Stepping Out

So here we are!

The Equinox has come and gone. We now have extra daylight and are all one hour more tired because of less slumber. The birds are singing as madly as they can in order to keep us from sleep and the grass is growing like fury, filling what rest we do get with dreams of Mad March mowing.

It’s nearly April…and so, Easter, but we are not one of those households that, pull our shorts from the drawer as soon as there is a glimmer of warm sun. Ohhh Nooo. We are paid up members of the ” May be out ” club and we cast n’er a clout.

Ever since we moved to this county, it has been Summerless. Three years – and we haven’t yet experienced a Northamptonshire ‘*Pabby’, known for some inexplicable reason as a drought πŸ™‚

Just rain and cold. So we are owed one are we not?

IN anticipation of this, I shall today talk about Garden Dummy Boards; those figures designed to be kept outside, to decorate the grass platts ( the lawns ) of the wealthy landowner, to fill the nooks and crannies of the Pleasure Garden with people and to impart a bit of fun to the flower beds.

We don’t really know when people started using pretend statuary in the garden but I suspect it was in the 17th century. Everything seems to have been tried in the 17th century!

The stumpwork garden. Embroidery showing the 17th century garden

This, of course was when large gardens were becoming the ‘thing to have’ and when it began to be fashionable to show what taste and wealth, one had. It was, I suppose, the IPhone of the age! Only less portable.

So what would people wish to have in their garden in the way of dummy boards?

Anything that could, in true trompe l’oeil fashion, fool the unwary onlooker.

Gardeners, of course. If you had one or two real ones, it couldn’t do any harm to pop a few pretend ones around the place to make it look as if you forked out a veritable fortune to keep yer’ weeds down, ‘yer pineapples prinked and ‘yer muck raked. Well of course you did, but there’s no harm in over egging the pudding is there?

Mid 18th century gardener at Wilberforce House Yorkshire. 50 inches.

Talking of pineapples; these too were very fashionable, as dummy boards for the garden. The first real one came to England in the beginning of the 17th century and it is said the first home grown one was produced at Dorney Court near Windsor, and presented to King Charles the 2nd by the gardener there in the mid 1660’s

I suppose it was a bit like the craze for garden windchimes that we had at the end of the last century. ( PLEASE…we have seen the last of them..I hate them with avengeance!…nasty antisocial things.) At least pineapples are quiet!

The Dorney Court Pineapple- a lost dummy board figure

Figures from the Commedia dell’arte appeared as dummy boards. (This is short for “Commedia dell’arte dell’improvvisazione” β€” “comedy of the art of improvisation”) a professional form of theatre that began in Italy in the mid-15th century. It was characterized by masked “types” and improvised performances. It continued its popularity in France during the 17th century, and evolved into various entertainments across Europe. For example, pantomime which flourished in the 18th century, owes its genesis to the character types of the commedia).

This type of board was popular in the large garden. One well documented private garden in Holland had a whole troupe of figures, Harlequin and Columbine, Pantalone and the Doctor, Pulchinella and Pierrot. These were used in the theatre which was built in the garden but also appeared dotted here and there amongst the potted plants.

The theatre at Zijdebalen, Holland with Commedia figures

We have already met a few of this type of figure in a previous post, Treading the Boards. Although these particular figures were meant for the theatre, some very like them will have been seen around the gardens of Europe.

Pantalone perhaps...?

Soldiers too were common out of doors.

Why ever should it be that this type of figure came to be associated with the garden?

We have plenty of evidence in the form of diaries, letters and newspaper articles of the day, to help us in the search for an answer to this question.

In the United Kingdom today, professional soldiers are not used in any ‘civilian peacekeeping’ role though we only have to look outside our borders to see that, eleswhere, the practice is still carried on. And it was not always so here..

Of course we didn’t have a standing army as such till the 17th century….just a rag-bag of assorted types with pitchforks and the odd musket. When we did get a proper trained bunch of men and they were not engaged in bone fide fighting, we used them as police and they were often to be seen at The Pleasure Garden ( a very rowdy place sometimes), keeping order.

The little soldier at Harewood House Yorkshire. By kind permission of the owners.

Not such a long step from The Public Pleasure Garden to the Private one.

You might too have seen, Gods and goddesses, hermits, Green men, nymphs and shepherds, peacocks and lions ( that too we have explored in Lion About ).

Large lion in private collection 19th c.

But alas, owing to the nasty nature of, in particular, British weather, ( back to that again) they are nearly all rotted long ago.

Ah no… there are still a few gardeners about….they are a hardy sort! Wrinkled and chipped, weathered and a bit wonky, they are still to be found in the odd dummy board collection.

And let’s face it…anyone who wants to collect such things…has to be a bit odd….?


The 2nd gardener at Wilberforce House Yorks. 1750, 50 inches

*The Dialect and Folklore of Northamptonshire by Thomas Stebnbebg

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