“To be or not to be…that is the question…”

The Lydiard Girl for Sandra and the cat fireboard are drying nicely in the studio. I haven’t yet had my instructions on the large fireboard, so, today we shall continue to tell you about historic figures, in the hope that you haven’t all fallen asleep and all still find it interesting ;

Those of you who don’t fancy costume or philology ( word study ) or anything Spanish… switch off your sets now 🙂

When I first started to study this art form, I was unaware of the huge diversity that is the historic dummy board and the number of subjects I would have to tackle in order to understand them better.

I am not, let me state, an expert in all the disciplines I have had to range through. If anyone reading this blog, finds a fact that they dispute or that they can correct, please do let me know and we can explore it together.

One such is the nature of the Spanish language!

Now I am pretty good in Swedish, ( and so can recognise Norwegian and Danish ) having lived there four years. I can get by in French, I can sing 🙂 in German and Italian and so recognise quite a few mots. But Spanish… apart from the few words which have a common root in Latin… I am scuppered.

So when I got a phone call from the very nice gentleman who looks after the building and the collection of goodies that is Castle Drogo in Devon, I got in my car and drove to Dartmoor to see what they’d got…..because they weren’t at all sure!

This site had been sold to the Drew family at the end of the 19th century by a Spanish banker Adrian de Murietta, a friend of the future Kind Edward VII, who was attempting to avoid the ignominy of bankruptcy by selling off the family home and treaures. Consequently many of the items decorating Castle Drogo today are of Spanish origin. Legend has it that these dummy board figures are also Spanish.

They have three dummy boards. We shall call them Juanita, Pedro, and Carmen!

The Drogo baby, Juanita 3 ft

It transpires that these three are rather a puzzle. They look very old. The stands however don’t. The costumes are indeed very historic, 17th, even 16th century and they have been at the property, which is itself only about 100 years old, despite the title ‘castle’, for that number of years. We can’t say then, that they have a good documented history of ‘belonging’ as some figures do, or being catalogued, in remote history which is a very good way of determining how old a figure is.

I went over these delightful dummy boards with a fine tooth comb…. well actually a magnifying glass!

The Drogo girl

They are canvas on wood. That is, they have canvas mounted onto a wooden backing, upon which a painting is executed. We shall come, in a later post, to these figures ( and others ) and their canvasses, when we explore the fact that it’s rumoured that dummy boards have been made from cut out portraits mounted onto a piece of wood, later in their history.

Have my previous researches thrown up any actual tradition of dummy board manufacture in 17th century Spain yet ? No…not yet. This means that if these figures are Spanish as is suggested, they may not have been made in Spain.

For a better understanding of these figures I had to do quite a bit of reading of texts on Spanish culture in the 17th century and on costume in particular. Not in Spanish I hasten to add. 😉

So – what we gleaned is – 16/17th century historic Spanish style meant that the body was a stiff and motionless frame on which a richly ornamented, skillfully wrought masterpiece of the tailor’s art could be hung! It was as if the costume formed an outer case for the body, showing different contours on the inside and outside. Gold and silver chains, jewels, enamels and precious metal lace were worn on the costume to excess. The female shape began to be exaggerated at hip and shoulder and children were not exempt from this corseting and padding. Guess what? All three Castle Drogo figures show this stilted type of dress.

For some of the 16th century, Spain was master of much of the Netherlands. { It’s a long and complicated story and I shan’t go into it here, but as you might imagine the Lowlanders didn’t like it much! 🙂 } We know that the most exquisite lace was produced in the Low Countries at this time …we have painted one of the craftswomen responsible….in the Lacemaker. So does the sort of lace exhibited on our three little children conform to the sort of thing they might be wearing if they were Spanish? Indeed it does.

NOW we get to the most interesting part and the ‘knitty- gritty’ of our problem; one that might really help identify our little chidren, who may…or may not be Spanish.

The young man appears to be a scholar by the horn book he holds in his hand. ( This was a rudimentary teaching aid covered with a thin sheet of semitransparent horn ). The alphabet on his horn book is missing the letters J, U and W and this might be indicative of a place of origin. I have more or less established that W has been, in various texts, considered a ‘foreign’ letter in modern Spanish and J may have been replaced by the ll symbol. He can’t be English or Dutch for example, for the letters would all be present from A to Z. But is he Spanish?

If anyone can help really clarify this… I would be very grateful! But for the moment, Pedro and his sisters are Spanish.

Either that or the person who painted him didn’t know their alphabet and it’s all a big mistake.

” Oh… Nigel… forsooth…I cannot seem to fit all ye alphabet onto his horn booke!”

“Er… … How vexing. Just paint a few, Claude and hope none will be incommoded by it.”

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