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Silhouette Men in Oz and US

A large profile hollow-cut from cardboard and mounted on black cloth by Nelly Parke Custis of her grandfather, George Washington. To obtain this likeness, she traced his life-sized shadow seen in the sunlight on a wall at Mount Vernon, Virginia, where America's first president lived for more than 45 years.
  Photo Katherine Courtney.
Click to enlarge

Two gifted Scissorhands, one in Sydney (Australia), the other in Tennessee (US), both call themselves The Silhouette Man. They are keeping alive the ancient art of cutting black paper silhouettes of people's faces. Many of their superb portraits can be seen on the internet (see links below).

Silhouettes were the most popular means of capturing a likeness until the camera was invented.

Sydney's Silhouette Man, S. John Ross, now 85, has retired, but he resumed work briefly last month for the re-opening of the city's harbourside fun fair, Luna Park, where he ran a booth for 30 years. Ernest Borgnine, Johnny Ray and John Mills have posed for him.

Born in the US, Ross came to Australia as a US soldier assigned to guard Bob Hope, Jack Benny and other celebrities entertaining Allied forces in the Southwest Pacific. He met an Australian servicewoman, married her in 1945, and settled Down Under, making his living as an itinerant silhouette artist at hundreds of annual shows.

At Sydney's Royal Easter Show last year, he received an outstanding achievement award for working at the show for 56 years. He says grandmothers, and even great grandmothers, who had posed for him as children, sometimes visited his booth, asking him to cut portraits of their young descendants.

America's Silhouette Man is Tim Arnold, of Tennessee, who has been cutting silhouettes professionally for more than 30 years.

"Considered America's premier silhouettist, Tim has become known for his accuracy and beautiful interior detailing, prized by collectors," says his website.

"Tim currently tours 18 states appearing in leading department stores... Silhouettes can also be done from profile photos sent to Tim.

"In 1990, Tim was invited to the White House to collaborate on a children's book with Sharon Bush. Tim had the honor of meeting the former President and cutting silhouettes of 3 of his grandchildren, a birthday gift for Barbara Bush. Those silhouettes hung in the White House."

Katherine Courtney, a retired professional portrait artist in Orlando, Florida, displays some interesting silhouettes on her website. In "A Short History of Silhouettes," she says:

A silhouette is a picture of an object or person showing the outline only, filled with solid shadow or to appear in profile.

Its name is derived from Etienne de Silhouette, a notorious French controller general of finance who lived from 1709 to 1767. He would amuse himself by freehand cutting shadow portraits out of black paper. There are several types of silhouettes but the most common were cut from black paper or hollow cut with scissors.

Silhouette drawing can be traced back as far as the stone age where many can be found on the walls of caves. The Greeks, Mesopotamian's and Etruscans used them also.

European silhouette artists in the seventeenth century would cast the shadow of their subject upon a wall by back lighting them with a candle and then paint their likeness.

We asked Katherine Courtney for permission to quote the above text. She replied:

I am honored and delighted to have you ask to use this material for your article. You have my permission.

This web site on silhouettes has brought many interesting responses. The head of the London Sketch Club was delighted to find "Part of the frieze of life-sized silhouettes around the walls of the London Sketch Club". He then sent me more photographs showing the frieze all around the room.

A descendant of August Edouart wrote asking me where she could see more of his work and wanted to learn how to cut silhouettes. I have had notes from silhouette artists all over the world. Charles Burns, who does silhouettes in the UK, made a visit to Disney World to meet the cutting artists there. He has a huge web site at http://www.edobarn.demon.co.uk/

Thanks to Katherine Courtney's link, we visited English artist Charles Burns's fascinating Silhouette Parlour. Charles says:
The Parlour is a virtual mirror of my own Silhouette Parlour in Reading, England. I've designed it as a walk-through tour of the history of silhouettes cutting, from European Origins in the eighteenth century until the present day. If you'd like to have your own Silhouette taken, the lady with the feathers will take you to the modern day parlour!

If you click on any of the little pictures hanging on the wall you will learn about a period in history, a particular place, or about some artist from the past. I've left it as a mystery tour for now.... just click on the one of the silhouettes and see where it takes you! Each one has a story to tell about the fascinating history of silhouettes, and about the many interesting characters who have worked in this genre.

An American internet writer, Mike Dust, recalls the days when silhouette portraits were commonplace:
Until a few years ago men might often have been seen in the streets of Boston and other big cities, who for a penny, would cut out a silhouette portrait of anyone who cared to stand before them for a few minutes. These portraits were about the size of a carte-de-visite photograph, and were often very good likenesses.

Of course, these portraits were more or less accurate as side views of the face, according to the skill of the man who cut them out. If he had much artistic ability they were good likenesses; if not, they were sometimes very poor.

But in still earlier days, when silhouette portraits were fashionable and popular, they used to be done in a more scientific way. The person whose portrait was to be taken sat sideways before a screen, with a light on a table on the other side of him, and in this way a clear shadow was thrown upon the screen, which gave a perfect portrait if the light and sitter were arranged properly.

Then the outline would be traced upon the screen, and from this it was, by mechanical means, transferred, on a small scale, to a sheet of special black paper, cut out, and mounted on card. Many of these old silhouette portraits have come down to us.

There is a famous one of Edward Gibbon, the historian, which gives not only his face, but his whole figure, and he considered it the best of all the portraits of himself that had ever been drawn. There is also a famous silhouette portrait of Robert Burns, the Scottish poet.

Links

 

Story first posted February 2005

Copyright 2005

Eric Shackle

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