Arts & Culture

It's a small world

A dollhouse-sized atlas, nested in a remarkable case.

Molly Dotson is assistant curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts with the Yale Center for British Art.

The globe and rosewood case shown here, which stand just four inches high when the lid of the case is closed, make an elegant nesting structure for the tiny book of maps at their center. This minuscule work of art, titled Atlas of the British Empire, was created by bookbinder George Kirkpatrick. It was about two years in the making, from 2002 until 2004. The work that inspired it, however, is much older.

In 1924, the English architect Sir Edwin Lutyens completed Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, which Britain’s Royal Collection Trust calls “the most famous dolls’ house in the world.” Queen Mary herself described it as “the most perfect present anyone could receive.” One of the many star features of the Dolls’ House library was a miniature atlas with 12 colored maps. In 1928, the London cartographers Edward Stanford Ltd. reprinted a number of equally minuscule copies of the atlas. The books were bound in red leather and sold under the title Atlas of the British Empire Reproduced from the Original Made for Her Majesty Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House.

One of those reproductions forms the kernel of Kirkpatrick’s creation. He removed the original red leather binding, replacing it with a blue leather binding that bears a map on the front cover. He also designed and crafted its complex globe-and-box housing. The work was commissioned by collector Neale Albert ’61JD, who began collecting books in the 1990s for the miniature library in Albert’s own specially commissioned model of Cliveden House, an English country manor. Albert’s interest in both dollhouses and designer bindings—each of them containers and also works of art—have flourished in tandem.

Much like Lutyens’s dollhouse, Kirkpatrick’s work demonstrates an imaginative interplay between interior and exterior and a sense of delight in discovery. Moreover, each part is integral to the whole. The cube-shaped rosewood box opens to reveal a leather globe, which is decorated with multicolored goatskin onlays and shows every part of the British Empire, circa 1924, in pink (British tradition at the time). The globe is weighted to mimic the tilt of the Earth’s axis, and corresponding constellations are tooled in gold on the calfskin-lined lid of the box.

The globe itself can be opened to reveal the miniature atlas, measuring one and three-quarters inches in height and resting on a round black tray. Its covers show a world map laced with parallel vertical lines that suggest the movement of the sun across the former British Empire, again shown in pink. Kirkpatrick also preserved the atlas’s original covers and repurposed them to enclose a careful documentation of his process for making the work; it is titled Provenance of the Re-Binding. This secret second book is housed in a compartment hidden under the black tray that holds the rebound atlas. 

Kirkpatrick has been working privately as a bookbinder since 1979, designing for exhibitions as well as private collectors, including members of the British royal family. Born in 1938 in Northern Ireland, he trained as a bookbinder, textile designer, and teacher at Ulster College of Art and Design and at Leicester College of Art. He holds an MA in graphic design from the Royal College of Art.

The work shown here is the first of more than 20 objects by Kirkpatrick that Neale Albert has collected. Albert gives Kirkpatrick free rein on every commission. Kirkpatrick himself says of his work, “I like to surprise people. I also like to have a story about nearly everything.” He seems to share with Lutyens a sense of the lively joy of creation, and he probably knows better than most people the meaning of Lutyens’s coinage “vivreations”—the word he invented for “fun.”

The comment period has expired.