The Story of Kensinger Studios’ “Father Christmas” Dolls

Posted on December 10, 2012

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By Jeannot Kensinger

Eons ago, I was selling handmade Father Christmas figures in the style of the old German ones from the late 1800’s. The artist was Norma de Camp. She is still very busy and by now very well known. I loved them in my shop and sold them on consignment.

Norma became more and more popular and the prices went up and out of my reach.

I was sad over that but Norma was a friend and she was on her way UP and that was that!

Bob looked at me over his cup of coffee and said: I can make that too.

I chuckled. I figured that he was a great painter but not a doll maker.

I forgot the whole conversation until one morning he put a Father Christmas on the table!

I was totally shocked.  It looked old, the fabric was very old and threadbare, and I had no idea where he found that. The toys were leaden soldiers (of course antique) and it looked quite ancient. I sat there and the wheels of the retailer started to turn.

Said I:  “Can you do that again? But a different fabric and toys?”

He answered with a grin and said, “Of course I can, I can make these whenever I feel like it.”

“Whenever I feel like it” was the catch with Bob. He was a diva about his art.

When I married him I made a schedule.

“Now dear,” said I (so proudly), “you can paint from 9 to noon, we will have a nice lunch and you can go back from 2 to 6. We will have the evening with the girls and whatever we want to do.”

The artist looked at me like he heard it thunder in Berlin (Belgian expression).

“Say what? I can’t work in the morning. I never, ever, never work in the morning.  I do my best painting at night!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

My turn to look like I heard it thunder you know where.

“What do you mean, you can’t work in the morning???  Do you have morning sickness or something???  What does that mean?????”  I am a morning person and I never heard of someone who did not want to work in the morning, the best time, the fun time, the “I am alert time.”  What kind of man was this?

I had not met “The Muse.” The man explained that he did not get inspired unless it was quiet, he worked under artificial light, he needed music, he needed operas, he needed to be alone.

He set the rule about when to work. Decades later and a thousand operas and dozens of worn out equipment to listen to them I knew that he had a rule to stick by.  BUT now and then I had to tell him that rent was about due and better get your assets upstairs to paint. He THEN would say: Yes Dear.

When his Mom and Sister passed on he was a wreck and for 2 years he did not touch a brush. It almost broke us up. The need for the dough was bigger then the need for a Muse.

So… when he said that he would make me more Father Christmas dolls I felt terrific and I knew I would have to put my foot down about WHEN another one would appear.

He liked this new adventure and started to run to every thrift shop to collect fabrics, leather belts, leather gloves for the hands. He was in his junk world which he loved. He was a hoarder with order BUT when he became sick he simply was a hoarder and kept piling up “stuff” in his studio till you could not find a thing anymore.

I put them in the shop and lo and behold, they sold!! They sold!!!

Magic to my ears!!!!!  I decided to step in and help.  My turn to look for “things,” I bought a new sewing machine, trims, old furs.  I set up shop in the kitchen and I would make the clothing and he would build the body , the face and finish the decorating. We had a business going.

We ate out a LOT, the rabbit fur had taken over the kitchen.  You know how light that fur is, it drifts everywhere.

I signed up for a small show and designed the tables for display. Still testing the waters.  We educated the people.  Most people would say that is not OUR Santa and I would explain the history of the dolls.

One show led to another.

A baby was coming into our family and my trusted daughter who worked with me in the antique shop was in heaven when she thought she could have Mommy look after baby.  Not so fast, girl, he can’t inhale all that stuff in the kitchen.

A shop above my shop was empty for years, so I bargained with the landlord to rent that space.  It became our studio.   It was huge.  I had room for a cutting table, a sewing table, a his and hers table to put it all together. On the other wall we had metal shelves with all our boxes of toys and fabrics.  It was heaven.  A shag rug did well to hide a lot.  A play pen came in another part of the room and Zack was our real baby while we worked on the little baby dolls in Santa’s arms.

