A Happy Accident?

Humphrey - a gentleman c. 1730

The question I am most frequently asked when people realise that I am a devotee of the dummy board is ” how did you become involved with them?”

I have painted all my life- in water colour and oils. I sold my first painting at the age of 13 and painting has been a paying hobby for 40 years. When I was diagnosed with a rather debilitating disease at the age of 43 and it became obvious that I could no longer continue in my ( rather exacting ) career in Early Onset Dementia care, I began to cast around for something with which to fill my time.

I painted. I studied still life techniques and whilst doing so, I came across the antique form of the dummy board figure when reading about the art of trompe l’œil (which means deceiving the eye). You can see what I got up to by going to:


One day whilst thumbing through a magazine ( one of those House and Garden types ) I came across what I then thought was a photograph of a dummy board in a lady’s bathroom. He was a dapper 17th century fellow in monochrome, with a wig, a tricorn hat and a great coat. And I thought, ” I want one of those ” and being able to paint, I made one. Humphrey ( above ) was the result.

Like many people, I had seen dummy boards on my visits to Stately Homes and Historic Houses, had noted them and pushed them to the back of my mind. Well…that is what one does with them. They are there…and they are not there. That is their function.

Having made one, I wanted to know more about them and to my surprise found that there was no proper book devoted to them at all. The only work was a small pamphlet by Dr. Clare Graham put out by Shire Publications and so I devoured this and the bibliography.
Twelve years and a lot of research later I have enough information for my own book ( This Quiet Life ) and I have probably seen more dummy board figures, either in real life or virtually, than any other person alive. I have hundreds of illustrations from which to draw ( literally ) and a huge database of historic figures.

Looking again at that magazine illustration some years later, I was perplexed to find that the photo I took for a 17th century dummy board gentlemen was in fact not a dummy board at all but was made up of tiles fixed to a wall!

So I had started on this quest, purely by accident! A happy accident- for I have now become an authority on and am devoted to, this all but forgotten art form.

Dummy boards range from the absolutely charming…like the little 18th century piglet we can see at the V&A, only ten inches high, to the downright scary.. like George, the 7 feet high, 18th century Grenadier at Canons Ashby House in Northamptonshire.

The little pig I have copied for lovers of trompe l’œil many times, once in miniature at only one inch across!

I have yet to find anyone who would like a 7 foot George! 🙂

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