Archive for February, 2010

Treading the Boards


Let us pretend that we are going to the theatre!

We are, however not going to see a modern production with a mean few people in the cast, pared down scenery and costumes that might have been borrowed from a second hand shop. Oh no…we are going to the 17th century theatre!

Krumlov Theatre. One of the finest early theatres in the world.

This means that we shall have wonderful scenery, hand painted onto canvas that will unfurl with bright realism, from the ceiling; we shall have actors- and now that new fangled thing the actress! in costumes ( don’t look too closely though ) that will sparkle with jewels, froth with lace and positively dazzle with colour and texture!

And we shall have a plot that will twist and turn, stand on its head and will require many costume and scene changes, that will need fantastical effects like thunderstorms, Goddesses descending on clouds and people turning into animals.

Sounds rather like a pantomime doesn’t it?

Chateau de Malle boy with bottle 4ft c. 1700

Well of course this is where the pantomime came from ( but that is another story ).

Our performance will also need quite a few actors…crowd scenes, soldiers in regiments, nymphs and satyrs in The Gods’ train…..but hold on….isn’t this all rather labour intensive?

Ah…no…you see, a lot of the figures that you encounter won’t be drawing wages from the Company pay chest. No indeed, many of them are flat!

They are dummy board figures.

There are a few figures in the private theatre at the Chateau de Malle near Paris which were made in the early 18th century for that very place. They comprise ladies and gentleman in the finest costume of the age, in wigs and steinkirks ( cravats), panniered manteaux( frocks to us) and Fontange headdresses, ( towering confections of lace and ribbon ) and a few strange figures of little boys dressed as Pantomine characters.

Chateau de Malle Girl. c. 1700 4ft. Thanks to Professor Quero for the CDM photos.

These would have been placed at the back of the stage when the plot required a crowd, in the action. It didn’t matter that they didn’t move. The spectacle was all.

Some of this type of figure have managed to escape the theatre and we now find them for sale in antique shops and in collections in museums and Country Houses. They look a bit lost really…poor things. …divorced from the stage, they are a trifle, exaggerated and unreal. Just like the plays they were employed to decorate, really.

Chateau de Malle boy c. 1700 4 ft.

I have painted a few of them as miniatures as they are so bright and cheerful. Below is a selection of the figures from the Chateau de Malle, some of which have now gone to good homes! But maybe not as salubrious as their original one! Do think about giving a mini dummy board a good home. They take up very little room and are cheap to keep!

Girl with red fan. Chateau de Malle. c. 1700 4 inches

Note the similarity to the small children we have seen in a previous post- A Bit on the Side

These figures are not much larger and were made at roughly the same time.

Height of fashion of course!

These little figures would be wonderful additions to the miniature theatre either as extras or as figures in an audience. Equally well they would be just as at home in the dolls house or roombox as decorative firescreens ( for the summer grate remember)…or as little folk, peeping round a door or from behind a curtain. They can be purchased from

Man with Red sash c. 1700 Chateau de Malle 4 inches

Girl with blue gloves c.1700 Chateau de Malle 4 inches


Sitting Pretty


I had a commission today for a really lovely piece.

A lady who has a beautiful Dutch 17th c. dolls house wants a nice little figure to sit in the kitchen of her three storey Amsterdam merchant’s abode.

My! What a wonderful open field that might be!

There are a great many dummy boards to choose from but this lady ( who is Dutch), has seen a picture she would like me to copy as a miniature dummy board figure.

This is a painting by Caspar Netscher of a Lacemaker. c. 1662

Everyone knows the more famous contemporary painting of the Lacemaker by Vermeer. This one, in the Wallace Collection London, is less well known.

And it’s perfect for a dummy board figure.

It is a good ‘contained’ shape, no bits sticking out that are likely to be broken after a time. The colours are excellent, full of interest. The shadows are also good, nice and defined and there is plenty of detail to catch the eye. The subject is also seen in profile and this is good from the point of view of realism. She isn’t looking at you but is quietly going about her business. Catch a glimpse of her in the right light conditions and she would really be there…not taking any notice of you.

Why should it be important that this is so in this original?

