BEYOND A HOBBY – Christine Mandleberg and her dolls


beyond a hobby

Humans have been modelling themselves in doll form for thousands of years, with the earliest evidence of them dating back to ancient Egypt. Originally made for magic and to be used in religious rituals, the concept of making them for toys documents back to Greece in around 100AD. These dolls of a bygone age are a far cry from the almost eerily lifelike baby dolls that are marketed towards today’s children. Some of the earliest models documented were wooden and made out of paddles, found in Egyptian burials between 2040 and 1750BC. 

GibMag_August2016 small_Page_040_Image_0001Modern dolls, like those found dotted prolifically around Christine Mandleberg’s quaint abode, sat atop the hushed Charles V steps, above Hargrave’s Parade. For almost twenty years, Christine has been making her own dolls, particularly the porcelain kind that were first manufactured in Germany in the 15th century. Always a keen creative type, she stumbled across the hobby in a magazine, and having clung to her favourite childhood doll, well into her adult years, she tried her hand at the lengthy doll making process, using her boss at the time, Victor Chandler, as a model. ‘When I got married and moved to England, my sister gave me a doll that was identical to one I’d had but had broken. I used to make different dresses for it, as an adult.’ The entire doll making process, she soon learned, is a lengthy and delicate one. ‘I’m retired now so I enjoy it, it gives me something to get up for in the morning. As I’m getting older, I’m starting to think: “what am I going to do with all these dolls?” I have two sons and they’re not going to want them. ‘

Commencing the process

We potter around her shed as she presents her plaster moulds to me, in which she pours the porcelain to create faces, arms, legs and torsos. ‘My older generation was more into making dolls, nowadays, the dolls are all vinyl and they have straight legs and arms,’ she tells me as I marvel at the twenty or so pairs of glass and porcelain eyes that stare down at us from her work room. All of them attached to a completely unique body, with its own personal history. Some of them I recognise as favourite fictional characters, and others as local celebrities and former Chief Ministers of Gibraltar. The most complex part of the process, Christine explains, is giving the doll character, moulding their hands into lifelike positions and delicately painting on their facial features. ‘Every time you paint a different colour, it has to go in the kiln and be fired, that way you can paint on top. The more layers you add, the more depth you give.’ Once the face has been moulded out of its original clay model, it is cleaned and sanded and blasted in the kiln, then the painting process commences. Christine explains that antique dolls would be given glass eyes, but nowadays, it is more common for the doll maker to paint them on themselves, allowing them to better mould the doll’s expression. ‘While the paint is wet, it’s a bit like water paints and I can keep rubbing it off. Once I’m happy with the look, I put it in the kiln and fire it.’ She shows me the intricate shading detail around the knees of one of her most recent figures, a female legal executive with an all porcelain body and very dainty hands and glasses. 

GibMag_August2016 small_Page_042_Image_0001The details

Christina has become an expert in the trade, ‘my favourite part is when I start dressing them, because you can see them starting to come to life.’ Before dabbling in dolls, Christine had a penchant for dressmaking, having grown up teaching her sisters how to sow their own clothes. Her creative flare the directed her towards doll making. Having taken many classes and workshops around the world, she last year reached the highest honour in doll making, the Triple Crown

Showing me around her collection, their outfits are perhaps the most striking element, all very intricate, with tiny lace petticoats and dainty parasols. Even the shoes are handmade. ‘There is also an entire skeleton inside the body that you don’t see. That’s the most difficult part and the only bit you can’t see.’ The skeleton is made of wire and bendy plastic joints, allowing for impressive mobility at the dolls’ shoulders, elbows and knees. ‘Making the body is a week-long process, this comes after all the porcelain has been painted. Once the whole doll has been put together, I’ll start thinking about the hair, which is made out of goat hide. You can buy ready-made wigs, but sometimes I make them myself.’ She uses tiny caps and stitches rows of hair into them individually. I ask how she manages to give some of her dolls curly or wavy hair, and she shows me a tiny box full of pieces of drinking straws which she uses as curlers. The clever tips she’s picked over the years are an accumulation of very many classes and using her creative initiative. ‘I’ve got so many tools that I use in the process.’ 


Having found a flair for the art, Christine started entering doll-making competitions a few years into her hobby. The biggest market is Germany, where the trade is most prominent, followed by the US, where the Doll Artisan Guild reigns as the competition entity, and also the UK, where a small community exists. Her competition success is impressive. In 2005, a GibMag_August2016 small_Page_043_Image_0003recreation of Fred Casely from the 2002 film remake of Chicago won her five top prizes at the annual DAG award ceremony, aptly held in Chicago. Most recently, her recreation of Tim Burton’s Mad Hatter, from his remakes of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass came in first place at the International Dollmakers Society’s annual competition. ‘I copied every single detail. Everything had to be painted before anything else in the process,’ she divulges, as I marvel at the elaborate detail of his outfit, all of which is made out of different materials and ever so carefully sown together. The hat and gloves add a personal touch, and the tiny blue thimble on his middle finger really brings the entire doll together. The Mad Hatter also won her the Best Theme Award. She also entered the Legally Blonde doll, and a personal commission she had for a doll depicting local musician in the 1980s when he played in a band called Moonlight Sun. With these, she won Highly Commended and 3rd Prize. 

Christine explains to me that competitions include up to eighteen categories, from antique, to modern dolls. The antique dolls entered must be painted exactly the same as they would have been in the 18th century. ‘You have to present a photo of the doll you’re copying.’ In October, she will fly to the US to compete once again, with her Gibraltar National Doll depicting Miss World 2009 winner Kaiane Aldorino in her national dress. Christine unveiled the doll in 2013 at the City Hall, selling copies of it on to raise money for her sister’s charity, Clubhouse Gibraltar. The stand, a recreation of the part of the Rock is made out of cat litter gravel and genuine pieces of Gibraltar limestone. ‘When I go to America, I tend to make smaller dolls. This next show is in Chattanooga Tennessee. There’s a train known as the Chattanooga choo choo. So, I’m thinking about creating a young boy wearing a train driver’s outfit.’ 

GibMag_August2016 small_Page_043_Image_0002As well as creating her own original dolls, Christine restores old figures, giving them new life. She is also known within the community to recreate people in doll form, taking on commissions when they are offered to her. ‘Grandmas like to see their children and grandchildren depicted as dolls.’ She has also taken on a personal mission to recreate all of Gibraltar’s Chief Ministers since 1969. She introduces me to Mr. Joe Bossano and Peter Caruana’s mini me, both very accurate depictions of the true characters of the two former leaders. ‘The idea came from an GibMag_August2016 small_Page_043_Image_0001exhibition I held. When I’ve got all of the Chief Ministers ready, I’ve promised myself that I’m going to host another exhibition. Politics is such a big part of our community.’ She’s in the process of working on the current CM, Fabian Picardo and now Speaker of the House and Mayor, Adolfo Canepa, both of whom she is closely replicating using photos. ‘My intention is that, hopefully, I can leave them for Gibraltar, to be exhibited somewhere where people will appreciate them.’ Her recreation of Admiral Rooke, made for Gibraltar’s Tercentenary celebrations, is exhibited in the Gibraltar Museum. ‘There are no other doll makers in Gibraltar, so it would be nice to be remembered that way.’