Silhouettes – solid profile images – have long been a popular form of portraiture, though the name itself only dates back a couple of hundred years. The side or profile view of a subject, whether on coins and medals or cut from paper, provides an instantly recognisable likeness. Visitors to the Library in 2011 saw a selection of fine silhouettes from our collections in the reading room display, “The Face of Quakerism”, curated by Joanna Clark, our former picture librarian. In this blogpost we bring some of our silhouettes to a wider audience, and, at the end, instructions on how you can “do it yourself”!
From the late 18th century, the art of cutting paper profiles became something of a craze. Known as “shades”, “black profiles”, “shadow portraits” or “scissor-types”, the name that caught on was “silhouette” (derived from the austerity measures of the French finance minister, Etienne de Silhouette, whose surname had become synonymous with anything done cheaply). Whether as amateur pastime or professional portraiture, silhouettes were both cheap and immensely popular, dwindling only in popularity after the late 1850s, when photography became more affordable.
Quakers and silhouettes
By 1800 the “scissors art” or cutting of silhouettes was already a popular hobby among Quakers. One of the most prolific and notable of the earlier silhouettists was Thomas Pole (1759-1823), who was born in Philadelphia but practised as a physician in England. A generation later, Samuel Metford of Glastonbury (1810-96) became the first Quaker to practise as a professional silhouette artist. He too had learned the art when in America on business, and from the 1830s to 1860s he travelled as a “profilist” around Britain, often using the local Quaker meeting as his source of custom. The Library holds quite a few of his elegant silhouette portraits, and his work is highly respected among modern collectors.
The making of silhouettes – or “scissors art”
The traditional method of creating silhouette portraits is to cut them from lightweight black cardboard, and mount them on a pale (usually white) background. However, silhouettes can also be “hollow cut”, where the figure is cut away from the paper thereby leaving a negative image. The paper outline is then backed with a contrasting colour of paper or fabric.
The traditional silhouette portrait artist or “profilist” could cut the likeness of a person, freehand, within a few minutes. However, by the 1820s some English profilists favoured the aid of a camera obscura, which casts a shadow of the person on paper, to provide an outline. This life-sized outline served as the artist’s cartoon or draft. The finished miniature silhouette could then be made using a reducing instrument known as a pantograph. Skilled artists would add detail afterwards – pastels might be used to create light and shade, and occasionally scraps of fabric were added to create a realistic bonnet or collar. Artists would talk of “taking” a silhouette in much the same way that photographers “take” a photograph.
Silhouette cutting: do it yourself
In the interests of historical research we decided to have a go at making silhouettes ourselves. The results were … interesting!
If you’d like to try it yourself, here’s how we did it (takes about 15-20 minutes):
1 A3 sheet white paper
1 A4 sheet black paper or light card
1 A4 sheet white/cream paper for mounting the silhouette
1 photocopier (there was no pantograph to hand) with A4 paper
Torch or bright lamp
1. Sit or stand the subject sideways next to a smooth wall surface in a dark room. Position the torch or bright lamp 3 or 4 metres away so that the sitter’s shadow falls sharply on the wall. Position the A3 sheet of white paper where shadow falls, and fix it with Blu-tack.
2. Adjust the sitter so that her/his head and neck shadow lies within the area of the paper. At this point, reduce any other light in the room, if you haven’t already. Standing beside the sitter, draw round the shadow as quickly and carefully as possible.
3. Take the drawing on the A3 sheet and photocopy it to reduce the image size onto A4 (or smaller if you like).
4. Lightly glue the outer margins of your A4 photocopy on the reverse, with a blob in the middle of the paper and position it on top of the A4 sheet of black paper or light card. Carefully cut around the profile (through both white and black paper), taking particular care to cut smoothly around the nose, lips and chin.
5. Discard outer pieces, peel off the white paper and voilà, one beautiful silhouette ready for mounting!