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High Profiles : Silhouettes Were the Snapshots of the 18th Century

BEVIS HILLIER

May 11, 1986|BEVIS HILLIER

Our English teacher at high school was explaining what a cliche is: a phrase that has become hackneyed through overuse. Somebody asked him to give a "for instance." He suggested: "silhouetted against the sky"--a description often applied to lone cowboys.

Alas, I have never entirely purged my prose of cliches. But the English teacher's words had one lasting effect: I learned what a silhouette is--a profile, cut or painted in a dark color, usually black, and set against a pale background, usually white. Later I learned that this minor art form took its name from Etienne de Silhouette (1709-67), a French controller-general of finances whose hobby was the cutting of profiles from black paper.

Five years ago I bought a fine, early-19th-Century silhouette (shown at left) in a London antique shop. Painted on glass, it is a conversation piece, showing a stooped old man in a top hat being welcomed by a portly gentleman and two small boys (perhaps his son and grandsons). Having hung it on my wall, I set out to learn more about the art of silhouette.

The best introduction to the subject is Peggy Hickman's book "Silhouettes" (Cassell, London, 1968). The first thing you learn from Hickman is that silhouettes, during most of the period in which they were fashionable, were not known as "silhouettes." They were called "shadows" or "profiles." The art was already known in the late 17th Century, when Elizabeth Pyburg is said to have cut profiles of William and Mary of England.

Silhouettes were the snapshots of the 18th Century. They were pasted into albums and worn in lockets and finger-rings. The development of photography put many silhouettists out of business. In its heyday, which lasted from about 1770 to 1860, the art of silhouette was given a big boost by the writings of Johann Casper Lavater, a Swiss clergyman who between 1775 and 1778 published a book on physiognomy, suggesting that character can be precisely deduced from the face. Those who regarded Lavater's theories as a science, not just an amusing party game, used silhouettes almost like graphs, noting severely the over-voluptuous lips that denoted sensuality, or the sloping forehead that might suggest incipient lunacy.

But silhouettes were also produced for sheer amusement, as in the spa town of Bath, England, where the fashionable stayed to take medicinal waters and to attend salons and balls. Jane Austen gives a delightful impression of Bath in "Persuasion," and perhaps the silhouette of Austen now in the National Portrait Gallery, London, was by a Bath artist. The best-known Bath silhouettists were William Hamlet and his son of the same name.

Another British artist sought by collectors is John Miers (1756-1821), who painted silhouettes of Robert Burns, of actress Sarah Siddons, of Jane Austen's sister, Cassandra, and of King George III, whose ponderous features might almost seem a proof of Lavater's theories. A. Charles of the Strand, London, sketched his clients in a bow window, drawing crowds and further clients. In 1793 he was appointed Likeness Painter to the Prince of Wales (the future George IV). Isabella Beetham, a Lancashire lass born in 1744, had her studio in Fleet Street, London. Peggy Hickman credits her with "magnificently fine brushwork, giving an impression of lace-like transparency." Charles Rosenberg (1745-1844) came to England in the retinue of Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who married George III in 1761. Rosenberg was then 16 and a page, but he soon showed an aptitude for drawing silhouettes. In later life (1787) he moved to Bath as a professional.

Another profile prodigy was William Hubbard (1807-62), who became a silhouettist at the age of 12. His talents were advertised in a Norwich, England, newspaper: ". . . the celebrated little artist who, by a mere glance at the face! and with a pair of common scissors!! . . . cuts the most spirited and striking likenesses in one minute. . . ." Hubbard married an American girl and became an American citizen. In 1862 he joined the Confederate Army and was killed at Richmond, Va., by an accidental shell explosion.

America entered the history of silhouettes at several points; profiling was not just a European phenomenon. John Andre (1751-80) executed fine profiles of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. The itinerant Moses Chapman (1783-1821) used scissors and a machine to cut profiles in Massachusetts. August Edouart (1769-1861), the best of the Victorian silhouettists, was not American; he was a Frenchman who came to England as a refugee after serving in Napoleon's army. But in 1839 he came to America for a time and cut about 3,800 profiles of American citizens. The ship on which he left America was shipwrecked on the coast of Guernsey. All but one of his albums were lost. That one he gave to the Lukis family of Guernsey, which had taken him in after the wreck.

In 1911, when E. Nevill Jackson was writing "The History of Silhouettes," she advertised, asking to see any examples in private hands. A member of the Lukis family replied, and Jackson was shown the rescued album, which contained hundreds of American profiles; she had a complete photographic record made. She also presented to the White House a silhouette of President John Tyler, cut by Edouart on a special command visit in 1841.

Silhouettes command high prices today. In February, 1985, Sotheby's London salesroom sold the silhouette collection of Leonard Morgan May, an attorney. A full-length profile of William, first Marquess of Lansdowne, by William Hamlet the elder of Bath, dated 1785, brought $1,500. An unascribed profile of a young lady of the Gosset family, who is shown playing a keyboard instrument (about 1780), fetched $3,150.

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