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Italian double bass player Domenico Dragonetti, who revealed the possibilities of the double bass as a solo instrument to both Beethoven and Haydn, was well-known for his eccentricities. He was a keen collector of musical instruments, paintings and snuff-boxes – including one given to him by Beethoven – at his London lodgings. But he also collected dolls, apparently touring with them and even seating them in the audience at his concerts.
“In his ‘salon’ in Leicester Square, he has collected a large number of various kinds of dolls,” the composer Ignaz Moscheles wrote in his diary. “When visitors are announced, he politely receives them, and says that this or that young lady will make room for them; he also asks his intimate acquaintances whether his favourite dolls look better or worse since their last visit, and similar absurdities.”
Moscheles wasn’t the only one to remark on this habit. “Dolls – do not start, reader!” wrote the singer Henry Phillips. “A strange weakness for a man of genius to indulge in, but so it was; white dolls, brown dolls, dark dolls, and black, large, small, middling and diminutive, formed an important feature in his establishment. The large black doll he would call his wife, and she used to travel with him to festivals. He and [Robert] Lindley generally journeyed together inside the coach, and when changing horses in some little village, he would take this black doll and dance it at the window, to the infinite astonishment and amusement of the bystanders.”
Lindley Nunn wrote in his Musical Recollections: “There was every kind of toy, including six full-size dolls, one black... Sitting next to my sister at dinner, he said to her, ‘You are very like my Blackie’. A few days after, down came a huge case, containing this said Blackie, which was a full life-size black doll.”
This particular doll is believed to be a baby-sized doll, clothed in a tartan-patterned dress, with a scarf on her head and pearl-buttoned shoes on her feet, now kept at the Department of Portraits at the Royal College of Music in London.
Dragonetti seems to have done little to quench the rumours of his eccentricity, writing in response to a question from Phillips: “I have to inform you that I have only one black doll. I have seven other dolls in my seraglio, two of which are finishing their education amongst the German literati, who are remarkably clever and experienced in their mode of treating blockheads, for I wish my dollies to have an education of the most polished kind, especially in the smoothness and waxen-brilliancy of their innocent faces, which never degenerates (as sometimes happens with living dolls) into an ill-tempered frown. The other five dolls are such dolce companions, that they render my home a perfect dulce domum.”