activity, I’ve learned a little more.”
Tiny paintings are tacked to the walls and little lace curtains and crocheted cushions add the finishing touches to the master bedrooms. There are coat hangers and there is real, upholstered furniture; vases and flowers, and a claw foot bath; a towel rack, linen basket, side tables and more. Grand stairwells and landings are focal features of each house and tiny porcelain dishes are displayed in finely rendered wooden display cases.
“They’re not to play with,” she says when we ask about the little hands in her home. I have a very well-behaved granddaughter who understands, as young as she is, and she has her own dolls house. For me, there’s nothing more relaxing than sitting here at night, with the lights off, and all the lights on in the doll’s house, enjoying that moment. It’s like time has stopped.”
As a teenager, she recalls flicking through a magazine and reading a story about an old Victorian dolls house and being fascinated by the tiny bits and pieces it was made up of. “I just couldn’t believe that these tiny brass candlesticks were made on a jeweller’s lathe. I began to explore things more, and at 14, I made my first dolls using pipe cleaners and wooden beads. Considering my age, I think they were jolly cute.”
Megan poured her new-found love of little things into a collection of miniatures – an alternative world picked out in mirrors, pianos, sideboards, dining tables and more, each just a few inches tall. “I still have the little tea set that was sent to me all the way from Germany, by a relative who heard of my interest. It was something that was handed down to her from previous generations, and something I will never part with.”
As she got older, Megan began to focus on a career in art and enjoyed the rewards of a full and relatively happy life. It was only in her 40s, when she married her second husband, Bernard, that her interest in miniatures, which had lain dormant for years, was piqued.
“I taught art for many years, and one day a student mentioned she was selling a doll’s house kit she’d been dragging around for 20 years, so I bought it. Once I opened the box, I couldn’t stop. I started collecting little things wherever I could find them and immediately got to work on the first doll’s house. What might have taken the average enthusiast two weeks, took me 10 years, but that’s because I wanted it to be bigger and better. I wanted to redesign and reinvent and create something that was more than just what came in that kit.”
Megan says kits can easily be ordered online and come with all the necessary components like the walls, floors, doors and windows, all cut to size. Some come with metal railings and gingerbread trims and little light fittings, and others require you to buy separate kits for tables and chairs if you can’t find readymade items through second hand shops or fellow club members who are trading or selling.
“Throughout much of the world, people tend to misunderstand collecting miniatures as an occupation, so for the better part of my time spent indulging in the world of miniatures, I was a closet enthusiast. I didn’t brag about my hobby for fear of being judged, but eventually I couldn’t keep it to myself anymore. I was desperate to connect with others who shared the same passion, so I started my own Facebook page to share my work. I was contacted by Julie Mayo (current chairman of DAME), who at the time I knew very well, yet neither of us knew the other was a collector. We were delighted, we tracked down and joined DAME, and the rest, as they say, is history!”
According to Megan, dolls’ houses are sometimes used in therapy because they offer a safe, neutral territory, and can be closed up at the end of the session. And it’s certainly true that people have deep connections to their dolls’ houses.
“The art of making dolls’ houses, I myself find to be highly therapeutic. In fact, my passion for it runs so deep that it has driven me to do as much as I can from scratch. I suppose it’s essentially the artist in me that helps. I print my own wallpapers, make my own miniature paintings and mirrors and glass tables. I’ve made staircase balustrades from hard paper, upholstered little wingback chairs, painfully stitched together tiny tapestry rugs, made my own beds and linen, and beaded my own light fittings, because I simply love it. I want it to reflect me, my skills, my passion and I want to inspire others.”
In her upstairs workshop and outside studio where the cutting and drilling gets done, Megan says she works tirelessly. Fabric swatches, and paints and wooden bits and pieces decorate these rooms, as do Stanley knives, rulers, sewing machines and of course her own cutting tools and lathes. She works with tweezers and magnifying glasses and the minutest drill bits, but this is her joy.
“I think my darling husband subscribes to the happy wife, happy life ideology. Being married to Bernard really opened doors for me to explore miniatures, as he supports and understands my passion, and is always willing and ready to help with anything. I love him for that. Most nights I fall asleep thinking about how I’m going to restore and decorate, and what I’m going to make next, and then I wake up and declare myself insane for getting involved in such a time consuming and, at times, expensive hobby.”
“My head is in the clouds when it comes to this kind of stuff. I’ve got the shell of an enormous wooden dolls house with three floors and an attic in my studio. It’s going to be my French Chateau. Every day, as I put together the finishing touches before the fair, I look over at it and smile because I can feel it glaring back at me, waiting to be given life.”
DAME meets at the Westville Library on the last Saturday of every month from 9am to 12pm. Visitors are welcome. Contact Julie Mayo on [email protected]