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Leather figure

Category

Leatherwork

Date

c. 1860 - c. 1930

Materials

Leather

Measurements

1120 mm (Height); 400 mm (Diameter)

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Collection

Lytes Cary Manor, Somerset

NT 254640

Caption

Two mysterious figures, just over a metre tall, guard the fireplace in the Great Parlour at Lytes Cary. For years they were believed to be rare 17th-century creations because of their Elizabethan costume and hairstyles. The colourful clothing is made from leather embossed with a variety of patterns. While similar moulded leather figures survive in collections across Europe, little is known about their purpose. They were possibly designed as three-dimensional versions of 17th- or 18th-century ‘dummy boards’, the life-sized painted shapes that created the illusion of a human presence. They may have been used to surprise guests, deter intruders or provide silent companionship. In 2008, X-ray analysis revealed the presence of a tin can inside the head of one figure, as well as round-headed wire nails. A serrated edge on the can indicates the use of a tin-opener, implying the figures are actually late 19th-century creations. They were probably purchased by Sir Walter Jenner (1860–1948), who bought Lytes Cary in 1907 with the intention of restoring and refurnishing it in an appropriate 17th-century style.

Summary

Pair of female leather figures, coloured and clothed in farthingales, stomacher-dress and head-dresses of stamped leather; probably late 19th or early 20th century.

Full description

In 2008, conservators examined the two leather figures. They appear to be made of reused and embossed upholstery leather, which has deteriorated over time. The head, face, neck and bust have a paper surface, which has been varnished and painted. The arms are formed from and supported by rolls of leather. Each figure stands on a 12-sided wooden base. The conservators used X-rays to examine the condition and construction of the figures. This revealed an armature of timber inside each figure, containing round-headed wire nails and oval nails. Inside the head of one figure is what appears to be a tin can, with a serrated edge at one end, suggesting the use of an early tin opener. No evidence could be found to suggest that the figures had ever been dismantled and remade on a new armature, so this appears to be the original construction. The costumes and hair styles are 17th century and for many years they were believed to be Spanish leather figures dating from the 16th century. However, the discovery of the can and wire nails allowed conservators to reassess the date of construction. The first commercial canning factory opened in the UK in 1813, while the first can opener was invented in 1856 as tins became thinner. This open tin suggests the figures were constructed in the second half of the 19th century. The nails used on the figures are of a type not made before 1890, so this would support construction in the late 19th or early 20th century. The purpose of the figures is still unclear. A small number of similar figures are known in other collections, some of which came from inns or public houses. Large ‘bottle figures’, so-called because the moulded leather has a spout like a bottle top on the head of the figure, also survive in collections in York (York Museums Trust, YORCM : AA4000), Spain (Vic Museum) and Germany (Leather Museum, Offenbach). At Lytes Cary they may have served as three-dimensional ‘silent companions’, creating the illusion of human presence. Sir Walter Jenner (1860–1948) who bought Lytes Cary in 1907 sought to restore it in a way that evoked an atmosphere of age and gradual accumulation, so the 17th century-style of the figures was fitting.