Exploring Art

Diamonds & Dollhouses

By Patti Nickell | Photography courtesy of the Headley-Whitney Museum of Art

Dazzling jewels and ornate dollhouses are often every girl’s dream at Christmas, but they become real during a visit to Lexington’s Headley-Whitney Museum.
During the holiday season, females’ fantasies often turn to jewels, and in the case of their younger counterparts, elaborate dollhouses. At the Headley-Whitney Museum in Lexington, Kentucky, those fantasies become reality.
Jewelry designer George Headley, who once bejeweled the likes of Hollywood screen icons Joan Crawford, Judy Garland and Mae West at his boutique in Los Angeles’s Bel-Air Hotel, returned to his family home amidst the rolling hills of Kentucky’s Bluegrass Region in 1949.
Shortly afterward, Headley, a one-time student at L’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris where he hung around with the likes of Alexander Calder and Salvador Dali, began fashioning one-of-a-kind bibelots using precious and semi-precious stones.
The Headley-Whitney’s collection of 29 bibelots are lavishly displayed in an intimate setting, all the better for showcasing these impressive decorative ornaments, often described as having no functional purpose.
There’s a jaunty terra cotta pigeon that Headley found at a flea market in Paris. It would resemble its human counterparts flocking around the Place de la Concorde were it not for its feet of pink gold, ruby eyes, and the gold pendent hanging around its neck from which is suspended a ‘pigeon’s blood’ ruby teardrop.
Not to be outdone, a pair of seashell turtles with gold underbellies, carved pale pink and orange coral limbs, tails and heads, and diamonds for eyes, languidly pose on a base of stony fire coral and shells.
Nearby, a mask of Bacchus, Roman god of wine, is fashioned of delicate coral and backed with a tangle of grapevines in gold, mounted on coral branches resting on an onyx and gold base.
One of the most unusual bibelots, titled Fish in Cave, depicts a mudfish swimming through a cave-like opening of volcanic rock. Adorned with gold whiskers set with diamonds, the mudfish dangles a large black cultured pearl from its jaw. Seven gold starfish with square-cut green tourmaline bodies rest on the rock that is supported by mother-of-pearl panels embellished with gold, peridots and green enamel.
The focal point of the collection is titled “Bird Cage” and features the figure of a Chinese woman intricately carved of Persian turquoise sitting on a cushion of lapis lazuli. The cage which surrounds the figure is a delicate design of gold, accented with diamonds on which Headley suspended three large pear-shaped sapphires. Displayed as it is – dangling from a thin cord – it appears to be floating in space.

That George Headley was a jewelry design superstar is undeniable. Getting his inspiration from such diverse artists as Dali, Renaissance goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini and jeweler Peter Carl Faberge, his work was featured in fashion magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.
But it was his sister-in-law, socialite and thoroughbred horse farm owner Marylou Whitney, who made the museum a must-see for younger girls – those who still have diamonds in their future. She is responsible for the museum’s collection of ornate dollhouses, works of art in themselves.
In 1969, Whitney, at the request of her daughter Cornelia, began working with craftsmen on her Lexington horse farm to recreate the stunning white-columned antebellum mansion, Maple Hill, in miniature.
Whitney and her team spent six years meticulously replicating four separate areas – the main house, guest quarters, artist studio and pool house (the latter recreating Marylou’s famous Kentucky Derby party when she and her husband hosted Britain’s Princess Margaret.) Each was furnished as precisely and as closely to the original as possible.
Marylou was said to have jokingly told her husband, Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, that the estate’s carpenter, Ernest Hughes, and his crew “didn’t have enough to do during rainy and snowy winter days.”
So, during inclement weather, the men got busy using dental tools for work too delicate for thick fingers, and women expertly fashioned coat hangers out of paper clips. What started out as a project for a nine-year-old girl morphed into a display of skill and craftsmanship that has fascinated millions – both when the dollhouses went on a national tour to raise money for charity and now that they are back home at the Headley-Whitney Museum.
The petit point reproductions of Aubusson carpets, parquet flooring, dazzling chandeliers, and complete table settings would be reason enough to marvel. But when you really look, you see exquisite details such as a fully functional piano, miniature books in the library, tiny oil paintings that duplicate the originals in the Whitney home. There’s a bouquet of daisies on a coffee table, a miniature copy of National Geographic Magazine on the sun porch, and a diamond ring sitting on a bedroom dresser.
The Headley-Whitney Museum is the perfect venue for holiday dreaming, but be forewarned. It just might start little girls longing for the day when they will sport a diamond and their moms waxing nostalgic for their dollhouse days.

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