Antiques & Collectables - Silhouettes

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All of us today take photography very much for granted but, of course, there was a time when there was no photographic process.  In fact, this did not come into being until the early 1840's.


What did we do before this date if Auntie Maude wanted to send a likeness to her nieces and nephews showing how magnificent she looked in her new hat or bonnet?  To achieve something that was in portable form, you had few choices.  You could employ an artist to make a sketch or you could have a miniature to recreate the sitter in colour but this could be quite a long and arduous process.  You could also resort to a silhouette.


The method of cutting a profile was first recorded way back in the reign of William and Mary and was allegedly a portrait picture cut by a Mrs Pyburg in 1669.  Ever since, this has had its own place in European social history and had a great appeal to both the sitters and their loved ones.


The word "silhouette" has to be credited to a certain French Government minister who indulged in this popular craze during the late 18th century.  I am sure that to train as a silhouettist did not take an awful lot of time.  Anybody who had a skill as an artist and nimble figures to cut out the picture could set up a booth to carry out this work.  These cubicles were situated at fairs and street corners.  There was even one in the Thames Tunnel, which was a great attraction after its opening in 1843, and several on Brighton Pier.  Certainly, in the book called British Silhouette Artists and Their Work 1760/1860, Sue McKechnie catalogued some 400 artists who had established themselves in this particular trade.


Notable artists were John Miers, 1756/1821 who was probably the most eminent of all the silhouettists.  His amazing technical skill in recreating the likeness of the sitter made him supreme within his craft.  Originally heralding from Leeds, he attended a studio at 62 The Strand in 1788.  He perfected the art by painting a silhouette on smooth slabs of white plaster.  This technique achieved a wonderful, hazy appearance.  Many people tried to emulate Miers skill, most of them without success.


It is always an advantage in value terms to have the original trade label on the back of the picture.  Very occasionally, it will mention the cost of having the work done and the item framed.  This varied from maybe 1 shilling to 4 shillings, which would equate to probably £300 today!


In the early part of the 19th century, another skilled artist called Augustin Edouart arrived in England in 1814 and made a living from fancy pictures and prints made out of human hair.  He was instrumental in introducing the family group silhouette which have a wonderful, naïve charm that give an insight into fashion and the way of life at this particular time in history and depicts mannerisms, dress, furniture, toys and artifacts of the time.


Another important factor in collecting silhouettes is the frame.  It is most important that they are acquired in their original or a period frame, most of which have a black lacquer finish, some with a gilt inset around the picture and a small brass acorn or similar decoration at the top of the frame from which the silhouette hung.


Prices vary enormously but you could expect to pay in the low hundreds for a family group and certainly £50 upward for an individual silhouette where the sitter or the artist is unknown.  Prices are relatively low at present and it could be this is the time to begin collecting.  Certainly, they look particularly attractive if grouped in 6 or more on a wall and irrespective of who they are, or whom they are by, they can give the room and you a collection of instant ancestors.



© Mike Hicks

February 2003