Secrets of The Miniaturist’s cabinet house and dolls revealed

Meet the woman whose dollhouse inspired the story and the real-life miniaturists who brought it to life

Nella and her cabinet house in The Miniaturist (BBC/The Forge, SD)

Jessie Burton’s best-selling novel The Miniaturist tells the story of a young girl called Petronella Oortman, who moves to Amsterdam after marrying a man called Johannes Brandt.

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The cabinet house he presents to her as a gift is at the centre of the spooky fictional story, but did you know it’s actually based on the house the real-life Petronella spent much of her time decorating?

Find out more about the story behind the brand new BBC1 drama beginning this Boxing Day.

Who was the real Petronella Oortman and did she have a dollhouse?

Petronella ‘Nella’ Oortman did actually exist, and so did her dollhouse.  A wealthy widow by the time she married silk merchant Johannes Brandt, Oortman followed the local fashion in Amsterdam and had a large cabinet built for her so that she could decorate it with expensive miniatures between 1686 and 1710.

The “Nella Oortman” who we meet in The Miniaturist is entirely fictionalised, and the real dollhouse wasn’t (so far as we know) furnished by a slightly spooky “miniaturist” with an ability to create perfect replicas and predict the future. But this dollhouse, which is now on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, did actually serve as the inspiration for the story.

Petronella Oortman's dollhouse
Petronella Oortman’s dollhouse (Rijksmuseum)

When you see it in person it is absolutely beautiful, with perfect, tiny little plates, chairs and pillows, spinning wheels and baskets and fireplaces.

However, Oortman’s dollhouse is definitely not a toy. it was a way of showing off, presenting her dreams and aspirations to her visitors; this was a way for a woman to show her mastery of the domestic sphere and of her world.

The dollhouse contains nine rooms, and is about three times larger than the one we see on screen in The Miniaturist. A painting of the dollhouse was made in 1710 by the Dutch painter Jacob Appel, six years before Oortman’s death – so we have a very good idea what it looked like at the time.

The cabinet itself is made of tortoiseshell and decorated with pewter inlays by a French craftsman. Successful Dutch artists painted murals in the “game room” and “tapestry room”, and porcelain objects were ordered all the way from China. The house features handmade wicker and upholstered furniture, sculpted ceiling reliefs, real marble flooring and – originally – a garden with a working water fountain and a fully-operational water pump.

The dollhouse at the Rijksmuseum
The dollhouse at the Rijksmuseum (Getty)

It was during a trip to Amsterdam that novelist Jessie Burton came across the dollhouse – and she was fascinated.

“It was the thing that made me write the book,” she explained. “I remember seeing it and I couldn’t take my eyes off it, because it’s genuinely very impressive in real life; it’s huge but it’s very intimate, and it draws you in.

“I thought, aesthetically this is lovely. And then I read that it cost her as much as a full-blown townhouse, and then I thought that’s really interesting because what is the psychology there? It’s about control, it’s about domestic space, it’s claustrophobic and yet it’s also a kind of opening out to the world.”

Where did all the miniatures in the BBC drama come from?

“For every household item you can think of in life there is a miniaturist who specialises in making it in one-twelfth scale,” says Susie Rogers of Mulvany & Rogers, the company charged with creating the magical miniatures for the BBC drama.

Trained art historians specialise in one-twelfth scale bespoke miniature houses and have produced incredible versions of some of Europe’s most famous buildings, from Hampton Court to Ham House, Versailles to Buckingham Palace.

So, how did these real-life miniaturists bring the fictional miniaturist’s work to life?

“We researched designs from original paintings of the period to get the correct feel of the pieces,” Rogers explains, “but ultimately we had to copy the actual real pieces hired from the props suppliers”.

They produced numerous items that would go on to decorate Nella’s cabinet house, from a stringed lute to a bird cage, Nella’s bedroom chair and, of course, both her parakeet Peebo and Johannes’ lurcher, Rezeki.

Peebo's cage - The Miniaturist
Peebo’s cage – The Miniaturist (BBC)

However, they couldn’t make everything without help: “The fictional miniaturist in the drama heightens her mysterious powers in ours eyes by being able to make everything across a huge range of disciplines – and so quickly!” Rogers explains.

With no such supernatural skills, the producers instead reached out to Carol Cook, who was charged with creating “tiny pastries glistening with cherries and currants” while furniture maker Ann High took on the challenge of creating a beautiful hand-carved cradle that “rocks even in miniature”.

It wasn’t all plain sailing, either. “Just after we’d delivered Peebo’s finely wired gilded birdcage we received a phone call on Friday to say that the scene had actually been shot with a plain wooden one. Could we make another? For Monday?” says Rogers.

“Fortunately this was one of the miniatures made by us so at least we didn’t have to plead with anyone else!”

Where do the dolls in The Miniaturist come from?

The dolls featured in the show were specially commissioned via Mulvaney and Rogers and made by doll maker Julie Campbell.

She was tasked with creating eight dolls in the stiff style of the 17th century, with faces that were portraits of the actors playing the roles. No costumes were to be made for the dolls as The Miniaturist’s costume department would take care of that.

Romola Garai and Hayley Squires meet their miniatures
Romola Garai and Hayley Squires meet their miniatures (BBC)

She began work on the bodies and basic head shapes but had to wait until the actors had been cast to finish her work.

“Julie worked through many nights to capture both their real portraits and the character roles that they were to play,” Rogers explains.

How were the dolls’ costumes made?

If you look closely you’ll notice that the dolls in The Miniaturist are wearing the exact same costumes as the actors, albeit in a much smaller size. That’s because the costume team used the same fabrics to make both sets of outfits.

Marin and Johannes in doll form - The Miniaturist
Marin and Johannes in doll form – The Miniaturist (BBC)

Everything from the dresses and waistcoats right the way down to the embroidery and bows is an exact replica.

The majority of the costumes were hand sewn – with machines only used to create seams – and it took a few practice runs to get them just right. The men’s costumes were more difficult to make than the women’s, with a leather jacket proving particularly tricky.

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The Miniaturist begins on BBC1 this Boxing Day at 9pm