9th Nov, 2022 10:00

Royalty, Fine Art & Antiques

Lot 952


Very rare Lay Sister or Novice nun doll, probably 18th century

Very rare Lay Sister or Novice nun doll, probably 18th century, the doll with painted wooden face with painted eyes and brows, painted mouth and rouged cheeks, the tapering wooden torso with cloth upper arms and carved and painted lower arms with detailed fork hands, jointed at the hips and knees, dressed in probably later hand-stitched habit, her fine hand-stitched leather boots and belt possibly from an earlier scheme of dress, approximately 36cm high.

Provenance: To be sold by direction of the Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre

NB: Nun dolls are believed to have been originally intended as instructional tools, for teaching novice nuns how to attire themselves, and also to maintain strict conformity to the Order’s specific costume over long periods of time. There are also documented instances of nuns sending the dolls to their families as keepsakes or to demonstrate their costume and as first communion gifts. The earliest documented nun doll is the famous 17th Swarbrick doll, thought to date to 1680, which has come to auction a number of times, but most recently in Bonhams, London on 17th November 2009 when it sold for £30,000. When the Swarbrick doll was previously offered in 1996, correspondence was initiated between the Canonesses and academic researchers, letters from that time state that almost all examples of nun dolls are now in museums or private collections and that the doll (or dolls - it is unclear whether the researchers were aware of both dolls) is one of just two instances where they are to be found in original context with their religious order (the other being The Canonesses of St. Augustine at Sayers Common), the letters also state that most examples are thought to be of French origin and that the dolls held by the Sepulchrines in Chelmsford, and at Sayers Common are of 19th century origin. However our comparisons with other early dolls point more towards an 18th century date for this doll, which would be consistent with the time when the Canonesses were in Liege, prior to the French Revolution, these dolls may have been amongst the possessions carried in 800 coffers, which were said to have been transported to England, when the Canonesses became displaced.

The English house of the Convent of The Holy Sepulchre was established in 1642 in Liège, Belgium by 20 year-old Susan Hawley. Susan’s family were English Catholics, displaced to the Continent by religious persecution. The Convent was created at a time when many English speaking Religious Houses were being founded on the Continent. The Liège Community flourished for over 150 years, Christina Dennett, an early Prioress, advocated spreading the word of God through teaching and she established a school in the City. In 1794 the French Revolution brought new threats of persecution and the Community were forced to move again, much to the dismay of the the Liège townsfolk who had taken the Community to their hearts. After some time searching for a new home and brief stays at London, Yorkshire and Wiltshire, the Community finally found a suitable location at New Hall, near Chelmsford. The house and fifty acres were purchased by a wealthy donor for the Community at a cost of £4000 in 1798, once again a school became established and the Community flourished.

Sold for £33,000

Condition Report

One finger on the dolls right hand is partially missing, there's wear and scratches to the painted face, some deterioration to clothing, wear and small holes to the shoes, deterioration to socks, the clothing is attached in places including the boots to the socks and whimple to the head, making close examination of the body difficult


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Auction: Royalty, Fine Art & Antiques, 9th Nov, 2022

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