“Make mine a half!”

Someone has just sent me an e mail telling me how very informative my blog is, thank you for that Alan. I try to be interesting, informative but also fun. Hence my naughty little tales from the 17th century! He goes on to say that he had always thought that just looking at art work and pictures a trifle boring, but that studying the images I find to write about, is far from tedious.I would have to agree wouldn’t I since I love dummy boards in all their incarnations and sometimes their stories, their life history is fascinating.

Who would have thought, for example, that even such an exalted figure as Rembrandt would have mined the rarefied artistic seam that is the dummy board? See Must try Harder Or that Gainsborough felt it a sufficiently kosher form that he too, had a go at it?

Yes he did. That master of frills and fripperies; that most perceptive portrayer of people; that dab hand dauber made himself a dummy board.

Self portrait Gainsborough

Thomas Gainsborough was born in 1728 in Sudbury in Suffolk which is in the East of England. What did we say in the last post about the east of England? That it was in close proximity to the Low countries ( Holland and Belgium ) where dummy board manufacture had begun in the late 16th/ early 17th century; that artistic ideas could flow easily from there to England and that quite a few dummy boards of the older sort are to be found there. Indeed there was a real connection with this part of Europe when we ‘imported’ a Protestant monarch at the end of the 17th century- William of Orange, married of course to our own Mary Stuart, { No…not the Bloody one who gave her name to a cocktail. …Is there orange in that cocktail? )  🙂

Indeed, there had been a connection even before this when Hugenot refugees began flowing across the Channel, fleeing the persecution of Protestants in France and other countries. These men and women were consummate artisans. We owe our own English prowess in the textile trade to them. They were weavers, especially in silk; they were painters ( one of the most influential and famous was Nicholas Gheerhaerts the portrait painter who had come here in the mid 16th century ). They were carpenters, gilders, horologists ( clockmakers), embroiderers and they brought with them the skills of inlaying woods and precious stones, veneering, { nothing to do with a nasty disease! 🙂  }- the facing of items furniture with thin sheets of beautiful woods and above all trompe l’oeil work of all kinds.

So we can imagine that the young Thomas G. ( for he was relatively young and unknown when he made the surviving piece we know is his ) would be familiar with the art form of the dummy board and might have seen a few examples here and there as he travelled about the county.

Thomas was rather good at drawing. He was sent to study engraving in London in 1740 and he started to paint Landscapes.

Now, landscapes were rather a new thing then. One of his pictures which now hangs in the national Gallery no less, was described at the time as:

” A nasty green thing”

Mmm. Rather unfair really. But you see, landscapes were supposed to be backgrounds for people. They weren’t worthy of actually just being pictures in their own right, unless of course they depicted your ancestral home or your large country seat….and  few had one of those….{ yes…I know… quite a few  can be seen around and about nowadays…but I don’t mean THAT kind of seat.} 🙂

So poor old Gainsborough had to retire to Suffolk and paint….people. Local Suffolk bigwigs mostly. Not terribly well paid, that sort of job.

And it was whilst he was struggling financially, that he had the idea of painting a dummy board. A half a one actually. Like Rembrandt before him, he painted the top half of a person, which could be displayed on a window ledge or, as actually happened, a wall.

It goes like this.

There are two of us and we are walking down the lane in Sudbury Suffolk and we round the corner and espy, atop a wall across the road, a young man, sunk down, hunched into his coat, a hat pulled over his eyes. He just sits there and stares down at the pavement in front of him. Behind him is a tree, a pear tree. Maybe he has crept into the garden to do a bit of scrumping, that is – for our overseas readers, stealing fruit from someone’s tree.Perhaps he can’t get back over the wall.

“oh ho”…we say to ourselves… ” Maybe here is one who is languishing for love.” He looks so depressed and sunk in his own world.

We pass by and we smile, thinking…cheer up..it’s not as bad as all that. ” Mornin’ ” we might say.

Off we go to wherever we have decided to go.

On the way back we spy the young man again. He doesn’t appear any different.

” Lord Love us..” says our companion ” He’s in a bad way. He doesn’t appear to have moved a muscle.” And he is there the next day….and the next.

Thomas Peartree. Sorry...but taking a photo through plate glass is jolly awkward!

In the words of the gentleman who first saw and wrote about this dummy board, Phillipe Thicknesse:

“I perceived a melancholy -faced country man, with his arms locked together leaning over the garden wall. I pointed this out to my friend (the printer Mr Creighton ) who replied that he had noticed that the man had been there all day and pitied him for he believed that he was either mad or miserable. With that I stepped forward with the intention of speaking to the madman and did not perceive, until I was close up, that the figure was a wooden man painted up on a shake board. My friend, a very ingenious fellow…., laughed and said that I had not been the only person this inimitable deception had fooled. Many acquaintances had even been led to speak to the ‘person’ before they discovered it was a work of art”

When he found out Gainsborough’s address he visited him and told him that he
“ came to chide him for having imposed a shadow instead of a substance upon me” The diaries of Phillip Thicknesse 1719-92

And so Gainsborough acquired his first commission for painting the ‘soon to be’ wife of Phillip Thicknessse. And from this little acorn did the great oak tree grow.

Ann Ford, Mrs. Thicknesse in the Cincinnati Art Museum

He is affectionately known as Thomas Peartree, this dummy board, from the tree that he was sitting beside and he slouches behind glass on a painted wall ( not by Gainsborough ) in a display in the museum in Ipswich, Christchurch Mansions in the Wolsey Gallery. Go here….

Christchurch Mansions

for more information.

And I have seen him…and he is wonderful!

The only absolutely pedigree, absolutley beyond question, proven and native ENGLISH dummy board…is sadly, only a half a one!

( For our overseas readers…the title of this post is  from drinking parlance. When offered a drink of usually ale, by a kindly purchaser, we reply modestly…”I’ll just have a half” – hence ” Mine’s a half or “make mine a half.”)

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2 Responses to ““Make mine a half!””

  1. Prizes All Round! « Pastmastery's Blog Says:

    […] And this is where they found it, on my blog. Make Mine a Half […]

  2. First Class Stamp « BoxCleva – clever little boxes. Says:

    […] spent a while studying his finished work and HOW he worked. If you have read my other blog – PastMastery , you’ll know that I admire him for being the only truly historic English painter of dummy […]

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