In the Long Gallery at Chirk Castle, two small, pale children stand coyly either side of the carved Rococo chimneypiece. The boy wears a black hat and carries a hobby horse stick in one hand, while the girl has a lace- edged apron and holds a basket of apples and walnuts on her slender arm. They’re undeniably disturbing – life- size and life-like, but with a cold look in their blank, staring eyes. Despite their eerie, almost ghostly quality, decorative cut-out figures like these Dutch examples (c1650–1699) known as ‘dummy boards’ haunt stately homes up and down the land. Grand rooms and staircases are populated with these mysterious flat oil-painted figures on canvas and wooden boards – enigmatic servants, children, animals, women peeling apples and soldiers. They lurk in dark corners, lean nonchalantly against walls or linger silently and serenely beside fireplaces.
Antiques dealer Luke Honey muses on the mystery of these spooky Georgian decorative figures…
‘Dummy boards are really odd and a bit sinister,’ admits Dr Gabriella de la Rosa, lead editor of curatorial content online for the National Trust, who has studied the Trust’s collection of dummy boards in depth. ‘There’s ambivalence. What are they or aren’t they? The most uncanny and unsettling in my opinion are the pair of children at Chirk Castle. Those really creep me out! To compound the weirdness, there were often duplicates – they were mass-produced, so there are identical examples of these children in our collection at Hinton Ampner in Hampshire.’
What were dummy boards used for?
Dummy boards are not easily categorised. ‘They’re not quite paintings – they’re not really furniture. Perhaps they’re ‘decorative arts’? They’re in between,’ explains Gabriella. ‘As a result, they haven’t been subject to study in the same way as other antiques have.’
One thing we know for certain is that they first became fashionable in the 17th century and have their roots in Holland, where the trend for playful trompe l’oeil paintings – designed to deceive the eye – evolved into life-size dummy board figures, intended, perhaps in part, to trick and entertain.
‘The elite would amuse themselves with artworks that blurred the line between reality and illusion,’ reveals Gabriella. ‘The fashion spread to Britain and there are lots of examples of Dutch dummy boards in historic British homes, but there was also a tradition of British-made dummy boards, too, often painted by sign- writers who created signs for shops and inns,’ says Gabriella.
‘It’s not entirely clear what dummy boards were for,’ she continues. ‘There was no electricity back then – they might seem obviously fake to us nowadays, but in a grand, dark staircase, lit only by candlelight, they could create a very powerful impression of somebody being there. They were certainly used to startle and entertain guests and perhaps they were sometimes used to deter burglars, too, by giving the impression that somebody was at home.’
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They’ve been nicknamed by some as ‘silent companions’ – but Gabriella doesn’t think the theory that they were used to ward off loneliness is very compelling. ‘The 17th century was a very different time – we have to leave our way of thinking behind,’ she adds.
Dummy boards were sometimes placed near fireplaces, but they’re not to be confused with painted ‘chimney boards’, which tend to be smaller and were specifically designed to prevent draughts and decorate empty fireplace openings during the summer months.
The trend continued throughout the 18th century, but faded in the 19th century. Many dummy boards were demoted to the garden, where they deteriorated in the sunshine and rain. As a result, antique dummy boards in good condition are rare today and can command high prices. An 18th- century board depicting a lady sweeping fetched £1,800 at Dreweatts last year, while a mid 19th-century French toleware dummy board stick stand, painted to give the illusion of a small dog, went for £580 at Sworders.
How much are antique dummy boards worth?
Prices vary according to rarity, quality and age. Windsor House Antiques at Barnwell has a lovely mid 18th-century tapestry dummy board of a young gallant in stock for £1,680. Meanwhile, you can find a pair of early 18th-century dummy boards for £6,850 at Wick Antiques.
With so many dummy boards in the National Trust’s collection, it’s hard for Gabriella to choose a favourite, but she says she is ‘most fond’ of a uniformed guardsman of the Scots Guards at Canons Ashby in Northamptonshire. ‘Most dummy boards were made by sign-writers but this one was painted by Elizabeth Creed (1642–1728) who was the cousin of the poet John Dryden. I’d love to know more about her,’ she says.
Who was the guardsman? Why is he on eternal duty in the Great Hall of Canons Ashby? Is he there to deter intruders? As a tongue-in-cheek greeting for guests? We’ll never know, and that’s part of the charm.
The best books about dummy boards:
- The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell (Raven Books, 2017) is a dummy board-inspired ghost story.
£8.99, Waterstones – Buy it now
Where to see antique dummy boards:
- Snowshill Manor, Gloucestershire
An impressive 17th-century dummy board depicting a woman with a sword (possibly vigilance) by the Dutch School.Dyrham Park, Gloucestershire nationaltrust.org.uk
Dyrham has a dummy board of a maidservant peeling apples. An identical one can be found at Knole in Kent.
- The V&A, London
A great selection of dummy boards, including a cute piglet feeding from a bowl (c1750–1800).
- Chirk Castle, Wrexham
Rococo carved chimneypiece and dummy board figures of children at the chapel end of the Long Gallery.
- Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire
Scots Guardsman painted between 1715 and 1717 in the Great Hall of Canons Ashby.