Trompe l’oeil and art trickery at our places
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.
" [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."
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
Belton House, Lincolnshire, has this unique set of French porcelain vessels decorated to resemble Japanese gold-painted black lacquer.
The purpose of 17th-century dummy boards is unclear, but they were sometimes used as part of practical jokes to trick people into thinking someone was in the room with them. Flicking firelight would have made them lifelike.
At Felbrigg, Norfolk, what looks like a pistol is actually a lighter. However, it does have a flintlock tinder mechanism and was made by the famous London gunsmith family, the Nocks.
This framed floral design at Dunham Massey, Cheshire, is not actually made of dried flowers, but of hair. Hairwork, as it was known, was a popular craft in the mid-nineteenth century.
A sewing box hides between the covers of this book at Greenway, Devon. Made from straw by French prisoners of war during the Napoleonic Wars, it dates from around 1810.
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.
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