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.
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.
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.
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 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.