An online exhibition to accompany Fanciful Figures at Sir John Soane’s Museum, London, 22 March – 9 June 2024

Written by Katherine Hardwick-Kulpa

‘Staffage’ is a late-eighteenth century term used to describe small human and animal figures of no specific identity which appear in a painting or drawing. These figures are not essential to the subject of the work, but instead lend a sense of scale, depth, and animation to the composition. They are visual decoration, and are often depicted holding an object, or accompanied by an animal.

Yet these 18th century figures in fact had a real-life precedent. Dummy boards, as they became known, were popular from the 17th century onwards, and formed a now forgotten part of the historic interior. Relatively few survive today either in museums or historic houses. Viewed out of context – particularly under the harsh glare of electric light – it is difficult for us to understand their original purpose.

Dummy boards, British or Dutch, c.1690, paint and varnish on softwood, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 98.1 × 33 × 19.7 cm (each) 


Dummy boards were very simple to make, and yet often used sophisticated techniques to deceive the viewer. Most were made from multiple vertical planks of wood, joined by horizontal batons, and cut to the desired shape. It was most common for the artist to paint directly onto the wood, but there are instances of the artist working onto paper or canvas which was then stuck onto a fixed backing.

Although in the UK, these boards were commonly free standing, on the continent, they developed a technique of attaching them to the wall via a metal tie bar. This proximity to the wall allowed the board to throw a better shadow, thus appearing closer to life. Makers would also bevel the edge of the board, which also helped to create a life like shadow.


But why did they need to cast a shadow? 

Some historians suggest they may have been used for security, as a sort of soft deterrent, much like you might leave a light on a timer when you go away. One commentator recorded in 1703 that, in the Tower of London:

At the corner of every lobby and turning, of the staircase leading to the Arsenal . . . stood a wooden grenadier painted in his proper colours cut out with as much exactness upon a board as the picture of a housewife with her broom.

Ned Ward, London Spy, 1703

Dummy Board (A Grenadier of the Royal Scots Regiment), British, c. 1738, oil on wood, National Army Museum. Image courtesy of the National Army Museum, London.

There has been speculation that these boards may have been used as fire screens. Though this seems unlikely – the heat would blister the paint – they may have covered the fire place in summer. Touchingly, they were also sometimes called ‘Silent Companions’ suggesting they may have been used as a cure for loneliness. 

However, their primary purpose appears to have been as practical jokes, with owners deploying them strategically around the house, in dark spaces or around tight corners, to try and give unexpecting visitors a fright. 

‘Placed in corners or at the end of a vestibule one might have greeted them like a living person. Certain ones, destined to be viewed at night, were fitted with a lit candlestick to create a natural effect’

Arnold Houbraken, Great Theatre of Dutch Painters and Paintresses, 1719 

There are stories of the celebrated Dutch artist Rembrandt leaving a life-size cut out of a maid in his window to prank passers-by; a later story tells of an American Republican soldier being scared by a dummy board of a British Soldier, and running to hide in the woods. 

Another popular troupe was to have a figure which, from a distance appeared as a maid, but upon closer inspection was found to be wearing the clothes of a high-born lady. Whilst some sources claim these type of boards were used as a reminder to servants of their duties, it seems more likely to have been a visual practical joke.

Dummy Boards (Woman with broom (Industry), and Woman with mirror (Vanity)), British, 1630-1650, oil on wood, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 156 x 91 x 4.3cm © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

These boards were part of a wider culture of trompe l’oeil (literally ‘deceive the eye’) and illusion which was popular in the 17th century. Samuel Pepys recorded a ‘perspective in a closet’ i.e. a wall painted to look like a small room, at ‘Mr Povery’s House’, whilst the diarist John Evelyn described a ‘Paradise Room’ at Hatton Gardens with painted and cut out animals. Charles II was reputed to have in his closet a painting of a book lying open on a desk. These visual jokes often extended further than painting: this is the period of puzzle jugs – designed to drench the unwary drinker – and serving dishes disguised as the food they contained. 

A Peepshow with Views of the Interior of a Dutch House, Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627-1678), c. 1655-1660, oil and egg on wood, National Gallery, 58 x 88 x 60.5cm © The National Gallery, London.

Puzzle Jug, British, c. 1700-1750, earthenware with lead glaze, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 19.1 x 12.7cm © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The first use of what we might call dummy boards was in the theatre, where they were commonly used to dress stages whilst changing sets. The famous Italian Renaissance architect, Sebastiano Serlio (1475-1554) advocated for just such a usage, to give visual interest to a scene awaiting actors.

This idea of ‘dressing a set’ gives our final use of Dummy Boards. Many were used to ‘dress’ a room or a space, for example, in Vauxhall Gardens, a dummy board of a hermit was placed in a cave too create the appearance of a romantic wilderness. Recording a visit to the Come de Liancourt’s palace in Paris in 1644, Evelyn describes a theatre at the end of a ‘perspective’ garden:

‘which is made to change with divers pretty scenes, and the stage so ordered, that with figures of men and women painted on light boards, and cut out, a person who stands underneath makes to act as if they were speaking by guiding them and reciting words in different tones as the parts require.’

John Evelyn, Diary, 1644

In most cases the figures were almost, but not fully, life sized, further giving the impressions of dolls dressing a dolls house.

It is in this last use of dummy boards that we can draw the closest parallels with staffage in drawings. The latter are often used to ‘dress’ what would otherwise be quite static drawings, and make them come to life in the same way a dummy board could make a room feel more alive.

Just as with our staffage figures, it is very rare that we are able to give an identity to the figure painted on the board, and most commonly they are generic representations of a type for example, a maid or a child. We also know that popular designs were produced again and again, and doppelgängers can be found among remaining collections: the National Trust boast identical children at Hinton Ampner, Hampshire and Chirk Castle, Wrexham, as well as twin maidservants at Dyrham Park, Gloucestershire and Knole, Kent (our maid also pops up in the V&A’s collection). 

Dummy Board (Young woman peeling apples), British, c. 1690, oil on wood, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 124.5 x 70 x 3.5cm © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.




C. Edwards, ‘Dummy board figures as images of amusement and deception in interiors, 1660-1800’, Studies in the Decorative Arts, 10 (2002/2003), pp. 74-97
C. Graham, Dummy Boards and Chimney Boards (1998)
P. Macquoid & R. Edwards, The Dictionary of English Furniture (1954), vol II
G. de la Rosa, ‘Exploring the history of dummy boards’, NT Blog
A. Soth, ‘Dummy Boards: the fun figures of the 1600s’, JSTOR Blog (2023)