Trompe l’oeil and art trickery at our places

Trompe l'oeil painting at Wimpole Hall

If you’ve ever wandered through historic houses marvelling at marbled columns or wowed by exotic woods, you may have been duped. Not everything is as it seems in the places we care for.

Illusion and trickery played a major role in many decorative schemes in the past. Trompe l’oeil paintings (meaning ‘deceives the eye’) created optical illusions, false bookcases concealed secret doors and inexpensive substances mimic luxurious materials.

Here are a few of the best examples hidden in our houses.

Trompe l’oeil: the art of illusion

" [Hoogstraten’s] canvas deceives the viewer into believing we are looking through the rooms of a house. It was designed as a trick of perspective to confuse and delight, and today it still does exactly that."

Take a closer peek

Tarnya Cooper takes us up close to Samuel van Hoogstraten's illusionistic masterpiece at Dyrham Park in this video.

Tricks of the trade

Secret doors

Hidden doors and secret passages have an air of intrigue and excitement, conjuring up images of daring escapes or illicit goings-on.

Hidden doors can be found in many country houses, but they often had a more mundane reason for existing. Some may have provided quick passage to another room; others may have been installed for aesthetic reasons, for example if the door spoilt the symmetry of the room.

Wimpole Estate, Cambridgeshire, has hidden doors that are painted or wallpapered so that they blend in, making them very tricky to spot. At Overbeck’s in Devon there is a secret door in the panelling of the stairs.

The library at Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk, has this door concealed behind rows of fake books. One of the dummy books is entitled ‘La Porte’, hinting at what is hidden behind it, whilst others have humorous titles alluding to the family’s history.


Things aren’t always what they seem

Horse chanfron

Fakes and forgeries

The trade in fakes and forgeries has existed for centuries, from Roman sculptors who passed off their work as Greek sculpture, to 20th-century forger Tom Keating. Sometimes replicas are mistakenly collected as originals. This beautifully crafted replica of a medieval horse armour chanfron from Rufford Old Hall was possibly made for the 1839 Eglinton tournament, a two-day spectacle of medieval-style jousting. Afterwards some of the replica armour found its way into the hands of collectors who believed it to be genuine.

Spirit photography

Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw was also a keen amateur photographer and liked to experiment with different photographic techniques to create a range of artistic images.

This photograph, in the collection at Shaw's Corner, Hertfordshire has two ghostly figures of Shaw. It was created using a double exposure technique, where the film or photographic glass-plate was explosed to the light twice, with the sitter moving position between the two exposures.

The technique had been used before, by early photographers creating ‘spirit photography’ which purported to have captured images of ghosts.

Illusion and trickery in art have a long and diverse history and are still just as popular today. Technological improvements mean they can be more elaborate and realistic than ever. Today we can be wowed by photo-realistic paintings and amazed by augmented reality.

Celebrating a history of mischief and mayhem at Seaton Delaval Hall

Join in the Festival of Mischief 

Inspired by the history of mischief at Seaton Delaval Hall, we've created a Festival of Mischief to keep you and your family entertained during the May half-term break. There's joke writing, dressing up, weird and wonderful objects, kitchen mayhem, and much more.

Art & collections

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