Certain shapes translate well to the two dimensional, three D, in other words, some subjects of pictures are better than others at being taken out of their background and used as dummy board figures. Some subjects, therefore work better and harder than others.

There is a tradition of seated figures in dummy board production, going back to around 1662. One of the very first images ever produced in trompe l’oeil, was made by Cornelius Bisschop, the artist who has been credited with popularising the dummy board figure. He painted a work entitled “ Woman Peeling an Apple”, in 1667, which is now in the Rijksmuseum in Holland.

There are many ‘peeling girls’,as dummy boards; that is- girls sitting peeling apples, so why not a girl sitting concentrating on her lace making which of course was a big industry ( albeit ‘cottage’ ) in the low Countries in the 17th century?

The seated figure of a girl is probably one of the oldest forms of the dummy board figure you can find. They have been faked quite a bit too. Oh yes…. dummy board fakes are around. It’s usually possible to work out from the look of the thing and from the paint if it’s not the real thing.

The Chateau de Malle Peeler France c. 1690 4ft.

Anything that will fetch money, in the antique world, will be faked, whether it be a piece of Scrimshaw ( This is most commonly made out of the bones and teeth of certain whales or the tusks of walruses. It can take the form of elaborate carvings, with letters and pictures on the surface of the bone or tooth, with the engraving being highlighted with paint or some other pigment or a Bow ( 18th c. English ) porcelain figurine.

There was quite a spate, in the 1930’s, of faking these figures, especially the small pairs of children we introduced in a previous post.

A Bit on the Side

and it takes some working out to spot them. But spot them we can. Here is a fake for example.

A faked 20th c. ( possibly ) figure of a 17th c. girl

I know it’s not fair…that was an easy one! But one has to start somewhere!

Rather a little Madam isn’t she?

Next? Shall we go to the Theatre?

The Girl in the Red Dress


Dummy boards in themselves are a strange phenomenon. As I have said in a previous post, to some people, they can appear rather creepy – sinister even.

Poky Parlours and Creepy Corridors

I think it’s a case of you either love them or hate them. There seems to be no half measure.

So the tale I am going to tell today may add a further frisson to that already strange antique- the dummy board figure.

It concerns, our little girl Magdalena- the girl in the red dress we introduced to you in the last post and who appears at the top of every page of this blog.

It goes like this….. some while ago we went for a day out to Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, that beautiful and venerable Stately Home owned by the Dukes of Devonshire. ( For those of you who are not British…no…it isn’t in Devon in the West Country, it’s in the Midlands. It’s a long and complicated story but the Duke of this or the Earl of that doesn’t necessarily have a Baronial home in the county from which he takes his title.)

Anyway – As we were walking round I spotted the most wonderful picture of a little girl in a red dress which was displayed on its own on an easel. This was Magdalena de Vos painted by her father, the famous 17th century Flemish artist, Cornelis de Vos, when she looks about three years of age. She was incredibly realistic and had the three dimensional ‘look’ of a dummy board. I managed to get a post card ( and a photo – photography is allowed at Chatsworth- WONDERFUL…so many places forbid it!) of her and brought it home.

Magdalena de Vos- the photo we took at Chatswoth

I decided that she would indeed make a good subject for a figure and I took out the post card to have a good look at it with a view to putting paintbrush to palette.

Then – suddenly… I realised, that I had seen this image somewhere before. It teased at the edge of my memory; I knew that I had seen something very like it fairly recently. Like it- and not like it.

I have previously mentioned my friend and fellow dummy board fancier Dr. Clare Graham who wrote the Shire pamphlet on Dummy boards back in the 80’s. I also said that I had read this little book from cover to cover and when I next consulted Clare’s book …there on one of the pages was a dummy board of little Magdalena…..or was it?

Sadly, the booklet is only in black and white, so I couldn’t tell what colour the little Magdalena copy was but after proper comparison, it did indeed prove to be a copy, not a slavish one; there were some differences, the hair was different, more 19th century, the apron was slightly changed and the beautiful needle lace which edges the 17th century Magdalena’s starched ruff was not painted in such detail. The biggest difference was the face. It was a much more 19th century face and it was a slightly older child.

