The Fashion for Fripperies.

This is a question, posted on my website contact page, which turned up in my inbox a little while ago.

Dummy boards are quite old aren’t they? I haven’t seen all that many but those I have seen don’t seem to be quite as knocked about as I think they should be, given the fact that they have been trundled from here to there. Why? Are they fakes?


Definite fakes?


Now this is a very interesting question.

Firstly, the gentleman asking the question is an antiques dealer and has seen just a few in his career. He is also in America, where really old dummy boards, ie: those that are 17th and early 18th century are quite rare.

Most dummy boards circulating in the auctions of the United States are 19th century imports from Europe or are American copies of 19th century figures. Those that are really old tend to be in collections of museums which hang onto them. Some have been sold out of those collections lately but few are really significant historically. The exception to this might be the pairs of late 17th/early 18th century children figures which we have talked about before. These were made in London by sign and coach painters in the area known as Saffron Hill, where these artisans collected and are what we might call nowadays, mass produced. ( As much as anything not made by machine can be.) 😉 We have spoken about these before in A Bit on the Side.

They are the most commonly found dummy board figures of all and are represented in practically every country where we find this art form.


late 17th/ early 18th c. boy at Forde Abbey Dorset.


There are, as there must be, a few fakes about. They were quite commonly produced in the late 19th/early 20th century when the fashion for this rather, what might be called, esoteric artifact became a little more widespread.

People were becoming more affluent and had more disposable income than heretofore. In order to beautify their homes they wanted to forge a closer connection with the past ( think William Morris and his cronies,) and there was a fashion for harking back to the past.Quite a few small figures were produced at this time which were most certainly intended to deceive the purchaser into thinking they were buying the real thing, the real 17th century McCoy! You would be no one unless you had a few antiques dotted about. Even in a rather modest home.

So yes….to answer the question, some of those figures you have seen Bill, might be fakes.

A pair of small children from the 17th century, made between let’s say 1680 and 1720 might fetch £3000 – £4000 today at auction ( depending on who is there to bid, of course ). If you could churn these out and convince people they were the real thing you would be, as they say, quids in! It was no different in the past.


Little girl end of the 17th beginning of the 18th century. Forde Abbey Dorset.


Now to the problem of condition. Bill is quite right when he says that some of them don’t look as if they have ” been around a bit”.

The other thing our 19th century ancestors were good at was Restoration, with a capital R!

Many conservators now ( note the  c. word), spend hours undoing the damage that our well meaning but rather hubristic forefathers did, to buildings, antiques and textiles for example and decorative items.

Now we tend to CONSERVE things. In the past they mended them, made them good, put back that which was missing and ‘tarted things up’. 😉 IN some cases they changed the thing beyond all recognition!

Art conservation is the preservation of antiquities for the future. This includes the examination and documentation of items, some treatment and preventative care, all the while supported by research and education. The conservator will discover the causes of any deterioration and will try to prevent further trouble. The work done is generally reversible.

Restoration involves repairing, cleaning and sometimes an informed reconstruction of the work. The most common task today, of restorers, for example, is the removal of accretions from sculptures or paintings. Restoration tries to bring the artifact back to what we think it might have looked like when new. The major problem here is that there may be differing  views on what we think the artifact is supposed to look like, and  inappropriate restoration may adversely affect the item’s long-term preservation.

Many dummy boards have been restored. Some have been completely overpainted. And this is why when we look at them it’s sometimes  difficult to tell if they are the real thing or not, if they are historic or not.

I hope this answers your question Bill.

Let’s go a little further. There is a fashion at the moment, for Vintage. I’ve touched on it before in…Shabby Chic and said how I deplore it. Rusty old garden chairs, scarred wooden furniture, items that really belong in the garden shed, torn books or paper items, old boxes, crates and jam jars, chipped enamel ware and faded fabrics are de rigueur in the fashionable home of the moment. I truly cannot understand it.

If I have something that I adore which has seen better days, I would keep it…yes…but I wouldn’t put it on show to draw attention to the fact that I hadn’t ( or my ancestors hadn’t ) looked after it very well.

And some things belong out of sight. Generally those things worth keeping, are and have been, looked after.

We do have, we are lucky, many fine antique items which adorn our home. I look after them. I cosset them. I polish. I handle carefully ( yes I DO use my 18th century glass) and if something is damaged I get an expert to look at it and either conserve it or restore it properly, if I am unable to do it myself. {Before you ask……no I don’t own any historic dummy boards. They are far too expensive for me. I wish I did. 😉 }

If I did own an old dummy board, would I get it Restored?

I think I would. I don’t think I could live with an item quite as distressed as this….


Soldier dummy board possibly mid to late 19th c. Thanks to Malcolm Gliksten


But I would make sure that it was obvious it had been restored, to the right eye. I would most certainly do something with the two from Forde Abbey ( above ), for example …they are so sweet.

Homespun style is not my thing. I am old fashioned and I like a thing to look as if it is well cared for, not well used; I like it to have been carefully designed and skilfully executed, not look like something a four year old could have come up with. Simplicity is all very well…but true simplicity is deceivingly clever and there are few fashionably decorative things around today which could be dignified with this epithet.

If I see one more hessian sack cut up and turned into one of these silly hanging, marginally dove shaped, button for eyes, badly sewn creations for an equally silly price…..I will scream! *What skill in that eh? It’s not even as if they are novel. They are everywhere.

If I was trying to find something a bit different from an online gift shop, I would be hard pressed. They are all the same…..We are all supposed to have pretty, pretty homes, in whites and pastel colours ( not very practical with dogs and children), with twee little fabrics and boudoirs for bedrooms ( my husband might have something to say about that )! We should all have open shelved kitchens with bric a brac on every shelf, edged with pretty, pretty lacy wotnots, ( again I think Stephen’s nerves might be a bit frayed by that  feminine touch,) forgetting that the reason we all developed doors on our kitchen cupboards was to keep out flies and dust!

Oh dear…I won’t go on….

I’ll stick to my dummy boards….. they at least were laboured over ( generally ) by skillful craftsmen who knew their job, had served an apprenticeship of 7 years and who were paid a pittance to create something clever, which has lasted centuries and in the main, are beautiful to look at even today.

*No apologies to those who like this kind of unsophisticated stuff! 😉

The fashion will change. It always does.


The beautiful Baton Rouge Girl English 1680 by kind permission of the museum.



2 Responses to “The Fashion for Fripperies.”

  1. bonsmots Says:

    Sue, please don’t hold back. Tell us what you REALLY think about modern decor! ;-}

    On another topic altogether, I have noticed more than once that the painter of “Peachie” above devoted much more attention and detail to the drapery and highlights on her satin gown than to her face and headdress. Why do you think he did that?

  2. pastmastery Says:

    It just happens that some painters are drapery painters.Others are good at faces…some specialise in hands for example. In the ‘studio’ days, it was quite common for artists to employ assistants to do which ever thing they were good at.
    Just because a painting says it’s by Poussin, for example, doesn’t mean all of it is.

    With this dummy board, one person will have painted it all and they were obviously a clothes fancier!

    And on decor front…oh you don’t know the ‘arf!
    S 😉

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: