I well remember the first time I visited Lydiard House. I walked into the Dining Room – and jumped a mile when I saw the small figure standing beside the fireplace. It was the size of a child, finely-dressed, very still and silent. No, I wasn’t witnessing the appearance of one of the Lydiard apparitions. This was a dummy board or “Silent Companion.”
I’ve always been fascinated by silent companions and wondered what there purpose was. They are flat, wooden cut out figures that formed part of 17th-century room decoration. They can be painted in a variety of styles, to resemble soldiers, children, servants or even animals. The fashion for them started in Holland and quickly spread to the rest of Europe and to America. But there is a mystery about them; what are they for?
Well, there are a number of theories. Some people have suggested that they were made to deter burglars or even to convince enemy soldiers that there was already a regiment in the house! A strategically placed candle, in the days before electric light, could certainly make them look realistic enough to frighten people. Other theories are that they were created to combat loneliness – hence the name silent companion. There is historical evidence to suggest though that they also had a practical purpose, as door stops, fire guards and even figures for target practice. The ones at Lydiard were probably chimney boards, which people used to screen open fireplaces during the warm summer months when the fire wasn’t needed. It’s also possible that they were used for display – a slightly smaller-than-lifesize figure can make a room look bigger!
The quality of the original silent companions was very high. They were made by professional sign-painters and were created in the Dutch tradition of “trompe L’Oeil”, the technique of creating a three-dimensional visual illusion on a flat surface. They were usually made from multiple pieces of woo which were reinforced at the back with battens. The bevilled edges of the figures aided the illusion of depth and helped to cast a life-like shadow.
Some of the dummy boards you see in stately homes give a very good impression of the sort of clothing that would have been fashionable at the time they were made. So when we are all able to visit Lydiard House again, look out for the silent companion!