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.