The 19th c. Magdalena by an unknown dummy board artist

It had been in a private collection in England for many years and Clare had photographed it for her booklet. She had not realised that the inspiration for this Victorian figure was at Chatsworth ( even though we might have guessed that it was based on a painting, as many 19th century dummy boards were ), and until Stephen and I turned up at Chatsworth that day and took a photo, her origins were unknown.

So two people, 150 years apart had looked at that wonderful painting by de Vos and thought that it would make a good dummy board!

And not just me and that distant Victorian artist!

Whilst surfing the web a while ago I came across a BLUE version! Another dummy board of this image had been made by a Californian trompe l’œil artist. What is it about Magdalena de Vos which makes people want to paint her?

She is a pretty little girl with a mischievous face and it is the most wonderful 17th century painting…but for one thing. The hands are poorly painted. They are gnarled and old rather like an arthritic old man’s.

They bothered me, those hands. In my version, I had to paint them chubby and childlike, but I wondered why Cornelis de Vos had not executed them so professionaly when, all other detail in the picture was perfect.

ONE explanation might be right there in the symbolism of the picture. I don’t know if there are many pictures of this little girl painted by her Father. I think that I have found a few. There are pictures of her as a younger child but she doesn’t seem to age much….if of course we are looking at the same child in each picture.There doesn’t seem to be much consistency or indeed, agreement on the dates of some of Cornelis de Vos’s paintings either, amongst experts, so how old are the different children we see?

Magdalena and her elder brother 1622.? Note- she is wearing the same skirt!

Magdalena is holding cherries in her apron ( as she is here too- left). Cherries, in early pictures often signify innocence and, sadly, death in infancy. There is a painting in the parlour at Lullingstone Castle of a young child of the family whom we know did not reach adulthood. He is holding a bunch of cherries

Perhaps Magdalena didn’t get past her childhood and her father painted her hands, not from life… but from some other source. Maybe the cherries were added later? Many, many children did not get past infancy in the 17th century.

We cannot prove it as we don’t know her history..but it’s a thought.

A very sad one.

Silent and Deadly….


Someone has just asked me how the dummy board got its name and if it is modern. I will admit that it does sound modern and because the word ‘dummy’ is perceived to be an American one, we might think that it is an epithet from the U.S.A.

It was first used in the 19th century by an Englishman. He was one of those gentleman scholars I talked about in my very first post, who took an interest in this form of antique folk art. Before this, these figures had been called, picture boards, cut out boards or referred to by what they depicted, sweeping maids, for example.

A more modern word for them seems to be silent companion. Indeed, they are. At least the human or small animal, dog or cat for example, are.

It was said that they may have arrived at this name, some time in the early 20th century perhaps, when it was said that these figures were placed at the side of a crib to calm a fractious baby. Mmmmm? Some of them I think, were more likely to frighten it out of its wits!

The Oakwell girl, standing by a 17th century crib.

Another explanation for the name silent companion is that they were made to be ‘stand ins’ at the tea table when the hostess was called away. What a fuss!

Another idea is that they were made as companions for the grieving mother after the death of a child.

We have said that at first, these figures were very expensive and the sort of person who might have commissioned one probably didn’t have much to do with their infant children. Children of wealthy housesholds would have been brought up by nurses, nannies and surrogate mothers. Parents would have been distant and in the main, rather disinterested.

It might be that this idea took root in the 19th century; a time when ‘mourning’ was taken to a high art form, reinforced by the behaviour of the Queen, Victoria, after the death of her beloved Prince consort, Albert.

One would wear black for a time, progressing through purple to lavender and then to brighter colours after a while. Mourning jewellery ( containing locks of hair or small likenesses of the deceased ) became compulsory. The house was decked with black crepe, lights were kept low, voices hushed. Laughter was banned.

No wonder Victoria was said to be ” not amused”!

I have to say that I don’t subscribe to any of these theories. I think that dummy boards were made, not because they depicted a dead child ( Would you wish to be reminded in such a manner?), nor because they were the antique equivalent of the baby mobile, but because they were decorative, fashionable and showed you were a person of great taste and culture, if you owned one.

We have several..( ahem ! ) what does that say about us?

