Restoring a Lenci doll requires a mixture of art and science and a level of skill and patience beyond the ordinary, basic cleaning and repair of the doll is only a start, producing a faithfull replica of an original Lenci doll outfit presents a unique set of difficulties and challenges.
Diane Mardis meets all of the above requirements and more. Recently she completed a project that would be daunting to even the most experienced doll restorer.
The Lenci snake charmer is among of the rarest of Lenci dolls, it appeared in the small 1925 Lenci Ars Novita catalog, and was not continued into the main 1925 catalog after that so we can assume it was produced only in 1925 and in very limited numbers. I only know of one still in existence with complete original outfit in a private collection, the owner kindly provided pictures of it for a previous article I wrote on Lenci circus characters. The year 1925 is significant as the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Art from which the term Art Deco originated) was held in Paris that year - it is said that Madame Lenci attended that exhibition. The dolls outfit and expresion is evocative of the Art Deco style, but the theme is a personal one to Elena Scavini (Madame Lenci) for in her youth she ran away to join a circus together with her sister and for her circus act she was a snake handler.
Working only from photos Diane succeeded in replicating the entire Art Deco style outfit including headress and the snake, for a same model doll that was missing its outfit, and here you can see the result of her efforts.
The average Lenci felt outfit is a challenge for even the most experienced, just sourcing the material presents unique challenges because the colors and constitution of present day felt is not of the same quality and texture, and duplicating the intricacies of the Lenci clothing can be a daunting task.
Says Diane "I just decided I was going to do it right, she (the owner of the doll with the original outfit) had sent me pictures - she told me the skirt was turquoise or aqua organdy. I found the aqua color and thought it all worked well together..."
Once Diane had the reference photo and the determination to proceed she had to make her own pattern working from the photos "I made my own paterns until it looked right to me, hand pleated that skirt, which was killer. The snake I worked on and figured it out how I should do it. I love the way it turned out, preserving - history I think.... The felt came out of my stash, I had bought that weird yellow color a while back knowing it was Lenci yellow. Some of the colors are dyed, like the red, it was dyed, and the blues I used for the trim on the head dress ....The lemon yellow I found and bought - fairly long time ago, but I knew it was a "Lenci" yellow... it's a great feel too, to it."
Mixing the dyes to produce a faithful color to the original Lenci colors is no easy task "I sort of play mad scientist. I was looking for different shades of blue and I think I took a light blue and then went on from there.... It takes so much dye I try to use the liquid because it goes more evenly, but it takes so much and then there is the mess".
"She did tell me the color of the skirt was on the back side, that still had some color. I studied the pictures she sent me for a long time. Just to think, and get ideas. I guessed a lot at some things, and made my own patterns, I kept cutting the leaf patterns of copy paper until I felt the shape was right." The skirt was particularily challenging, says Diane "I placed the diamonds all on it and then basted and, then machine stitched. It was killer to make those pleats. I used a hard cardboard form and a hot, hot iron. But I was pleased with it after it was finished." The blue of the skirt Diane made gives us an idea of how the original would have looked in 1925, more so than the faded outfit of the all original one today.
Constructing the snake was another hurdle to be overcome, as Diane discovered, "Those pieces needed to be different sizes too because the snake is tapered, so I made the areas 3 or 4 different sizes graduating from small to big to small. It was all hand basted the tricky part was the head seam to body seam. Hard to explain but the mouth was set in, that was tricky."
It's heartwarming and inspirational to see what can be done to bring a remarkable and rare doll back to its former glory. A rare example from doll history that survived the years to find its way to the right pair of hands to do it justice. "I appreciate someone liking her." says Diane "I sent pictures to the owner of the doll it was his mother's who died. He said she loved it and he really did love what I did to it ...............for it. I do feel that I am helping them stay what they were meant to be."
Diane's dedication and painstaking attention to detail have paid off and the results are both impressive and inspiring.