About dummy boards
Dummy boards are cut-out, flat painted figures, usually life-size, that were shaped in outline to resemble children, servants, soldiers or animals. Some dummy boards were painted on canvasses that were then glued onto wooden panels.
They could be set anywhere in a house, usually next to the fireplace, on the staircase or in a corner. The boards could also be hooked to the wall or put at a short distance from a wall, creating a shadow when light was cast on them.
These so-called silent companions were meant to deceive, as a ‘trompe l’oeil’. They are often thought to have been used as fire-screens, but this is wrong: the heat from a fire would have damaged both the wood and the paint. In summer they were placed in front of empty fireplaces.
They originated in 17th century Dutch painting. They were very popular in Holland and in England in the 17th and 18th century. They can be simply dated by the clothes and head-dress of the figures.
Most were made by professional sign-painters, who also produced the hanging street signs prevalent until the late 18th century.
The painter’s biographer, Arnold Houbraken in his ‘De groote schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders en schilderessen’ from 1718 describes how the artist Cornelius Bisschop painted cut-out wooden templates which could be placed in a corner or doorway in the hope of deceiving the unwary. One gentleman, for instance, placed a wooden maidservant at the door of his salon and the assembled company were much entertained by a guest who tried to tip her.