The dummy board figure at the top of our PastMastery blog heading (on the right up at the top ) is known as Magdalena. I painted her about 5 years ago and she has become a fixture at the head of our staircase. She is a well travelled little madam, coming with us to shows and with me to lectures and to demonstrations.

Magdalena de Vos 1630. 39 inches, Oil on MDF

She is painted on MDF, in oils and she is crackle varnished to make her look old.

I did originally paint her to sell ( and I have painted her in miniature too- which I have sold ), but Stephen, my husband is so fond of her that he won’t allow her to be offered for sale.

Magdalena de Vos 1630 3 inches, Oil on wood.

So she stays with us and decorates our own house, as does the 5 ft dummy board of Stephen in early 17th century dress that I painted at the same time. I have to say, they frightens the life out of window cleaners!

Stephen on the History page of PastMastery

Next…. a spooky story concerning our Magdalena.

Shabby Chic


yes - a nice chair but- Oh for goodness sake...paint it!

I sat and read a glossy magazine last evening. I’ve mentioned before that I first came to dummy boards through a ‘House and Garden’ type magazine and I do occasionally find a nice fireboard in them. I don’t read them very often- in fact I used to get a few of them on subscription- but now I am more ‘picky’ and choose them for what might be inside, advertised on the cover.


I groan out loud when I see yet another article on how to impart charm to your house by adding a distressed and rusty garden chair, to the bedroom – no one tells you not to put anything on it for fear of

  • Snagging that something on the rusty screws or bits of metal sticking out- remember …this thing has been outside for 20 years!
  • Getting rust on your favourite cashmere jumper!
  • Making rusty marks on the carpet from the feet.( Oh course, we are not meant to have carpet !)

I recoil, as I did last evening, when I see an article in which rustic and mangled meat safes or some other such ‘boxes’ are used as kitchen furniture. Dull, scruffy and bitty was my thought. And to be honest, not really all that useful. They aren’t as practical as a proper cupboard.

But then, how much of fashion is practical ? The secret is to find something that is both novel, and practical, whilst also being decorative and well made.

We seem to have forgotten all about- well made!

That we cannot say about the historic dummy board.

They were, in their day, novel ( and fun ) practical ( see the previous post – and more of the same to come ) whilst also being decorative ( most of them ) and well made ( in the main). And they are still here to tell the tale, in some cases almost 400 years later.

I can see the attraction of something that has been well loved for centuries. However, it seems to me ( correct me if I am wrong ), those things that have been well loved are generally in a fairly good state now. Our house is full of such things. They are all “fit for the purpose.”

In the past you would have been laughed out of the establishment if the item you were selling was not “fit for the purpose”.

Thank you Malcolm for the photo of your 'shabby chic' sweeping maid! Possibly English, late 18th century. Probably been left outside...

How different is our own age!

No doubt I will return to this theme later.

The Working Woman


I went to Waitrose today. It was empty. Last week it was very busy at this time. It was half term you see, everyone was out and about. Now they have all gone back to school and the women, back to work.

Today we shall take a look at that group of dummy boards which work for a living; those that depict The Working Woman.

They come in all shapes and sizes ( as do women themselves ). We have seen one already on this blog- the candle girl. In

“A Taste for the Tiny”.

So we’ll take her as our example. She is obviously a servant girl. Her dress tells us that. She wears an unadorned apron- by that I mean no lace or embroidery, which is probably made of canvas. She has a fichu at her bosom ( a scarf tucked into her bodice at the top ) and the colours of her dress are quite drab. Note the similarity to the French girl below.. the colours are the same – and, apart from her very nice pointy red shoes, they are wearing the same sort of clothes.

Girl with Lit Candle. English c. 1750 Private Collection in the U.K. 5ft

The figure in the previous post is an identical figure in a collection in the U.S. The face, whoever she was; the stance and the clothes are the same in each of the 5 figures I have seen of this type. They were obviously made by the same person.

This happens quite a lot in the study of the dummy board….that a figure is repeated over and over, sometimes with very slight variations and we can begin to see a ‘hand’ in the making of them though we rarely have any idea to whom the hand belongs. It is unusual to find a reliably signed figure but we can make an educated guess that certain figures belong to particular makers.

