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.

4 Responses to “A Bit on the Side”

  1. Pastmastery's Blog Says:

    […] A Bit on the Side […]

  2. Pastmastery's Blog Says:

    […] figure is a mass produced one ( you remember those from A Bit on the Side?) and he has lost his girl! He is only about three feet tall, as you can see from this photo, where […]

  3. The Real Thing? « Pastmastery's Blog Says:

    […] That these are the most often seen dummy boards, that they were mass produced and that they found their way into collections all over from, Hong Kong to Iceland ( A bit on the side ) […]

  4. The Fashion for Fripperies. « Pastmastery's Blog Says:

    […] Most dummy boards circulating in the auctions of the United States are 19th century imports from Europe or are American copies of 19th century figures. Those that are really old tend to be in collections of museums which hang onto them. Some have been sold out of those collections lately but few are really significant historically. The exception to this might be the pairs of late 17th/early 18th century children figures which we have talked about before. These were made in London by sign and coach painters in the area known as Saffron Hill, where these artisans collected and are what we might call nowadays, mass produced. ( As much as anything not made by machine can be.) We have spoken about these before in A Bit on the Side. […]

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