Now You See Me… Now You Don’t

or, a potted history of dummy boards.

First appearing in the seventeenth-century, dummy boards are painted (usually on wood) silhouettes of people and occasionally animals (figures 1 & 2).

Fig. 1. Eighteenth-century painted pine dummy board depicting a woman of some wealth.

Fig. 2. Eighteenth-century dummy board of a spaniel.

Animals and domestic figures are normally life size, though some dummy boards were created larger than life in order to intimidate or scare the observer viz., wealthy households would often post effigies of their supposed private militia (figures 3-6) around the house and grounds to frighten off or deter would-be thieves whilst the family was away taking the waters or on a Grand Tour.

Fig. 3. Pair of eighteenth-century militia men.

Fig. 4. Two eighteenth-century soldiers.

Fig. 5. Fusilier dummy, circa 1750.

Fig. 6. Nineteenth-century hussar dummy.

One infamous Lancastrian decided to line the three colonnades of his mansion with dozens of dummy boards portraying armed soldiers. An acquaintance and frequent antagonist in neighbouring Yorkshire took affront at the outrageous display and mounted an attack on the house with his own militia, cutting all the ‘soldiers’ down in a hail of lead balls.

Much more common are the domestic dummy boards representing pets and exotic animals (figures 7-9) and domestic servants (figures 10-14) which were dotted about the interiors of vast houses to reinforce the impression of wealth and status to the casual observer as they meandered around large rooms and glanced through enfilades.

Fig. 7. Eighteenth-century painted cat dummy.

Fig. 8. Painted dodo dummy, circa 1740.

Fig. 9. Lion dummy board, circa 1750. (Christies)

Fig. 10. Seventeenth-century dummy maid.

Fig. 11. Seventeenth-century maid dummy board.

Fig. 12. Eighteenth-century dummy maid.

Fig. 13. Eighteenth-century dummy housekeeper.

Fig. 14. Eighteenth-century dummy manservant.

Gazebos and follies were also populated with dummy boards of sightseers – a popular pastime during the latter half of the eighteenth-century – (figures 15 & 16).

Fig. 15. Eighteenth-century pine figures, obverse…

Fig. 16. … and reverse.

Other areas of the grounds were similarly occupied by gardeners and various rustic workers (figure 17).

Fig. 17. Pair of seventeenth-century rustics. (Woolley & Wallis)

Fig. 18. Seventeenth-century partygoer (?).

Jack Plane

About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
This entry was posted in Antiques. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Now You See Me… Now You Don’t

  1. Ken says:

    On figure 13 (the picture of the man servant), I found myself looking at the furniture trying to get a better idea of the date of the dummy board. Then it hit me…. There was no photography in the 18th century…. I desperately need a cup of coffee.


  2. Brian Lowery says:

    If this wasn’t the 1st of April, I would say this is one of the best posts ever!


  3. potomacker says:

    Such a wealth of knowledge deserves its own special place in a bank vault.


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