Just to give you a little background- women of the past, of the lower classes ( like our candle girl ), worked the whole of their lives. There was no universal education, no maternity benefit, no daycare, no choice in the matter. If you had a child, ( and there was no reliable way to avoid motherhood, should you not be that way inclined ) – you took it to work with you or you left it with a relative, obviously not before it was weaned.. When the child was old enough, and it probably hadn’t achieved an age we would deem grown up enough, in our own time, it too went to work. That is if it survived the perils of infancy. On in eight children in the 18th century, did not reach their teens!

There were few ‘approved’ jobs for girls in the 17th and 18th centuries. Most went into service. It was also very easy for them to be taken advantage of ( in many ways- not just that way ). THE catastrophe every girl feared most, was to be dismissed for a very small misdemeanour or for simply nothing at all, without a reference.

Without that, you could not get another job. It was a short step to penury and starvation, the gutter and to prostitution. They had it tough.

If you were lucky, you managed your life quite well. You worked for decent people who cared about you. If you were exceptionally fortunate, you had master who thought so much of you that he would commission a painting of you. There are quite a few well known paintings of servants, the most famous might be the one Hogarth painted of his staff.

The Servants of William Hogarth.

Maybe some wealthy people thought that it would be a good idea to have dummy boards painted of their servants. They could be left around the house, to make it look – maybe – as if you had more servants than you really possessed! 18th century one upmanship!

Servant Girl With a spit. French c. 1750 By kind permission and copyright of the SA Oliver Trust, Chertsey Museum

It has been written,( but I must say that there is no actual evidence for this, ) that servant figures were made to be left in empty houses to make it seem as if there was someone looking after the building.

Our candle girl is a lifesized and very effective figure that was made to actually hold a real candle. ( What a fire hazard!)

Imagine peering in at the window and seeing this figure in the twilight of an unlit 18th c. house. You would definitely think she was the real thing. And if you were a burglar… you might think twice about committing the crime – and pass on.

“Lion About”


I’m back from a fun and successful show in Thame.

I think at last people are beginning to get the hang of this miniature dummy board thing! It has been a bit of struggle in some cases, to get the message across that,

  1. They are hand painted ( yes- even though there are signs everywhere saying so ).That every single one is painted in oils on wood and not decoupaged. That they cut out and finished by hand and, as a consequence, each one is unique.
  2. The full sized ones were an often seen item in the real homes of the past from the 17th century onwards and were as decorative as a painting for the wall, so why shouldn’t they be represented in the small world too?
  3. There is no such thing as a dolls house or room box that is ‘unsuitable’ for a dummy board
  4. That, for those who feel that three dimensional dolls are not what they want, dummy boards might be the alternative, in the 1/12th world.

The dogs and cats were particularly admired this weekend and I don’t have many left! Better make some more.

Gentleman and his dogs. Miniatures of 19th century dummy boards. 5 and 2 inches

The most common type of dummy board figure you might have seen ( besides the group we talked about in the last post), if you had been born at the right time in the right place, would have been those of animals, particularly dogs and cats. They are small, very endearing, were easily painted and don’t necessarily have to be all that realistic for us to be taken in. Above all they were cheaper than the larger human figures.

You’ll have noticed I started this post in the ‘present perfect tense’… that implies you would have seen them. Today they are less common.

What has happened to them?

They are still around but not in the numbers we might expect. The fact that many of them were small had led to them being discarded when they got a bit knocked about a bit around the edges. It’s much easier to throw a tatty small dog board on the fire than a 7 foot soldier like George!

Animals were often used as fire boards, those screens that decorated the summer fire grate, and constant putting them in and taking them out over the seasons may have led to damage. They might have suffered damp from rain entering the chimney or they might simply have gone up in smoke when a stray spark caught them.

Of course, there are still some very nice examples of dogs and cats just lyin’ about- doing what dogs and cats do best.

The Toleware Terrier. Private Collection in the U.K. 10 inches

But there are very few lions! Yes I did say- lions.

Who would want such a large feline decorating their fireplace?

Well…. they weren’t originally for the fireplace. Some of the smaller examples might have been used as summer firescreens. I suppose they would have been quite a talking point over tea of an afternoon.

They were, it is thought, most likely, to have been the 19th century equivalent of the “point of sale display”.

