The word “amateur” has taken on a very negative connotation in our culture, which is a shame. It used to mean someone who had passion for a certain field, and studied it to such a degree that they were exceedingly adept, almost approaching (and sometimes surpassing) a professional proficiency. Amateurs were often women of means who, because of societal strictures, were not allowed to work.
Mrs. James Ward Thorne was both a lady of means and passion. She studied with great interest historic interiors and adored miniatures. Her way of bringing historic interiors to life was to create tiny and exceedingly precise models of them. In this rather odd, yet fascinating, endeavor she worked for decades with miniature makers in her own workrooms, overseeing every detail of these Lilliputian rooms.
The early 20th century was a time when there were very few historic interiors in American museums. The Decorative Arts was something that the wealthy collected, but was largely cut off to those who had the interest but not the funds to buy. It was also a time when Americans had a growing interest in these beautiful objects and the sumptuous, historic rooms that held them. Mrs. James Ward Thorne decided she would create them from whole cloth, and in a sense, she created a unique way to time travel and look at historic spaces.
From the moment she opened the doors to the public to see her first set of rooms in 1933, there was an enthusiastic response. She continued making these miniature miracles into the early 1960’s. Today, many of these rooms survive, sixty-eight now beautifully exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago. To see these tiny settings in person is to transport oneself to eighteenth century England, 1930’s Paris or colonial America while simultaneously being let into the tiny world of Mrs. James Ward Thorne’s very large imagination.