Meet the enigmatic silent companions in our collections

Gabriella de la Rosa, Lead Editor, Curatorial Content Online Gabriella de la Rosa Lead Editor, Curatorial Content Online

Dummy boards, also sometimes called 'silent companions', are life-size, flat, wooden figures that formed part of 17th-century room decoration. Painted and cut to resemble soldiers, children, servants and animals, they can be found standing (some might say lurking) in the interiors of many of our places.

To the modern eye, there is something uncanny about these figures. Were they there to surprise guests or thwart burglars? To make rooms look bigger or perhaps to provide companionship? Or were they part of a larger trend in 17th-century painting that sought to blur the distinction between appearance and reality?

Deterrents or friends?

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

Countless imaginative tales have emerged to explain the origin of these curious objects. Because they create the illusion of a real human presence, it has 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 sobriquet, 'silent companion'.   

Woman with a Sword (possibly Vigilance), Dutch School, 17th century in the collection at Snowshill Manor, Gloucestershire
Dummy board of woman with a sword
Woman with a Sword (possibly Vigilance), Dutch School, 17th century in the collection at Snowshill Manor, Gloucestershire

Dummy boards may have also fulfilled utilitarian purposes, with indications they were used as doorstops or even as targets for firing practice.

Some boards show signs of having been used as firescreens. Pairs, typically children, were often used as chimney boards, masking open fireplaces during warm summer months when fires weren't needed.

A pair of 17th-century dummy boards (Spanish) positioned in front of the fireplace at Castle Drogo, Devon
A pair of 17th-century dummy boards at Castle Drogo, Devon
A pair of 17th-century dummy boards (Spanish) positioned in front of the fireplace at Castle Drogo, Devon

Because the boards are typically just under life size, it has been suggested they were designed to make a room seem larger than it actually was.

Castle Drogo's pair of dummy boards on either side of the open fireplace in the Entrance Hall
Dummy boards at Castle Drogo
Castle Drogo's pair of dummy boards on either side of the open fireplace in the Entrance Hall

Witty and deceptive

In many instances, dummy boards were certainly used to orchestrate 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 – the source of great amusement for those watching.

Dummy boards may have also been used not simply to amuse, but 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."

The placement of a dummy board beneath a dark staircase or at the end of 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.

In fact, dummy boards have their origin in the Dutch tradition of 'trompe l’oeil' painting – the technique of creating a three-dimensional visual illusion on a flat surface.   

Trompe l'oeil and the art of deception

Dummy boards relate to the tradition of 'trompe l’oeil' painting – a French phrase meaning ‘deceives the eye’ – where illusionistic surfaces engage the viewer in visual games of wit and deception.

In this work, from the collection at Kingston Lacey, Dorset,  Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627–1678) experiments with the effects 'trompe l’oeil'. He uses the actual grain of the wooden panel to represent a backboard and  skillfully simulates leather straps holding a variety of three-dimensional objects.

We are tempted to reach for these:  a magnifying glass, an open text with bent pages, a comb, playing cards, a bunch of keys, a string of pearls – 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.

 

Cleverly constructed

Dummy boards were typically constructed of 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 front and back of an early 18th-century dummy board from the collection at Hinton Ampner, Hampshire
Hinton ampner dummy boards
The front and back of an early 18th-century dummy board from the collection at Hinton Ampner, Hampshire


The quality and style of the painting on the boards varies considerably. The vast majority of 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.

The painting on this Flemish dummy board, c. 1620, at Castle Drogo was probably first cut from a canvas and then mounted on a wooden board
Dummy board of girl with rattle
The painting on this Flemish dummy board, c. 1620, at Castle Drogo was probably first cut from a canvas and then mounted on a wooden board

In Britain, the vast majority of dummy boards were made by professional sign painters who made signs for shops, inns and taverns.

One exception, however, can be found in the Great Hall at Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire.

Dummy board depicting a Guardsman of the Scots Guards, 1715 - 1717, probably by Elizabeth Creed at Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire
Dummy Board
Dummy board depicting a Guardsman of the Scots Guards, 1715 - 1717, probably by Elizabeth Creed at Canons Ashby, 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.

The dummy board in the Great Hall at Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire
Dummy board
The dummy board in the Great Hall at Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire

Seeing double

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

Duplicate dummy boards of a maidservant, peeling an apple at Dyrham Park (left) and Knole (right)
Dummy boards
Duplicate dummy boards of a maidservant, peeling an apple at Dyrham Park (left) and Knole (right)

By the mid-19th century, the fashion for dummy boards had substantially waned. In a change of practice, they were sometimes placed outdoors in gardens; as a result, many succumbed 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. 

Portrait of basil Drew

Silent companions as family treasures

Basil Drewe (1894–1974) must have been particularly fond of his family's dummy boards. Drewe was the son of Mr and Mrs Julius Drewe, the first owners of Castle Drogo in Devon. He is depicted before the hall fireplace between the two Spanish dummy boards which remain in the collection. The portrait was a 70th birthday present for the sitter from his three children. It was painted by Carel Weight at Castle Drogo, where he stayed for a month while he worked on the composition.

Here is a selection of the dummy boards in our collections that are currently on show Explore

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