Hello dolly

14th January 2000 at 00:00
Miniatures are a multi-million pound industry, be they houses, cars or trains. Andy Farquarson meets the teachers who get rid of the day's tensions by investing in little collections.

Doll's houses are strictly for girls. Only boys collect toy cars. Teachers are far too grown up to play with model trains. Right? Well, meet the man who's an expert on doll's houses, a woman who runs a model vehicle collectors' club, and a headteacher who builds scale replicas of bygone railways.

The thread that links them is a fascination with the miniature. It's an age-old human trait, and one that shows no signs of abating in an increasingly sophisticated technological age. Today's micro-enthusiasts collect or make an astonishing variety of artefacts - from model aeroplanes and ships to historical costumes, landscape dioramas, bonsai trees, toy theatres, military figures and battle scenes. But let's start with doll's houses.

Peter Smith is general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. After reading English at Oxford, he taught for 12 years before leaving the classroom for a job with the ATL's predecessor, AMMA. He has just celebrated 25 years' unbroken service in the teaching union.

He took up his unusual hobby by accident. "My wife, daughter and I noticed there was a doll's house fair in Croydon. We went in and became totally absorbed by what we found - the houses, the miniature furniture, the porcelain and tiny silver tableware. It was a large event, with hundreds of displays and trade stands. We left with a doll's house, very much an impulse buy." Most doll's houses are built on a 1-12 scale. As a keen reader of Swift, Mr Smith observes: "That's the same scale as the Lilliputians in Gulliver's Travels."

Doll's houses are a multi-million pound craft industry. A fair takes place every weekend somewhere in the UK, there are more than 400 collectors' clubs, and the glossy monthly magazine Dolls House World has a circulation of nearly 25,000. Collecting appeals to most age groups, but is particularly popular among the retired. Cost can be a factor - the tiny furniture, for example, is exquisitely rendered by hand as replicas of the full-size originals, and such skilled workmanship doesn't come cheap.

What is the main attraction of the hobby? Mr Smith is in do doubt. "The sheer quality of the artefacts - this hobby is all about craftmanship. And for what you get it's comparatively inexpensive. Collectors are investing in tomorrow's antiques." But if Mr Smith justifies collecting small things as an investment, experts believe that it demonstrates a more fundamental human need.

Dr Robert Stebbins is professor of sociology at the University of Calgary in Canada, and an expert in leisure studies. "Even the earliest, most primitive societies reproduced the world around them in miniature," he says. "People fall in love with the aesthetic of the small, whether it be a car, a doll, or a house. Miniaturisation presents a different perspective on the everyday. There is also the element of pursuit - finding a particular model, stamp or whatever is a challenge. It requires knowledge, imagination and perseverence."

Then there are those who make models rather than collect them. This adds another dimension to the miniaturised universe. "It is about craftsmanship, a chance to put one's own imprimatur upon it," Dr Stebbins says. "Like collecting, it provides its own social world. The involvement in a 'community' is very important. It gives the hobbyist a strong sense of identity. That's partly why these hobbies often become central life interests. They can often become a kind of substitute for work, especially for the unemployed or retired."

For Chris Brierly, what began as a hobby actually became a job. A PE teacher in the Midlands, he began collecting models as a child. "I was collecting toys and models all the time I was teaching," he says. "I loved teaching but it was an increasingly dispiriting job. I began to wonder what it would be like to own a model shop, so I started attending collectors' fairs at weekends as a trader. Eventually a shop came up for sale and I thought: 'What the hell, I'll have a go'."

Mr Brierly ran the business in parallel with his teaching career for about 18 months, but it has been so successful he can now afford to do it full-time. "We haven't looked back," he says, "although in some ways I miss teaching, especially the kids and the camaraderie of the staffroom."

His shop started life as Chris Brierly Models but has expanded in a joint venture with Corgi to run alongside the Corgi Heritage Centre. Along with Dinky and Matchbox, Corgi's models were often a good investment. Some which cost a few shillings in the 1950s and 1960s now fetch three-figure sums at auction, with some rarities topping the pound;1,000 mark.

Susan Pownall runs the Corgi Collector Club. She says you can start collecting for under a fiver. "Prices for current models vary. Corgi's range stretches from small vehicles at about pound;4, to the large-scale collectables, which sell for up to pound;100." Collectors fall into various categories according to Mrs Pownall, and many of them are teachers. "The women - and there are a lot of female collectors - tend to go for models of cars they have owned. Then there are the cult followings - the Mini and VW Beetle, for example. Other people go for vehicles related to films or television, such as James Bond's Aston Martins. Another group might collect models they had as toys when they were kids."

Ian Futers is headteacher at Swaffham first and nursery school, Norfolk. Away from school, Mr Futers leads a busy life. He plays keyboards with a four-piece dance band and spends his holidays photographing European railways, an interest that has made him friends in the Netherlands, Spain, Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic. But when he's not making music or travelling, Mr Futers constructs exquisite scale dioramas of England's railways.

"It's a hobby that encompasses a wide range of interests," he says, "including historical research, geography and architecture as well as the trains themselves. My particular interest is railways of the North-east. I do a lot of reading, I study archives and go on field trips to public records offices. That's the academic side, if you like. But it's a practical hobby too. Modellers need to be proficient in a wide range of craft skills - carpentry, metalwork, electrics, draughtsmanship and scenery design. They have to master all sorts of materials including plaster, wood, card, plastics, and metals."

As with many hobbies, what appeals to Mr Futers about this one is that it's a complete break from the day job. "Teaching can be a stressful profession, and model-making is the perfect antidote, absorbing and relaxing," he says.

And those who may imagine that model-making is a private, anti-social pastime are mistaken. According to Mr Futers, modellers are great networkers and many friendships are made among the fraternity. He exhibits his handiwork at shows staged by local clubs and societies. "You meet all sorts of interesting people at these events. Quite a few of them turn out to be teachers," he says.

Mr Futers believes he gives the paying public a good show for their money. "My layouts are action portraits and I want to convince viewers they are looking at a slice of reality reduced in scale." Good presentation is vital to ensure a realistic and lifelike effect. It's all down to trompe l'oeil. "I show the layouts at eye level, pay great attention to sight lines and use theatre-style lighting."

Dolls House World is published monthly and sold in large newsagents. For subscription details, phone 01403 711511. Model Collector covers most makes of diecast models every month (0181 686 2599). Corgi Collector, also monthly, is available on subscription from 0870 6071204. Corgi Heritage Centre: 01706 365 812. There are many model railway magazines. The two most popular monthlies, Railway Modeller (01297 20580) and British Railway Modelling (01778 391180), can be found in most newsagents. For the really committed modeller, Model Railway Journal is available by subscription (01235 816478) and from large newsagents

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