06 Dec 2023
by Katie Knowles, Dr Hannah Mawdsley

Three views of a painting: portrait of a woman, woman with a parrot peeking round her shoulder, green parrot on perch.
This painting at Clevedon Court gives you two views for the price of one! (© National Trust)

From ancient cave art to bold modern art, creativity has always been at the heart of what makes us human. With creativity comes playfulness, and a desire to surprise and trick the eye of the viewer. One dramatic way for artists to do this is through the technique of trompe l’oeil, French for ‘deceive the eye’, to create three-dimensional spaces on two-dimensional surfaces. Other artists experimented with different materials to create visual surprises. Here are some of our favourite examples from the extraordinary collections and interiors at the National Trust…

Need a change of scene?

The painted curiosity above, to be found at Clevedon Court in Somerset, gives the viewer a choice of images. Look closely at this portrait of a young woman and the head of a green parrot can be seen above her ear. This is an anamorphic or two-way painting, an optical illusion created by painting on prism-shaped strips of wood. Viewed from the left, we see a lady but viewed from the right we see a parrot. References to ‘turning pictures’ like this are found in Shakespeare’s works. We don’t know who painted this picture, but it is dated to the early 1700s.  (Two-way painting, with woman and parrot / Clevedon Court / Catalogue reference - NT624189)

Stone or scagliola?

Italian plasterer Baldassare Artima created this commissioned chimney surround for the Duchess and Duke of Lauderdale in the 1670s. Although this appears to be created from marble, it is in fact created using scagliola, a fine type of plaster. It was used by artists to imitate the more costly pietra dura (inlaid stone) found in European courts. However, scagliola had the advantage of allowing a richness of colour not always achievable with natural marbles. Here, Artima uses scagliola to create three-dimensional Solomonic columns and flowers in his design, and to install the Duchess and Duke’s entwined cipher as a centrepiece. (Chimneypiece, Queen’s Closet / Ham House and Garden / Catalogue reference - NT1139084)

Ornate fireplace with vase of cream flowers in its hearth. The surround has cream coloured carving on a black background.
A stunning stone fireplace... or is it?! (© National Trust)

Smoking hot design

Stepping into this room at Mottisfont, you might think you’re entering a grand gothic space. A closer look reveals that the columns, moulded plasterwork, ledges and urns are not real. This theatrical illusion was created in 1939 by artist Rex Whistler for his patron, the society hostess Maud Russell. As well as architectural features, the design contains a smoking urn and small objects including a paint pot on a ledge, as if the artist has just set it down. Whistler was a master of complex works that deceived the eye. He also painted a dramatic mural at Plas Newydd on Anglesey. (The Whistler Drawing Room / Mottisfont Abbey)

1. Interior of a grand room with striped satin chairs, that looks to have ornate alcoves and ceiling. 2. Detail of a painted smoking urn.
Step into a world of smoke and mirrors at Mottisfont. (© National Trust)

Tidy that desk!

Various objects are scattered across the patterned surface of this table at Wimpole in Cambridgeshire, including coins, a pencil, pliers, quills and some playing cards. But if you try to tidy any of the items up, you’ll soon discover that this is a painted surface. It was created and signed in the late 1700s by French artist Louis-Léopold Boilly, whose father was a furnituremaker. The term trompe l’oeil (literally ‘a trick of the eye’) was coined by Boilly, for a painting he exhibited in France in 1800.  (Table top / Wimpole / Catalogue reference - NT206627.1)
Bird's eye view of a polished wooden table top that looks to be covered with random things: playing cards, letters, coins, quill pen, scissors, book.
What a mess! Can you tidy up this table at Wimpole? (© National Trust)

Cabinet of curiosities

The central inner section of this ornate 17th century cabinet opens to reveal a surprise – the unknown but talented cabinet maker has created a hidden theatrical miniature hall, backed with mirrors and supported by golden columns. But this cabinet also showcases the artistry of nature. The stone used to decorate the drawer fronts is pietra paesina, or ‘ruin marble’. This rare limestone, from northern Italy, is entirely natural but looks to the viewer as if an artist has drawn a rocky or ruined landscape. Only when you look more closely is the natural pattern of the stone revealed. (Cabinet on Stand / Ham House and Garden / Catalogue reference - NT1140050.1)

Wooden cabinet with doors open revealing a little compartment that looks like a miniature mirrored, colonnaded hall with chequerboard floor.
Open the doors and discover hidden worlds inside this cabinet at Ham House! (© National Trust)

Fan-tastic decoration

The desire to trick the eye of viewers was not limited to art and furniture. This Italian leather fan appears to have lace and coloured ribbons strewn across its surface. In reality, it is all part of a clever trompe l’oeil design. Fans are often thought to have been used to communicate without words at social occasions – perhaps the trompe l’oeil lace on this fan helped the bearer to attract attention by securing a second glance. It is one of almost 50 fans at Ickworth in Suffolk collected by Geraldine, Marchioness of Bristol.  (Fan / Ickworth / Catalogue reference - NT852890)
Cream coloured , decorated fan laid open on black background.
Ribbons and lace without all the fuss - fancy that! (© National Trust)

Doorway to another world

A curious dog waits at the entrance to this tiled corridor at Dyrham Park near Bath, but we can’t step any further forward. This is a perspective painting by Samuel van Hoogstraten, a talented Dutch artist and pupil of Rembrandt. Sometimes known as ‘threshold’ paintings, clever works like this draw the eye through a series of rooms to give the illusion of more space, especially when hung at the end of a corridor. This painting was completed in 1662 and has probably been on display at Dyrham since the house was completed in the 1690s.  (A View through a House / Dyrham / Catalogue reference - NT453733)

Realistic painting of view through an old, grand house with a chequerboard stone floor. A spaniel in the foreground and cat by the next door.
Thinking of wandering down the corridor. at Dyrham.. but aren't these furry friends suspiciously quiet?! (© National Trust)


Find out more

Read our earlier posts for more highlights from the National Trust's collections:

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