These life-sized, cut out figures are skillfully painted to depict people, sometimes recognizable personnages, sometimes generic figures of children or servants, and sometimes animals, such as a dog. These trompe l’oeil figures were sometimes given the more respectul name of “silent companions.” They appeared first in the Netherlands in the 16th century and then traveled to England. Many examples survive there — far fewer in the United States. Their original purpose remains a mystery although numerous theories have been advanced. Perhaps, one writer suggested, they were placed just inside a front room window to make an empty home appear to be occupied. Ot could they have been intended as firescreens to deflect the intense heat when sitting near the fire, or as fireboads of a more decorative nature than those of a monotonously rectangular shape? Both these hypotheses have been rejected, the former as unconvincing (no scorch marks have ever been found on their reverse sides) and the latter as impractical (irregularly shaped boards would not close off the opening). So historians are left with the conclusion that the figures were meant to entertain the visitor and fill empty spaces, making a virtue of dimly-lit corners and stairwells where at first glance they might appear truly life-like. But these figures did come out of the gloom, because “children” stood beside fireplaces and “gardeners” leaned over walls and admired their handiwork, although the survivors of those used for exterior entertainment demonstrate that the elements were not kind to them.
From these two sources, fireboards and dummy boards, Mr. Waddell has created twenty-first century “furniture for the hearth.” For the country house, a prize hunting dog stands alertly on a silk cushion. the globe on stand, modeled after that owned by George Washington [true??] would enhance a gentleman’s library. Whatever the homeowner’s interest, whatever the decor, Peter Waddell can create a furniture board for the room.