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MORE THAN TOYS | Norfolk exhibit sheds light on the art of antique dolls

MORE THAN TOYS | Norfolk exhibit sheds light on the art of antique dolls

When Carolyn Barry was a little girl, she loved family trips to Aunt Thelma’s, because that’s where the dolls lived. The journey from Norfolk to Harrisonburg was no easy task in the late 1940s, so her family only made the trip once or twice a year. “I could hardly wait to get there,” says Barry, a Tidewater-raised art collector and philanthropist.

Aunt Thelma was married but had no children of her own. She was a well-educated history buff, who worked as assistant to the dean of what was then Madison College. Collecting dolls was not common then, Barry says, but her aunt had several – mostly antique German and china head dolls. The majority were kept in long, metal boxes under the guest room bed.

As they sat together, Aunt Thelma pulled them out one by one and taught her about their history and significance; the clothes they wore, the towns in which they were made. Each had a name, Barry says, and each had a story. Her aunt emphasized that the dolls were not toys but rather special collectibles to be cherished. “She was very careful with them and very particular and taught me to be careful with them,” Barry says.

Barry inherited her aunt’s dolls and eventually became a serious collector, including acquiring one of the rarest in the world. But instead of keeping them in antique cabinets or metal boxes, Barry’s dolls now live in a public space for all to see.

The Barry Art Museum opened in November 2018 on the campus of Old Dominion University in Norfolk. Named for Carolyn and her husband, Richard “Dick” Barry III, a retired media executive, the 24,000-square-foot facility houses the couple’s extensive collection of American modernist paintings, studio glass art, and about 150 antique dolls.

Carolyn Barry says the dolls were always intended to be part of the museum’s founding collection. Dimly lit to preserve their delicate features and clothing, roughly a third are on view.

The dolls, which date mostly from the late 19th century, originated in countries like France, Germany, China, and Japan. They peer from their protective cases with glass or painted eyes. Some are childlike, with round faces, chubby arms, and dimpled chins, such as those made by Émile-Louis Jumeau. Others, like the "Gibson Girl" of the German-based J.D. Kestner Company, appear as teenagers or young adults.

They display a range of expressions painted on glazed or matte porcelain-cast visages. Some are sweet and coquettish, with slightly parted lips and rosy, red cheeks. Others are proud, peering down their noses with slightly upturned chins. Some look sullen, while others are inscrutable – expressionless, vacant, perhaps even a little bored.

Stuart Holbrook, president and chief auctioneer at Theriault’s, a Maryland-based auction house that specializes in antique dolls, considers a 19th-century French fashion doll designed by Antoine Edmond Rochard the centerpiece of the collection. One of only six or seven made, Carolyn Barry purchased it for a record-setting $333,500 in February 2018.

The 30-inch doll wears an elegant, champagne-colored silk gown with a wide skirt, bustle, and pearl-buttoned bodice. Her blonde hair is woven into a Victorian-era coronet with ribbons and bows. But it’s the “jewels” embedded in her pale décolletage that makes her special – a gold necklace with dozens of micro-photographs of now historic French landmarks. “It is truly a unique creation,” Holbrook says.

It took two-and-half years to prepare the dolls for their debut, according to Dianne deBeixedon, a now-retired ODU art professor, metalsmith, and lifelong doll collector. DeBeixedon and Barry have known each other for 25 years and met as members of the Norfolk Doll Club. Barry says she’d seen the skill deBeixedon took to the conservation of her own dolls and knew she could entrust her with the museum-bound collection.

But deBeixedon said she wouldn’t do it alone – she had a day job, after all. “‘I'll teach you, too. We'll do it together,’” she told Barry. “So, that's what we did."

The pair’s motto was first, do no harm. Many of the dolls had been sitting in cabinets, untouched, for more than 20 years. DeBeixedon asked Barry how far she wanted to take the dolls’ restoration. “There are people out there who wanna make the dolls look new, and I think that there's too much damage done in the process,” deBeixedon says.

Barry wanted to preserve their original state, another lesson learned from Aunt Thelma. She wanted people to see their aged beauty, deBeixedon says. Working several times a week, they started with the less expensive dolls and worked their way up as their confidence in their process grew. Dolls were carefully stripped of their clothes and all the individual parts laid out on a bed in Barry’s home. Dresses and undergarments were washed and repaired. Wigs made of human hair and mohair were meticulously cleaned, little sections at a time, using toothpicks and cotton swabs. Porcelain faces were cleansed, and composition leather bodies reconditioned.

DeBeixedon says she’s found little in the way of doll conservation guidance, so she leaned into her expertise as a seamstress and artist, employing methods honed over the years and using sacrificial dolls when experimentation was required.

A Friendship Doll known as “Miss Hiroshima” received extra-special treatment. She is one of 58 created in Japan and shared with the United States in a 1927 goodwill doll exchange. Displayed prominently in various U.S. institutions, the dolls essentially disappeared after Pearl Harbor. DeBeixedon recalls the reverential care taken by a doll conservator whom Barry flew over from Japan to attend to Miss Hiroshima before the museum’s 2018 opening.

“He undressed the doll kind of ceremonially and then redressed her in a certain procedure,” she says. “It was very beautiful.”

The doll gallery celebrated its re-debut last year. Guest curator Sara Woodbury, a doctoral candidate at William & Mary, worked with museum staff to identify overarching themes in hopes of enhancing the experience for a wide audience, walking visitors through dolls as they relate to technology, fashion, popular culture, and art.

A micro-space was carved out of the center of the gallery to present focused exhibits, like a deep dive into the museum’s collection of French Bébé dolls on display through July.

The museum’s collection leans Eurocentric and Woodbury says “contemporary interventions” have been incorporated not only to put the dolls in conversation with the Barry’s artworks, but also as a way of reckoning with representation in the gallery.

Holbrook says the Barry’s doll exhibit represents a turning point. Most museums have dolls, he says, often integrated into temporary exhibits or kept in storage. Some, like the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, display them alongside toys and antique dollhouses. And there are strictly doll museums, catering mostly to aficionados. “But you never see a permanent exhibit like this integrated into the idea of them as an art form,” says Holbrook, who has been a guiding hand in the collection’s development.

In the heyday of 19th and 20th century European doll making, well-known sculptors like Albert Marque were hired to design doll heads, and artists were employed to paint their faces. Dolls were used as marketing tools displaying miniature couture Parisian fashion and were shipped around the world.

They were given to girls as guides to help them develop into young ladies, showing them how to dress and accessorize for each occasion; from shoes and gowns, to purses and parasols, a whole trousseau could be built around one doll. Nineteenth century French fashion dolls like those made by Adélaïde Huret were precursors to 20th century Barbie dolls, which the Barry also has on display. And mechanical dolls, or automata, served as entertainment – parlor fancy, Holbrook says, to be enjoyed with a Cognac after a meal.

The Barry Art Museum offers space to tell all those stories, according to Holbrook. “That's where the sweet spot is … understanding what is behind the doll.”

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