If you enjoy visiting country houses, now and again you’ll have probably come across the odd dummy board. ‘Dummy boards’ are flat, oil-painted trompe l’oeil figures. They are often life-sized (though sometimes smaller) and were placed around the house in halls, corridors, by fireplaces and on staircases. According to the Victoria and Albert Museum, they originated in the early 17th century and were popular until the 19th century when they fell out of fashion. The figures usually resemble servants, soldiers, children and animals.
The edges of the boards were chamfered (a type of bevelling) to increase the illusion of three-dimensions. Having read up on dummy boards, I get the impression that today we really don’t have a full understanding of what they were used for. One theory is that they were an amusing form of practical joke.
Another is that they were used as an early form of home security, to give the impression that a house was occupied when it wasn’t. I’m taking that one with a pinch of salt. Getting inside the 17th and 18th-century mind can be difficult. Sometimes, I think that in the modern age, we desperately need a ‘reason’ for anything or anything. I suspect that dummy boards were really no more than fashionable, whimsical diversions in an age very different to our own.
Dummy boards do come up at auction from time to time, though it’s possible that many of them are actually 19th-century or even later. I was charmed by this splendid ’18th-century’ chevalier (left) that came up for sale at Bonhams in 2011. Very sensibly the auctioneers catalogued it as Edwardian, which I think is very likely. It has a rather chocolate-box quality to it and, in the way that tobacconists used to place three-dimensonal figures of Native Americans and Scottish foot soldiers in kilts outside their shops, I suspect that many so-called ‘dummy boards’ were actually some form of shop sign.
Sadly, there are hardly any books available on the subject but, if you are interested in finding out more Claire Graham’s Dummy Boards and Chimney Boards is worth a look. Amoret and Christopher Scott’s Dummy Board Figures, first published in 1966, would also be an essential addition to your antiques reference library – if you can find a copy.