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Mock up, paper, scissors: the artistry of silhouettes

Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column

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Cutting edge: A family scene attributed to Edouart

Cutting edge: A family scene attributed to Edouart

Cutting edge: A family scene attributed to Edouart

In the 19th century, only the wealthy could afford to have their portraits painted. The cheaper alternative was a silhouette, painted or drawn, but most commonly cut from paper. Some were made using an instrument called a physiognotrace (it traces your fizzog) but the artists who worked freehand looked down on mechanical likenesses. In many ways, their work was the forerunner of photography, which did not become affordable until around 1860. Until then, silhouettes or "black shades" were the only way that most people could afford a likeness to hang on their wall. Silhouettes are attractive and historically interesting, but unlikely to make you rich. As in all forms of portraiture, a likeness of a known person or by a known artist is worth more than an anonymous one and the occasional silhouette sells well at auction but, in general, it's a buyer's market. Examples on display at The Silver Shop in the Powerscourt Centre, Dublin, range from €225 to €395.

Ian Haslam of The Silver Shop is an enthusiast. "Silhouettes are quite smart and nice, and you can build a collection without spending thousands," he says. "But you need a few of them. A single one looks a bit mean or solitary hanging on the wall." Haslam's interest in the medium was piqued when Doneraile Court, Co Cork, opened to the public with a display of silhouettes on loan from Tara's Palace Trust.

As the poor relation of the portrait miniature, silhouettes attracted a certain amount of snobbery. Even the name was unflattering. Étienne de Silhouette was a French Treasury Chief known for his economies and, in late 18th-century France, anything penny-pinching or cheapskate was dubbed à la Silhouette. This did not deter artists from adopting the name. "Why does such prejudice exist against black shades, which I call Silhouette Likenesses?" moaned Augustin Edouart, one of the leading silhouettists of his day.

Edouart (1789-1861) had a fascinating life. He was a soldier in Napoleon's army who moved to England and began a career creating animal portraits from the subject's hair. This gave a new meaning to "the hair of the dog" but failed as a business. In 1825 he began to make silhouette likenesses with scissors and black paper. Edouart had a talent for capturing the personality of the sitter in outline. He moved to Dublin in 1833 and was recorded in the Dublin Evening Mail as "the most comical, and at the same time, the cleverest artist that we ever met in his way… This gentleman has either invented or brought to perfection an art which in his hands gives to the scissors all the expressive powers of the pencil."

Edouart was a quick worker and was able to make a full-length silhouette in about five minutes. Each one cost five shillings, which was as much as a skilled workman could expect to earn in a day. "Children under eight years of age are charged less, although they give me more trouble," he wrote in A Treatise on Silhouette Likenesses (1835). His work was tremendously popular. "Monsieur Edouart, the celebrated, and, we may say, unique genius in his art, is doing wonders at the spirited town of Kinsale," enthused the Cork Evening Herald in 1834. He made 132 portraits in Kinsale, 100 in Killarney, 151 in Fermoy, 197 in Bandon, and 112 in Youghal. Because Edouart worked from folded paper, all his likenesses were made in duplicate. He sold one and kept the other for a rainy day. When someone died, he recalled in his memoirs, it was remarkable how keen their relations were to purchase their likeness. From Cork, he travelled to America where he spent three years. On the way home he was shipwrecked and most of his cargo was lost, including his life's work of duplicates. Edouart was broken by the experience and never worked again but one of the surviving suitcases contained the duplicates he had made in Killarney, Bandon, Fermoy, Youghal, and Kinsale.

In 2006 a group silhouette picture made by Edouart in Kentucky sold at Christie's for US $60,000. It was estimated between $2,000 and $3,000, so the high price may have been more to do with the sitters than the artist. Otherwise, prices for his work range from a couple of hundred euro to well into the thousands. In April 2019, a hilarious family group attributed to Edouart sold at Adam's for €520.

Native Irish silhouettists included Stephen O'Driscoll of Cork (c.1825-1895). In 2004 a group of three of his silhouettes sold at Bonham's in London for €2,253. They included a hilarious image of a fat man on a bicycle entitled "Money makes the Major go." In March 2019, a set of four "Silhouettes of Noble Cork business men" by O'Driscoll fetched €900 at Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers.

Ireland seems to have been on the silhouettists' circuit. The young British prodigy, William James Hubard passed through in the 1830s, evidenced by a handbill from a performance in Galway. Admission was one shilling (then worth about €5): "For which money each visitor is to receive a correct Likeness in Bust, cut in 20 seconds, without drawing or machine, by sight alone, and simply with a pair of scissors, by a boy of 14."

See silvershopdublin.com, adams.ie, fonsiemealy.ie.

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