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"No art approaches a well-made silhouette in truth." J C LAVATER

||  The Poor Man's Miniature  ||  Origins  ||  Techniques  ||  Formats  ||  Conversation Pieces  ||  Trade Labels  ||  Desirable Artists  ||  Finding Service  ||

The Poor Man's Miniature

Silhouettes or 'shades' were often dubbed 'the poor man's miniature' as plain black profiles could be taken within one to three minutes and cost as little as one shilling. Enhancements, such as bronzing or colour, were more expensive but still available for well under a guinea. Sittings did not always need to be arranged in advance as silhouettists could be found in booths at the end of the pier or at fairgrounds so families on a special outing could have individual profiles taken as a souvenir of their day. Duplicate copies were also available quickly and cheaply.


TAKEN AT PUDSEY FEAST 1848 BY "A CLEVER BOY"!

Cut silhouette portrait
CUT PROFILE HEIGHTENED WITH GOLD & GREY

Hollow-cut silhouette portrait
HOLLOW-CUT PROFILE BY MRS HARRINGTON

Antique silhouette painted on card
PAINTED ON CARD
BY AN UNKNOWN ARTIST

Frederick Frith, silhouette conversation piece
PAINTED IN FULL COLOUR
BY FREDERICK FRITH

Signed silhouette reverse painted on glass
REVERSE-PAINTED ON GLASS BY C H HUDSON

john Miers. silhouette painted on plaster
PAINTED ON PLASTER
BY JOHN MIERS

William Hamlet, silhouette painted on ivory
PAINTED ON IVORY
BY WILLIAM HAMLET

Origins

Although black profiles are to be found on ancient Greek and Roman pottery, the earliest known British silhouette was cut around 1699. I have in my own collection a head & shoulders profile of a Quaker gentleman born in 1688 which it can be assumed was cut in his lifetime. The art of cutting silhouettes was boosted by a Swiss physiognomist, Johann Caspar Lavater, who published an influential book, Essays on Physiognomy, Designed to Promote the Knowledge and the Love of Mankind (1st English ed. 1792), in which he claimed that a person's character and temperament could be read in the contours of his face. To demonstrate his theory he analysed silhouettes of historical figures. This caught the public imagination and several silhouette artists set up studios in response to the new demand for accurate profiles. The real heyday of the silhouette in Britain began around 1770 and lasted until 1860 when photography came into vogue.

Techniques

It was common practice for artists to use some kind of mechanical device to assist with creating profiles either to create a reflected profile that could be traced around or to reduce the size of the profile. There were even inventions that assisted with the cutting process. Some artists on the other hand made it a selling point to cut profiles freehand without the use of any such device.

Formats

Silhouettes fall into five main formats: cut in paper (black or hollow-cut); painted on paper/card; painted on plaster; painted on glass; painted on ivory. A few artists were versatile and could offer a choice of format but most specialised in using just one technique.

Cut profiles were the cheapest and quickest to produce and were easy to duplicate. Some artists, like Edouart, always doubled his paper to cut two profiles simultaneously retaining the second one for his archive. The earliest profiles were cut from white paper which was then blackened and laid on a white ground; black paper did not become available until the 1820s. An alternative method was to discard the cut profile but to retain the paper with the hole which would then be laid over black paper or cloth to reveal the profile. These were known as 'hollow-cuts'. This method was rarely used in Britain (Mrs Harrington and Mrs Collins are the best known exponents) whereas in America hollow-cuts were very popular during the 19th century. Cut silhouettes could either be left plain or embellished with gum arabic, grey or gold paint, or Chinese white to highlight the detail of the sitter's costume and hair. Cut silhouettes were offered by both professional and amateur artists so they can vary in quality and skill.

Painted silhouettes were on the other hand less likely to be offered by amateur artists as their successful production required brushskills. As with cutwork, silhouettes painted on paper/card were often embellished with gum arabic, grey or gold paint, or Chinese white and sometimes had elaborately painted backgrounds. Silhouettes painted in full colour can also be found.

Profiles painted on plaster were popular during the late 18th, early 19th century. The black profile contrasts sharply against the dead white of the plaster slab. Britain's finest silhouette artist, John Miers (1758-1821), favoured this medium though he also painted on ivory and on card.

Particular care needs to be taken with profiles painted on glass as once the glass cracks or chips the portrait is irreparably damaged. The paint can also be prone to flaking and smudging. Profiles were painted on flat or convex glass and were backed with paper, silk, or wax. Wax added a wonderful luminosity but it was not durable and could easily shrink and crack and, if it was hung too close to an open fire, it could literally drip off!

 

DUTCH SCHOOL SILHOUETTE
REVERSE-PAINTED ON GLASS

 

A few silhouettists used ivory as a base. These were mostly small pieces intended as jewellery settings for lockets, brooches and rings. John Field created many such small pieces. Larger bust-length profiles on ivory are more unusual.

Conversation Pieces

Bust-length silhouettes dominated the market but many artists - amongst them Augustin Edouart, Samuel Metford & William Seville - also offered full-length profiles either of individuals or of groups. Conversation pieces of an entire family together are particularly attractive and are popular with collectors.

Cut and gilded silhouette conversation pieceAugustin Edouart, silhouette of the Paul FamilyAugustin Edouart, silhouette of a shooting party

Trade Labels

Professional silhouettists did not always sign their work but instead some pasted advertising labels on the reverse of the frame. Many of these labels have survived today and where found increase the desirability of a silhouette so are well worth preserving. Trade labels can help date a silhouette and often contain fascinating price information.

Desirable Artists

There were so many fine silhouettists working in the late 18th and early 19th century, some being more prolific than others, that it is difficult to rank them but these are my personal choice of artists to collect. The list is confined to those artists whose work regularly appears on the market and is relatively affordable. There are also many charming and well-executed silhouettes by unrecorded amateur or unknown artists that would enhance any collection and should not be overlooked.

Affordable Artists

  • John Miers (ca1758-1821)
  • Augustin Edouart (1789-1861)
  • Royal Victoria Gallery (fl.1837-ca1954)
  • Mrs Isabella Beetham (ca1753-1825)
  • William Hamlet (fl.1785-1816)
  • John Field (1772-1848)
  • Hinton Gibbs (fl.1795-1822)
  • Mrs Sarah Harrington (fl.1774-ca1787)
  • Edward Foster (1762-1864)
  • Master Hubard (ca1809-1862)


UNKNOWN ARTIST


GOSLING, AN UNRECORDED ARTIST

Premier Artists with Premier Prices

  • John Buncombe (fl.1820-1830)
  • Tiberius Cavallo (1749-1809)
  • Lady Louisa Kerr (fl.1825-1868)
  • Arthur Lea (1768-1828)
  • W. Phelps (fl.1784-ca1791)
  • Miss Jane Read (ca1773-1857)
  • Charles Rosenberg (1745-1844)
  • Jacob Spornberg (1768-1840s)
  • Francis Torond (ca1743-1812)
  • William Wellings (fl.1778-1796)

Finding Service

We provide a finding service so, if you are looking for a special piece, we would be pleased to take the details and attempt to find an example for you. Alternatively, if you would like to be notified whenever we acquire pieces either by a specific artist or of a particular type just send us the details. Not all our stock is listed on the website.


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Cynthia McKinley
Wigs on the Green Fine Art, York
Tel. +44 (0)1904 794711             Mobile: 07962 257915
Email: enquiries@wigsonthegreen.co.uk