Today we have photographic images for everything from Kentucky Fried Chicken to Car exhausts! We are bombarded with images, on lamposts, walls and fences. We have ‘A’ boards and billboards, noticeboards and signboards. They are pasted onto windows and are strung up over the road ( too many and too intrusive- if you ask me!) Adverts are everywhere! Not so in the dim and distant past.

Adverts were there, of course, but not in such great numbers and they would have been ‘hand made’. We are all familiar with pub signs; The Dog and Duck, the White Horse, the King’s Head, the Mole and Chicken ( Mole and Chicken?)

In the days when few people could read,a sign board was a very helpful thing…. a gold crown for a goldsmith, a pestle and mortar for an apothecary and, possibly a lion for a circus performance, a fair or sideshow or at the pleasure garden.( More about this form of past time later ).

How much better to have a real ( ish) looking ( if a bit small- that roar doesn’t fool anyone! )painted wooden lion, cut out and sitting on the grass advertising your show. And much less unpredictable than the real thing!

The Circus Lion. English 19th c. Private Collection in the U.K. 30 inches.

Have you flossed today Leo?

Red Boy, Yellow Boy?


I have just had an email from Denise in America. Thank you Denise. She suggests I may have made a ‘mistake’ in one of my captions.

This is in the last post about the mass produced figures of children.

Red Boy, Yellow Girl. English c. 1700 Private Collection

And so I’ve added another photograph of another pair of small early figures for you to look at.

Yes it does seem odd doesn’t it? They both look like girls!

In fact the figure on the left is a boy and is a brother for the one illustrated in the last post, A Bit on the Side.

It was standard practice in the past, up to the early 20th century in fact, to dress small boys in skirts until they were about 6 years of age. Many of the earlier figures wear skirts.There is a beautiful dummy board of a young man of about 1630 in the Victoria and Albert Museum store who most definitely might be mistaken for a girl. But no, he is most certainly a boy. Here is a picture of him at the V&A website.

The Victoria and Albert boy with arrow

When I first started on the road to my discovery of The Dummy Board, I had no idea how many avenues I would have to explore. I had guessed that I might have to do a lot of research into costume, maybe look at a lot of early portrait oils, become familiar with a few texts about how people lived then. Little did I know how many subjects I would really have to have an insight into- albeit a surface gloss.

Many years later, many books, emails, articles, conversations with ‘experts’, visits to museums, country houses, antique shops and private homes later…….. I have ranged over an amazing number of disciplines; from 17th century social history to superstitions; the scientific make up of old paint to the old painters themselves; from lace to languages, from military uniforms to masquerades, from wood to wars, diaries to dining -and cartoons to – yes costume.

A fascinating journey it has been. There is still much more to learn I’m sure. The study of the dummy board is an open ended subject. I hope you are enjoying the trip!

And speaking of trips…I am off to the Thame Dollshouse Fair tomorrow, so the blog will be quiet for a couple of days.

Next…..? Let’s tackle a lion- or two!

A Bit on the Side


Young boy with bird c. 1700 Private Collection.English

Now and again someone lets me know, particularly when I am giving talks about dummy boards, or attending a show with my little versions, about a figure that is new to me; one that is lurking unseen in someone’s private collection, languishing in a museum store or is propped up in a broom cupboard in a Stately Home.

At an estimate, in this country, there are possibly, out there in the ether, a further 150 to 200 figures of varying kinds, to discover. I have seen, in the United Kingdom alone, over 250 already and that makes the dummy board quite a rare decorative antique. When viewed alongside, say, the numbers of beautiful pieces of historic porcelain there are in collections around the country, private or otherwise, the antique dummy board is ( if you will forgive me ) the’ truffle’ of the decorative world.

Often buried, they come up covered in muck, it takes a special sort of animal to discover them and they can be highly prized.

The type I usually find nowadays are the small figures ( less than 4 feet ) of the boy and girl from around the end of the 17th century, the beginning of the 18th. These were made in large numbers, what we might call in our day and age, ‘mass produced’. However, they were all painted by hand and cut with hand tools. Quite a job in the dark ages before the incandescent light bulb and the power tool!

