This is our new series giving you a quick insight into some of the most unusual and unique pieces you may come across in auction rooms and antique shops around the world. We will look into how these precious pieces can be sensitively restored without harming their historic value. This article will look into the history and restoration of dummy boards.

What is a dummy board?

Dummy boards are painted panels in the shape of their subject, whether this is children, animals, soldiers or aristocratic ladies. Although they may often appear in 17th century fashion, their popularity in the 19th century may have seen many later reproductions being produced in a historic style. 

Dummy boards

The history of dummy boards can be traced back to tromp l’oeil paintings, this is the skill to produce a painting that appears so life-like that it might trick the viewer into thinking it is real. Tromp l’oeil artists often have a skilled use of light, shadow and perspective to produce these results. 

Whilst being beautifully made and decorative in their own right, dummy boards also served a purpose. They were most often placed in front of fireplaces and in windows to give off the illusion of figures in a room, thus warding off any intruders. This was necessary for those who had a number of different residences throughout the year. 

Dummy board

What issues do dummy boards face?

Due to their panel materials a dummy board may have problems created by their environment. Over the centuries a constantly changing atmosphere may have caused the wood to move and even begin to split. Their position close to a fireplace or window may have also compromised the structure due to disruptions of heat and moisture in the air. Being so close to a fire may have also caused the wood to become dry and brittle. The structures used to make the dummy board stand may have also become broken or weakened, allowing them to fall over or become unstable.

Split panelAbove: wooden panels may split over time, the painting above was restored by our conservation team

Airborne contaminants would have also been present in historic homes, most notably soot and smoke from fireplaces, as well as nicotine and general dust. The surface of the dummy board may appear to be dull or darkened due to this exposure and in some cases the contamination may be embedded in the varnish layer. 

Pests such as woodworm are also attracted to panel artworks, there may be evidence of a past or present infestation if you can see small holes across the surface or reverse of the dummy board. This issue requires swift treatment by trained conservators to prevent further deterioration.

Dummy board conservation

Like other artworks on panel, dummy boards can be treated by our team of professional easel painting conservators. Their knowledge of historic materials and the chemistry of the paint allows them to perform a sensitive restoration that will not alter the historic or artistic integrity of the artwork.

17th century restoration smoke damageAbove: a 17th century portrait wit smoke damage, before and after restoration by our conservators

Where the panel is splitting or disturbed, stabilisation treatments can be carried out to prevent further issues arising. It may be the case that the paint is fragile and flaking around these areas. If this is the case, our conservators can consolidate the paint layer and gently retouch any missing pigment with conservation appropriate treatments.

Amy cleaningAbove: one of our conservators cleaning the surface of a painting on canvas

Surface dirt and discolouration of the varnish layer can also be removed in our studio. This is conducted with small swabs that are constantly swapped out to prevent cross contamination. The solution used is carefully tested to ensure it does not adversely affect the original pigments. The results following a surface clean and varnish removal on a painting that has been historically exposed to a fireplace can be significant. 

18th century portrait fire damagedAbove: a fire damaged painting before and after restoration in our studio

How can we help?

If you have a dummy board or another unique antique that requires specialist care, please get in touch for further information and advice. 

To make contact please email us via [email protected] or call 0207 112 7576

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