Charles' History of Silhouettes

From the Very Elaborate to the Very Simple
(or what I've found out so far!)

Whenever possible I've illustrated my history with examples from my own collection. When it's not been possible I've used photos from old books and magazines of works long past copyright (I hope!) In any event I'm sure the artists will not mind their use here by a fellow silhouettist! The artists I talk about are all those which especially interest me, or who have inspired my own work. I am mostly (but not exclusively) interested in paper-cutting artists, and /or, those artists with intinerant "roving" lifestyles, or who have sought to combine art and entertainment (as I do). My choice of artist is entirely subjective. I've left out whole chunks of history, and some of the most "important" artists of all. I make no apology for this, this is my web-site after all!

Buncombe Sil (101k Gif)

From Elaborate Beginnings

Much early English silhouette art was characterized its elaborate execution. Many eighteenth century silhouettists were in fact aspiring portrait artists, or miniaturists. Some of them turned to creating "shades" (as they were then known) to tide themselves over when business was slack. Others found they developed a name for their work in this genre, and quickly developed a market for it. At any event silhouettes were (and still are) "art for the people" in so far as it provided a cheap and accessible access to portraiture.


An absurdly over-painted (in my view) military portrait by a late 18th century artist called John Buncombe.


John Buncombe is well known among modern day collectors of silhouette. His work is scarce and valuable, and as such has been well copied, so collectors should be warned to beware of fakes! His work was probably quite expensive even while he lived, but a lot less so than a society portrait artist. For this reason many of Buncombe's subjects are middle ranking army officers.

On Black Shadows and Black Faces

To my mind, this kind of work can hardly be described as a "shadow", and seems rather uncomfortable, being neither miniature portrait nor silhouette. This style of portraiture is very recognizeably English, and was practiced by a number of artists in the late eighteenth century, of which John Buncombe is perhaps one of the best. However, to modern eyes these are difficult and obscure pieces to look at. The feeling is that the person himself must have been black... jet-black! This "blackness" brings with it all sorts of ambiguous racial overtones which would simply never have occured to these eighteenth century artists, nor to their, presumably, to their public.

Man by Phelps (47k Gif) lady by Phelps (47k Gif)
A pair of silhouettes by W. Phelps

W. Phelps is another rare artist who worked in this fashion. His silhouettes are unusual for their day, being cut out from white laid paper, then painted with lamp black and watercolour. The results are very effective and much better (in my view) than the Buncombe silhouette.


One of the things which fascinate me about this obscure art is that the artists were always very much people of their time. Often unpretentious, they give their public what they want without aspiring to artistic greatness. They therefore reflect with great clarity the pre-occupations and sensibilities of their time. The simple truth here is that it is the black face which allows the work to be so reasonably priced. Any extra detail on the face would have made it a portrait, not a shade! But details on the costume and clothing can be just as detailed as any miniature or portrait of the day, while still withing the genre of "shade". Think this is bizarre? Read on!




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©Charles Burns/www.roving-artist.com/The Edo Barn Site/silhouettes@me.com/This page was first created in March 1997 and last updated August 2012