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Exploring the history of dummy boards

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Image of Gabriella de la Rosa
Gabriella de la RosaLead Editor, Curatorial Content Online, National Trust
A composite image showing two dummy boards beside a fireplace at Trerice, Cornwall
Two dummy boards at Trerice, Cornwall | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

Dummy boards, also sometimes called silent companions, are life-size flat wooden figures that were a popular room decoration in the 17th century. Painted and cut to resemble soldiers, children, servants and animals, they can be found standing in many of the places we care for.

The origins of dummy boards

Dummy boards are understood to have originated in Holland in the early 17th century. The fashion for acquiring and making them soon took hold and by the end of the century they began populating households throughout the continent, the British Isles and even colonial America.

Countless tales have emerged to explain the origin of these curious objects. Because they create the illusion of a real human presence, it’s been suggested they were used to deter potential burglars or enemy soldiers. A very different explanation is that they were used to combat loneliness, hence their other name, silent companions.

Other uses for dummy boards

Dummy boards may have also fulfilled other purposes, with indications they were used as doorstops and even as targets for shooting practice. Some boards show signs of having been used as firescreens. Pairs, typically children, were often used as chimney boards, masking open fireplaces during the warm summer months when fires weren't needed. Because the boards are usually just under life-size, it’s also been suggested they were designed to make a room seem larger than it was.

Unusual uses for dummy boards

In some instances, dummy boards were used as props in elaborate practical jokes. The 18th-century Dutch artist and writer, Arnold Houbraken, describes a social gathering where a dummy board was placed at the door to greet the company. Some guests, mistaking the wooden figure for a maidservant, attempted to give it a tip, a source of great amusement to those watching.

Dummy boards may have also been used to startle or frighten. In the days before domestic electrification, a candle placed near a dummy board would make the figure appear to come alive in dark interiors.

Place(d) in corners or at the end of a vestibule one might have greeted them like a living person. Certain ones, destined to be viewed at night, were fitted with a lit candlestick to create a natural effect.

A quote by Arnold Houbrakenartist and writer, 1719

The placement of a dummy board beneath a dark staircase or at the end of a poorly lit corridor would certainly give a visitor cause to look twice, perhaps to even go so far as to question what was real and what wasn't.

A view of the fireplace in the West Hall at Dyrham Park, with a dummy-board figure of a woman peeling an apple sits beside the fireplace
The West Hall at Dyrham Park, Bath | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Trompe l'oeil and the art of deception

Dummy boards relate to the tradition of trompe l’oeil, a French phrase meaning deceives the eye, where three-dimensional visual illusions are created on a flat surface.

In a work from the collection at Kingston Lacy in Dorset, the artist Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627–78) experiments with the effects of trompe l’oeil. He uses the actual grain of the wooden panel to represent a backboard and skilfully simulates leather straps holding a variety of three-dimensional objects.

The viewer is tempted to reach for these objects: a magnifying glass, an open text with bent pages, a comb, a deck of playing cards, a bunch of keys, a string of pearls and even an envelope addressed to van Hoogstraten himself.

Illusionistic painting of this kind reached new heights in 17th-century Holland, where trickery and deceit played an integral role in the amusements of the elite.

How the boards were created

Dummy boards were typically made from multiple pieces of wood which were cut-out to the required shape and then reinforced at the back with battens. They were given bevelled edges which aided the illusion of depth and helped cast a life-like shadow.

The quality and style of the painting on the boards varies considerably. Most boards were painted in oil directly after the wood had been smoothed and primed. Sometimes the figures were painted first on canvas, then cut out and glued to the wooden board. In Britain, most dummy boards were made by professional sign painters who made signs for shops, inns and taverns.

A dummy board is seen in the Great Hall at Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire
Dummy board in the Great Hall at Canons Ashby | © Andreas von Einsiedel 2015

One exception can be found in the Great Hall at Canons Ashby in Northamptonshire. This dummy board depicts a Guardsman of the Scots Guards. It was originally one of a pair and was almost certainly painted by Elizabeth Creed (1642–1728), cousin of the poet John Dryden, who was commissioned to decorate various parts of the house and church at Canons Ashby.

Dummy board doppelgängers

Sometimes, duplicate figures were produced, cut from a single outline. This explains the presence of doppelgängers in some of the historic houses we care for, including an identical set of children at Hinton Ampner in Hampshire and Chirk Castle in Wrexham. Twin maidservants, both engaged in peeling apples, can also be seen at Dyrham Park in Gloucestershire and Knole in Kent.

By the mid-19th century, the fashion for dummy boards in homes had waned and they were sometimes placed outdoors in gardens, with many succumbing to the elements. Today, it's difficult to imagine living with these unusual figures, but the sight of them in situ offers a rare glimpse into the decorative impulses of an age so different to our own.

Sevres Wine Cooler, showing nymphs worshipping the bust of Pan, from a service made for Louis XVI, dated 1792, in the Porcelain Lobby at Upton House, Warwickshire

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