The eloquence of a silent companion

Dummmy board representing a seated female servant peeling an apple, in the West Hall at Dyrham Park, Gloucestershire. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

A few days ago I was corresponding with Deana Sidney at Lost Past Remembered about dummy boards – sometimes called silent companions – those evocative painted figures that occasionally lurk next to the fireplaces or on the staircase landings of historic houses.

An early 18th century dummy board of a girl, in the Great Chamber at Trerice, Cornwall. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

I thought I would show some of the dummy boards that survive in National Trust houses.

An early 18th century dummy board of a boy, in the Great Chamber at Trerice, Cornwall. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Their lifelike quality can render them a little spooky, as you suddenly come upon a solemn little child, a gesturing servant or even a soldier with gun at the ready.

A dummy board representing a Scots Guardsman, probably by Elizabeth Pickering, Mrs John Creed (1642–1728), 1715-1717, at Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire. ©National Trust Collections

They originate in 17th century Dutch trompe l’oeil painting.

A 17th century dummy board depicting a woman holding a sword, possibly representing ‘Vigilance’, at Snowshill Manor, Gloucestershire. ©National Trust Images/Stuart Cox

Perhaps because of their slightly uncanny presence, a number of myths sprang up about what they were for, including – rather touchingly – warding off loneliness.

Dummy board from the second half of the 17th century representing a boy with a hobby-horse stick and an apple, at Chirk Castle, Wrexham. ©National Trust Collections

But in reality they seem to have been used to send out visual messages to the visitors entering a house, either as a welcoming presence – as in the case of the gesturing servants – or as sentinels guarding doorways – as with the soldiers.

Dummy board from the second half of the 17th century representing a girl with a basket of apples and walnuts, at Chirk Castle, Wrexham. ©National Trust Collections

They also relate to chimney boards, the decorative painted panels used to close off fireplace openings in summer.

24 Responses to “The eloquence of a silent companion”

  1. PGT Says:

    I adore these little people-

  2. The Devoted Classicist Says:

    With the advances in digital printing, it would be easy to reproduce these to sell in the gift shop(s).

  3. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Gaye, yes and of course the fact that children then wore ‘adult’ clothes makes them even more cute – or even more uncanny, depending on your point of view :)

    Classicist, what an excellent idea – or fancy cut-out greeting cards. I must suggest that to them.

  4. deana Says:

    Excellent! What an astonishing range they have! I wondered if they had metal backing when they were by a fireplace or always just wooden figures?

    I am thrilled my question inspired a display of a treasure of silent companions from your collections. They really are magical, aren’t they?

    I can’t help but want to get a few to lurk around my house. Bravo.

  5. Jolie Beaumont (@JolieBeaumont) Says:

    Thanks for another fascinating post. I should think these dummy boards would be quite spooky to encounter in a dimly lit corridor – especially since it seems that some came equipped with a holder for a candle. But it seems their main purpose was to amuse, at least according to an article I found about them – “A presence in an empty space: The life and times of Dummy Boards.” For those who would like more information about their history, here’s the link: https://dspace.lboro.ac.uk/dspace-jspui/bitstream/2134/9473/7/A%20presence%20in%20an%20empty%20space.pdf

  6. Alix Jacobs Says:

    I heard many years ago that these figures might ward of intruders by virtue of their images, shadows or shapes in dim light…

  7. KWillow Says:

    I had one of those, of “Xena, Warrior Princess”

  8. Mark D. Ruffner Says:

    These are absolutely charming! Were I to make one, it would be of a very large dog, perhaps positioned by a window!

  9. mary Says:

    Oh, I would love to have a couple of these little people. Especially to frame the tree at Christmas.

  10. imogen88 Says:

    How fascinating and interesting. I hope they do reproduce them and keep taking such good care of the originals, they are lovely to look at!

  11. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Deana, thank you for the inspiration. The ones I have seen were mainly made of wood, like chimney boards. You should try to create some yourself, either historical or contemporary :)

    In Japan there is a kind of contemporary equivalent to this, in that they have electric helmeted and uniformed dummies next to roadworks and building sites waving illuminated batons to warn motorists, based on the human security men often found in such places guiding traffic and ushering lorries in and out etc (and who curiously often seem to be very old men – it seems to be regarded as a job for ‘old retainers’).

    Shire have published a short but informative book about the subject: http://bit.ly/QlyeHP

    Jolie, yes they are also sometimes said to hold trays for visiting cards. Thanks you very much for the link to that interesting article.