I became a fabric junkie.  Shopping at Mary Jo’s in Gastonia became an all day affair; we started in the morning and then had lunch and continued in the afternoon. A yard of this, half a yard of that, trims, and glues. In Belgium visiting my mother I went wild in Brussels in the Rue Neuve. I bought a meter one day of Italian made net which was covered with handsewn gold ribbons. It was spectacular. It took me a long time before I could cut into it. It cost $300 a meter.

The Biltmore House heard about us via a friend. They called me and asked if I could do a sled and a large Peddler Father Christmas with all Victorian items, fabric, and furs.   We were extremely proud of this commission; we also were well paid.  They have been in the House almost every Christmas but I did not see them this year, it is all about dozens of trees this year and real candles.

My son, while in High School, had a tour with his class. He spotted the Peddler and told his friends, “My parents made that!”  They laughed! He called the guide behind the ropes and asked if he could show the base of the doll. He obliged and the kids’ mouths fell open when they saw the signature: Kensinger studio.  Young Bob beamed and was popular for a half hour.

Soon we did shows by invitation only and mostly about Christmas markets.  We went from Arlington VA all the way to Jacksonville FLA.  We were never home for Thanksgiving as our Greensboro show would start and soon the promoters found great spots for us to get attention.  In Augusta GA we always sold out. People waited at the door to run to our usual spot and pick out a favorite of the year. One couple had dozens of them and large ones too.  He built a mahogany display case with glass to put them in all year round.

Sabrina and I did the Augusta show when Zack was a few weeks old.  He screamed all the way home for the three-hour ride.  Next year he did the same thing.  We started to think he just did not like Augusta and sure enough we went out to dinner after the show and he decided to start screaming in the restaurant and all the way home, and he most have been 3 or 4 by then. Zack does not like Augusta.

Sometimes we doubled up on shows and Bob would do one and Sabrina and I the other.

The time between shows was rough as we had to finish others to be ready by Thursday and be in another town. We had little sleep during these months, I always ended with lung problems and one year a very bad pneumonia bout.

Often I would still work at the motel with Zack under foot and sew some more.  Sabrina was in love with every doll and was a great sales lady.

In fact Sabrina just yesterday bought another one on eBay.  She too has cases full of them, and was delighted to find an early model.  We numbered them all.  13 years on the road and well over 1000 Father Christmas dolls.  On our 10th anniversary of making dolls I embroidered the date in the lining.  I made all sorts of wild ones, Liberace sequined ones, all real Belgian lace ones, all fur ones, real furs and fake furs.

When I use the word “I” it was strictly for the clothing; Bob was still the master of it all.  We sat next to each other in the studio and always talked. I do not know what we talked about… 42 years and we still were talking all the time.  If I fell asleep in the car he would be a little annoyed that I had nothing to say.

No one in my life, absolutely no one filled me with joy and love like that man did.

Here are some photos of Bobby’s collection:

Number 333 B stand 14 inches
Dated 1998
Faux fur
Old trumpet in arm, new cloth doll and basket of fur
His underskirt (yes he had to have that covered too) is a cotton Christmas print
Leather belt knitted gloves (from real gloves)
Sheep wool hair

Number 23
Dated 1986
He made little packages with paper and then antiqued the paper with tea
Here he made his own gloves out of leather with a thumb (gave up on that later)
Leather belt and the fur is ermine from an old cape that was falling into strips.
Love that one and I did not touch that one at all, it was before our shows and I do not know how it is still here, glad that it is.

Then we also made peddler Santas, after the English peddler doll.
This one stands 25 inches
He has an original Victorian cape which is still in very good condition, with hand applied passementrie and jet beads. (circa 1880-1890)
The gold trim came from a chasuble from a priest and it was falling apart but I managed to save the trims.
This one is dated 2001 and was a present to Bob and Ari.


I am hoping that the 1000 plus Father Christmas dolls out there will come out of the moth balls and be enjoyed by all this Christmas.

Have a Merry!!!!!

Jeannot Kensinger, a native of Belgium, has written extensively of her 13 years of caregiving to her beloved husband of 42 years, who was struck with Alzheimer’s; of slowly emerging from those years; and of the joys of life before it all, and after.  You can read more of her work at her blog, Life After Alzheimer Caregiving.

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