Delphi dog and I had a wonderful Bank Holiday weekend. We were out morrissing with the Brackley Morris men; Delphi being cute and cuddly wearing her Brackley Morris Men collar and me flootling away on my tootling sticks. We went to Canons Ashby near Daventry to dance, a regular venue on August Bank Holiday and I popped in to say hello to George ( you remember George the Grenadier?)
And tonight my good friend Richard ( Richard York ) is giving a lecture at the Brackley Historical Society’s meeting on Historical instruments….He plays quite a goodly number so I shall nip along and see if he needs a bit of help. Altogether a nice musical time I’m having of it! Richard dresses up in appropriate costume for his performances, which range from medieval to 19th century. It’s so much fun to dress up and wear the, sometimes, beautiful costumes of the past. Even the ordinary man in the street could sometimes be dressed wonderfully.
A lot of people ask me how I can identify a dummy board by costume. That very question was put to me today by Edward, who is a curator of a museum in the North of England.
The answer of course is – it’s not reliable. Take the case of the Sweeping maids for example.
The earliest by their dress are those which seem to wear the Flemish costume of the early 17th century. We have touched on these figures in an earlier post, Cleanliness is next to Godliness.
They are some of the earliest dummy board figures still in existence and many of them bear an uncanny resemblance to each other….as if they were all modelled on the same person and painted by the same artist. ( see Cleanliness is next to Godliness )
But it is possible that these might be later figures given the fun the Georgians and Victorians had copying and inventing as they did.
How can we be sure that the figures we are looking at are not ( like Richard’s lovely costumes ) just reproductions?
This is where we have to do a bit of historical digging and check with things like letters, house inventories and wills. We don’t do this now but back in the days when people didn’t own much ( even those who had plenty of money ) they would make lists of possessions and sometimes the relative place where they were kept was recorded too. For example we know that there was a dummy board kept at the ( now ) National Trust house of Dyrham Park near Bath. It was documented in the late 17th century in a house inventory where we are told that it sat in an
‘ante hall’ at Dyrham, a small room containing nothing more than “a table, a grate, a large bird cage and a sea feather”. ( This Quiet Life Susanne M. Newstead )
It is still there today.
People would list things in minute detail when they made their wills. ” My best bed ” or ” My green kirtle with the pansy embroidery and gold lace” ( both from the will of a wealthy merchant’s wife in Suffolk). So it’s possible to put a date onto a dummy board from when they appear in such documents as these. We may not know when exactly they were made but we can say they were present in such and such a place from at the earliest …blah…. We can tell roughly when they were made if we have a bill of sale. These are more rare but they are about.
One such document is in a museum in Cheshire. Dated to 1755 and made out to a Mr. Rudd of Newcastle, this letter talks about a series of figures presumably for an inn.
“I send you enclosed for your approbation the draughts or designs of seven heads. Number seven is a squddle ( ? ) chubb faced mortal which Mr Thomas Scholes and I propose for the drawer ( a barman ), to be placed on the first landing of the stairs; he has a towel under his arm…………It would make an excellent figure but I could not afford it under two guineas, if as large as life.”
Tim Bobbin Rochdale ART gallery.
So whilst it’s seemingly easy to date a figure by costume, we can be so wrong and it’s better to look for other evidence if we can find it.
Back to the Sweeping maids. We know that this type of figure was around at the right time as letters and inventories tell us so. So does a rudimentary newspaper of the time ( Ned Ward’s London Spy ). He mentions the sweeping maid figure as early as the mid 1600’s.
Above you will see the sweeping maid who lives at Stoneleigh House in Warwickshire. There are quite a few references to her being around a while too. Compare her with the picture of the Lullingstone Sweeper a bit further down. Very alike aren’t they? And both of them Flemish 1630 or thereabouts. Or at the very least influenced by the Flemish tradition. How did they end up here?
Given the close proximity of the East of England to the low countries as they were called and the fact that it was very easy for goods, services and ideas to travel across the channel, it’s not really surprising that they are all Kentish maids ( or were before they were re-distributed – most of them still are in the East.)
Now for the oddest thing about the sweepers.
Take a look at this figure.
She lives in the open air museum in Rotterdam Holland and we are in no doubt that she is Dutch.
Now look at this one.
Not very handsome and certainly not as attractive as the figure she was modelled on. And she is still in the East of the country in Suffolk.
If you put these two side by side you can see that who ever painted the Southwold sweeper has reversed the Rotterdam figure, added a few folderols in the form of a pretty apron and a cap but that the knot on the apron is identical and the pose, apart from the hand which is rather badly painted, is the same. An amateur then?
This of course has happened before. You have seen the punter and the mopping man. ( A Second Career ) You have been introduced to several other sweepers in the post mentioned above and one or two sleeping children ( Must Try Harder). It is no doubt, still happening. It’s usually easy to spot the copies. I’ve spoken about looking at the face as a good guide and this sweeper’s face is all 19th century, not 18th at all. Before we pronounce a date for a figure we try to pull all available information together.
And then we make a guess…..ah well… ( some would say an educated one …but I’m not claiming anything ) 🙂
Dummy Board detecting…. It may have been listed under Natural Philosophy in the 19th century ( I kid you not ), but It’s not an exact science after all!