Silhouettes go back to ancient times and were mentioned by Pliny the Elder when writing about legends. In Britain they were called shades or profiles and were largely activities for the children or entertainment during parlour games. When Frenchman Augustin Edouart first started doing profiles in England in the 19th century he called them silhouettes.
Silhouettes were often regarded as the poor man’s portrait, as it was the cheapest possible representation of form and personality. Early silhouettes were painted and cut out in black-painted card. By the middle of the 19th century there were numerous new techniques, there were silhouettes painted on the reverse of glass or on ivory panels and some artists used gold to embellish their work.
Silhouettists, many of whom were female, would work incredibly quickly, some claimed they could take a likeness in two minutes. Working at that kind of speed it would not have taken them long to take the likeness of most people in a small town and many of them had to travel in order to earn a living. They would work in ports and seaside piers, others would set up temporary studios in fashionable places like Bath. Only the more established silhouettists would have had their own studios with a regular client base.
Once established artists began to take an interest silhouettes could be found in smart houses as well as royal palaces. As the neo-classic movement took hold towards the end of the 18th century, ladies and gentlemen wanted their silhouettes done as Roman emperors and Corinthian maids.
While most silhouettes are bust-length there are also large rectangular examples that show an entire family. One of the most successful artists was Isabella Beetham. She had a studio in Bloomsbury and took the profiles of the most prominent men and women of the day. She used a mixture of pine soot and beer on a plaster slab and was particularly good at showing off the sitter’s outfits to their best advantage.
In the 19th century Augustin Edouart produced wonderful group silhouettes. During the 18th and 19th century women would fill entire albums with silhouettes depicting domestic scenes. The library at Windsor Castle contains an album done by Queen Victoria, before she was married. She cut out silhouettes of her closest friends as well as her dog.
Unlike paintings, silhouettes were often taken on the spur of the moment with subjects in their ordinary dress. This makes them relatively easy to date. If you are interested in collecting silhouettes it is handy to know when certain methods were used. There are a large number of 20th century fakes in circulation depicting 18th century navel scenes or interiors. Rectangular glass painted silhouettes are extremely rare before the early 19th century and coloured silhouettes were rarely done.
When considering what you should pay condition is, as always, the most important consideration. It is not difficult to find some very fine genuine examples for less than £500. John Miers worked in Leeds and London and produced excellent work over a long period of time. At auction they sell from £300 upwards. The subject probably plays an important part too – his portrait of Jane Austen’s sister, Cassandra, sold for £4,200 at auction in 1993.
At the higher end of the scale, complex family groups by Torond and Edouart can fetch anything between £1,500 and £15,000. Probably not a good starting point for a beginner.
As always, buy from a reputable dealer, many of which can be found in antique centres and antique fairs. Your local auction house might be able to advise too.