Painted silhouettes of the 18th Century

Old Studio (51K)

The eighteenth century is widely regarded as the rennaissance of silhouettes. What is not realised is that English silhouettes in those days were generally painted, not cut-out. A life-size cut-out was usually taken from the subject's shadow, which was used as an artist's cartoon. From this the finished silhouette was then made, using a reducing instrument known as a pantograph, or "stork's beak". This is why, to this day, artists talk of "taking" a silhouette, rather than drawing or cutting it. In much the same way that photographers "take" a photograph.

The skill of the best artists lay in the painting. This was done with soot, or lamp black, on plaster or glass. After painting the face dead black the hair, hats, ribbons, frills, and other essential accessories of the day, would have been "dragged" out, using a fine brush with progressively more and more diluted pigment.... seriously good fun!

John Miers

[Detail] Meirs1 (33K gif)

Two silhouettes by John Meirs, sadly not in my collection!

Meirs2 (36K gif)

The top one is an early "Strand" silhouette, in a papier-mache frame, the one to the right is earlier, probably from Leeds where he started out. Most people consider that Miers' early work was his best work, and hence these are the valuable ones.

It's quite worth taking a closer look at one of these!

John Meirs travelled widely in the North of England, very much the "Roving Artist", before settling into his famous shop on the Strand in London. He is probably the most famous artist of the English silhouette "rennaisance" and his pictures are rightly prized by collectors of silhouettes. He was unusual for his time in believing that a shade should be just that, a shadow, and nothing more. That is, an accurate and detailed shadow of the sitter, without the gold (and even coloured) embellishments used by many of his contemporaries (such as John Buncombe). This debate (to embellish or not to embellish!) has preoccupied silhouettists for many years, and I have to own to a preference here in preferring the artists like Miers & Edouart (of the 19th century) who take this view. The gold embellishments of the 18th century have today given way to cut paper embellishments, known as "slash work", of which I have never been a fan... but I digress.

Feild Sil (23K jpeg)

A bronzed silhouette by John Field, Meirs' partner (and rival?)

John Feild was originally Meirs' apprentice and later his partner of many years. He inherited the business when John Meirs died. It is possible that many of John Meirs' later works were in fact executed by Field! The bronzing shown here is a feature of John Field's own style (that is, executed under his own name) and was apparently much criticized by John Miers, who felt that it was an unwarranted departure from the true shadow. Nevertheless, the sheer quality of John Field's work seems to overide such criticism. The bronzing adds a third dimension to the work, and gives us the strange feeling of the subject emerging, as it were, out of a pool of light.

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©Charles Burns/ Edo Barn Site/ page was first created in September 1997 and last updated August 2012