    Alix, yes there seems to have been an element of warding off, especially with the soldiers and ones like the woman with the sword. Which reminds me of the stuffed Great Dane that Andy Warhol had in his hallway, and which apparently made one drugged-up acquaintance flee in panic :)

    KWillow, yes Xena would be an excellent contemporary model for a dummy board, or perhaps Princess Merida from the recent film Brave: http://bit.ly/RLfHca (her dress was inspired by Ellen Terry’s beetle wing-encrusted dress for her role as Lady Macbeth, which is at Smallhythe in Kent: http://bit.ly/JBmLFD) :)

    Mark, you are channelling Andy Warhol :)

    Mary and Imogen88: yes there must be a contemporary market, and lots of scope for innovation and creativity.

  12. wina Says:

    I think these are really wonderful , I would love these as pop out Christmas cards ,that can be re-used following years as a decoration like the Victorian decoupage or to hang on the Christmas tree .

  13. Val Drew Says:

    If you ever need to speak to a world expert about these boards with nigh on 13 years of research under her belt speak to Sue Newstead who can be found at http://www.pastmastery.com/people.htm . A very interesting lady.

  14. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Wina, yes I agree and I have forwarded that suggestion to our retail colleagues.

    Val, thanks very much for that link.

  15. cornish paranormal group Says:

    love these items look really interesting and the places too our group of paranormal investigators also love the buildings forts and so on just wish we could get into more of them

  16. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes it would be interesting to know if any of these dummy boards have paranormal associations.

  17. Katharine Hope Says:

    Fascinating. Thanks for sharing Emile. I always thought they were a 20th century interpretive tool for use as an alternative to text and pictures. And they certainly are spooky.

  18. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Katherine, well in a way your hunch was right, as they seem to be 17th/18th-century ‘visitor engagement’ tools :)

  19. Lynne Rutter Says:

    I have always wanted a pair in my living room so that it looks like I am having the most elegant party all the time. I shall just have to paint some! But what should they be wearing?

  20. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Glamorous dresses and dinner jackets, perhaps? :)

  21. Randi Says:

    Emile, I so enjoy your posts. I always flag them to read later if I don’t have time right away, as I had to do with this one. Every time you present such interesting information, and I look forward to learning.

    This post is a prime example, as I had no previous knowledge that these human-figure boards even existed. I was, of course, aware of the fire-boards or screens often seen, even here in the “colonies.”

    It’s interesting that others commented on the “spookiness” of these figures when seen in dim lighting, as that was my first thought: Many a “ghost hunter” might get quite a shock if they unexpectedly encountered one of these!

    They are charming and present such a human touch to the grand manors. Perhaps they used them as I often use the tv or radio – just to have the sense of company in the house.

    I’m curious about one detail, and I intend to check out some of the links mentioned for more info; They are so beautifully modelled, were lithographs or other antique printing methods used to decorate them?

    I can’t believe these were just done by a local artist as some of them have such realistic skin tones and features.

    Keep the posts coming, they are much appreciated and give me entree into a world that I wouldn’t otherwise have opportunity to visit.

    P.S. Re: your previous post about the gilded leather screens. I had wondered whether there were any examples in historic American houses. Recently read a vintage book about notable American houses, and was excited to see that the restored Governor’s Palace in Colonial Williamsburg, Virgina, had a leather upholstered room, and “The gilt hand-tooled Spanish leather wall covering came from an 18th century London House.”

    The book also said, “The colony provided…furnishings…but most Governors also had valuable treasures of their own – largely imported from England.” During the restoration of Williamsburg, they found old inventories, and tried to acquire antiques of identical types, so the leather walls were evidently period appropriate. I’m keeping an eye out for any other leather screens or wall panels!

  22. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Randi, thank you so much for your kind and generous comment. Your comparison with radio and television is apt, and one can well imagine people starting to talk to their dummy boards!

    I personally haven’t seen any dummy boards decorated with prints. This might be because the trompe l’oeil effect was considered to be such an important part of their appeal and that was better achieved in paint rather than through applied prints.

    But it would be interesting to find out how they were dissemninated: whether itinerant painters went round supplying them for households on demand, or wether they were sold through metroplitan fancy goods shops.

    As you say, the quality of some of them is rather high, although it could be that only the best of them were cherished to a degree allowing them to survive the centuries.

    And yes the subject of gilt leather hangings, like dummy boards and Chinese wallpaper, is one of those intriguing subjects about which relatively little is known.

  23. Jolie Beaumont (@JolieBeaumont) Says:

    I just thought I’d let you know that I was so intrigued by these silent companions that I have included one in a pivotal scene in my new historical mystery, ‘What the Silk Mercer’s Daughter Saw.’

    As many others have said before me, thanks so much for these fascinating posts!

  24. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Jolie, I am so pleased our collections have provided you with a little motif for your latest mystery (http://bit.ly/UfLz6a) – it is wonderful when a historical object can be suddenly ‘used’ again in that way.

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