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30 Aug, 2010

Doll Face

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

V&A Museum of Childhood, London

Backstage at the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, east London, curator Esther Lutman is telling me that as a child she wasn’t much of a doll person. “I was a total tomboy,” she says. Strange, then, that among her current duties is the cataloguing of the museum’s 8,000-strong collection of dolls and doll accessories.

Does she like them any more now? I find them unaccountably sinister. She considers the question. “I don’t find them sinister, especially,” she says. “But then sometimes I’ll come across a box of eyeballs, or tiny legs, or real hair wigs and that can be quite creepy.”

Lutman is showing me the museum’s new doll archive: rows of stark grey metal shelves, from which dozens of bisque, wax, wooden and vinyl faces stare out at me blankly (only a tiny proportion of the museum’s collection is on display at any one time). She approaches one particularly horrifying (to me) doll, lying suggestively on its back: a repulsive creature in a party dress that is a couple of feet long and was made in the 1930s. It has articulated legs and arms, so its owner could walk it about the room (move a leg and the arms move robotically in time); it has luxuriant and adult-looking blond curls that I am loath to touch.

Most curiously of all, inside its rosebud mouth is a row of tiny white teeth, pointy and sharp. “It was the teeth that drew Craig to her,” says Lutman.

By Craig, she means Craig Deane, whose uncanny photographic portraits of some of the dolls in the collection will go on display upstairs. Extravagantly lit, blown up to one metre high and composed in the unforgiving style of police mug shots, Deane’s portraits will give visitors a fresh perspective on these presumably once-loved toys.

You gaze at their faces and they’re at once both poignant and menacing, morphing from inanimate object to fully fledged personality in exactly the same way they must have done when they were first given to their now forgotten owners. There is an “adult male” doll called Charles, made in France in around 1862 (in his suit and cravat, he is straight out of Georgette Heyer); a chalk-faced pedlar doll, made in around 1830, possibly by Mrs C White of Milton near Portsmouth (such dolls were given pride of place in drawing rooms around England and kept under glass domes); and a Japanese doll named Koko, which dates from around 1906 (poor Koko has such an odd hairline that it’s impossible not to feel sorry for him; I suspect he will be the hit of the show).

Deane stumbled on the idea for his project by accident. “I was photographing my baby daughter’s favourite doll to test a lens I’d rented and I was fascinated by the results. I realised I’d never really looked at this object we’d given our child. Mankind’s desire to make images and objects in our own likeness stretches back to the dawn of civilisation and, while dolls are toys for children, they are also coveted by adults for their beauty, nostalgic value and historical importance. This project serves as an exploration of this, but it’s also an investigation into the nature of portraiture in photography.”

Does he find the dolls he chose – he photographed 35 – creepy or cuddly? “They’re both, depending on who you ask. I’ve found that adult reactions tend towards fascination and unease. Kids, though, who can fall in love with the strangest and ugliest things, generally see just a nice, big dolly. Suffice to say, I’m looking forward to the feedback.”

My reaction to Deane’s photographs was curious. I found them repugnant, but they also stayed with me. Freud thought the dolls of our childhood were capable of unlocking our most secret fantasies. Maybe so. In my case, these dolls, which belonged to children, long dead, whose fates I do not know, provoked only a sudden rush of memory: my mother’s heavy clay doll, Jean, which she passed on to me (where is Jean? I wish I knew); the coffee-coloured Sasha dolls that belonged to the girl next door and which, unfathomably, I used to covet (I looked on eBay; boy, are these collectible now); and a television series from the 1980s called Maelstrom in which, if I’m right, all sorts of freakiness involving dolls occurred.

I’m like Lutman; I do not think of myself as a doll person. But they obviously got to me somewhere along the way. See this exhibition and you’ll be surprised how spooked you feel.


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