Now as much as I love to find these figures, they are all much of a muchness, in that they were painted to a pattern, in the same few colours with the same features and just a handful of different poses and objects of clothing to distinguish them one from another. The girls with their fans, their skirts delicately held by an elegantly gloved hand, their hair piled high in the Fontange with lace and ribbon adornments; the boys with tricorn hats worn or held under the arm,or feathers in their hair; beautiful lace at throat and wrist and holding maybe a kitten, a bird or a puppy.

Girl with red gloves C. 1700 Private Collection. English

They are found as far flung as Hong Kong and Iceland! They were, however, all made here in this little island and even more amazing- all within about a mile of each other!

Clever craftsmen, carpenters and those artists we talked about in Great Good Fortune, the sign painters and coach painters, all congregated in the Saffron Hill area of central London and when they were not…..well yes…. making signs and painting coaches, they were making these dummy boards. A bit on the side I suppose.

They would be sold to prettify the unsightly black hole that was the fireplace in the summer months, as summer fire screens. Never would something so originally expensive, made of wood, painted in combustible oil paints and finished with flammable varnishes, bevelled at the edges and looking so cute, be used as a fire screen for the lit grate. And don’t let anyone tell you, that this is what they were made for. We cannot imagine how many of these figures might have gone up in smoke over the centuries. They would certainly have been a fire hazard and our forebears were much more anxious than we, with the fire engine at the end of a call on our mobile phones!

Why would people think that this is what they were for?

In the late 19th century, when there was a bit of a resurgence in the fashion for this sort of decorative item ( well….let’s face it, it was a case of let’s fill the place with just about anything we can lay our hands on, at this time ), a rather influential French antiques dealer placed two of these figures either side of his very large and imposing fireplace, to be seen ALL year round. Boy facing one way…girl the other…and it caught on.

A bit on the side, you might say.

Poky Parlours and Creepy Corridors


The Masquerade girl very early 18th c. Private Collection in the U.K.

So now we know the how and we know the why….. it’s time to do a bit more what!

What through the history of the dummy board, have people done with them? What are they for?

We have just touched on the fact that, when they were first made they were purely visual jokes. In order to fool people into thinking they were real thing they had to be realistically painted, life sized or nearly life sized and they had to be put into the right light conditions.

This of course was easy in the infancy of the dummy board because houses were dark, poorly lit and were full of nooks and crannies. People were not used to ‘visual stuff’ crowding in on them as we are today. Possessions were fewer ( even in wealthier households ) and the science of photography had not sharpened the edges of perception. People were not used to suspending disbelief as we are in our own day and age.

It’s a fact that in the early days of the theatre, people who watched a ‘villain’ misbehaving on the stage would often throw catcalls and rubbish at the poor unfortunate. Not because there was nowhere to dispose of their rubbish ( though this is true too), but because they really believed he was really, truly a baddie and that this was real life. In the same vein, they would cry unreservedly at the supposed ‘demise’ of their hero and it was even known for the audience to invade the stage and try to intervene in the action if they were not happy with how things were going for their hero. ( Heroines, by default, were all male anyway!)

So it would have been easy to deceive the onlooker into thinking that the shadowy person lurking at the end of a dimly lit corridor was really watching them.

Imagine catching sight of the above Masquerade girl ( when she was new and much more sombre) in a dark lane, with nothing but her lantern, which would have been attached to an iron fixing held in her right hand. No street lighting…no car headlamps… and very little light spilling from the surrounding buildings. You might have been forgiven for thinking that you had seen a ghost!

So that was the dummy board’s earliest function. To make you jump, to make you shiver, or to make you smile. Once this illusion had been penetrated and the ‘trick’ revealed the viewer would realise he had been treated to a great joke and must go in awe of the perpetrator!

The above figure called by me, The Masquerade Girl, because she would have been used as an advert for a Masquerade ( a kind of fancy dress party ), is a very rare survivor. There would once have been hundreds of them. Like everything else ,in time, they fell out of fashion.

People often say to me that they don’t like dummy boards because they find them slightly disturbing and creepy.

Good – in the main..that is what many of them are meant to be. Like dear George, it’s good to see that they are still doing their job all this time later!

Even in miniature they can be quite effective – in the right spot.

They're watching you!