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The Regency Wardrobe collection - research - Silhouettes and the self-image

"Their heyday in the 18th and mid 19th centuries, and again in the twentieth and twenty-first, centuries coincides with the heyday of the caricature, yet, unlike the classic caricature, they are often affectionate, charming and wonderfully delicate..." Silhouette artists' clients were often "...ordinary, hard-working people with little in the way of disposable income...the earlier history corresponds roughly to the Georgian period from 1760 onwards, through the Regency and early Victorian periods until about 1860"

- pages 6-8 Mastering Silhouettes by Charles Burns

"...silhouettes are most definitely portraits...The German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) described them as "the purest of all portraits" and as "those which most clearly expose the soul of the sitter"...Although it is impossible to be certain, it is possible to judge whether a silhouette could be a good likeness. Silhouettes, or "shades", rely on an ability we all have to piece together the bits of a face we cannot see...On looking at a good silhouette, initially you see the outline only, then slowely you begin to see where the eyes should be, and then the ears. The flow of the hair (or lack of it) around the face begins to become apparent and the shape of the shoulders indicates how the person is standing, giving subtle clues about their character." p13 as above

Silhouettes are a prominent feature of the Regency era and are, of course, made by cutting paper. So it was not only their visual impact and key roll as a form of art from that period that leapt out at me but their direct relevance to the material with which I work.

A pair of classic head and shoulder portrait Silhouettes from the Chertsey Museum collection

"The term “silhouette” derived from the name of Etienne de Silhouette (1709-1767), a Frenchman who was a finance minister to Louis XV. Etienne de Silhouette, though not the originator of this type of tracing, became synonymous with the art form because of his ability to create elaborate pieces. The English called them “shades.” Making silhouettes was a favourite pastime at the court of George III. The King loved to throw shade parties.

In 1775, Mrs. Samuel Harrington invented the pantograph. This mechanical device could be used to enlarging or reduce the size of a drawing. A silhouette, normally made life size, could be reduced to a smaller size using the pantograph. These miniature silhouettes were extremely popular because they could be used in jewellery such as lockets and cameos".


"During the Regency, candles, the primary form of artificial light available, were not only utilitarian. They also provided a source of evening entertainment. A candle brought close to a person’s profile could cast a shadow on a piece of paper attached to the wall that might be drawn around and blacked in with lampblack or gauche resulting in a silhouette. In those days before photography, a silhouette provided a simple and inexpensive way of taking someone’s likeness. Because anyone could create a silhouette, their making became a popular party activity in the 18th and 19th century. Jane Austen did not portray this activity in her books but silhouettes of Austen family members exist".

As an aside I enjoyed looking at this Pinterest board showing many more Regency pastimes:

A pair of silhouettes in frames about 10cms wide from a private collection. Beyond living memory they are portrayed and named and their images have a life of their own.

For more images please scroll right

Two of my favourite silhouette artists are John Miers and John Field

"John Miers is known as the master of silhouette and his profiles are some of the finest ever made....Mier' is recorded as opening from noon until 4pm each day, suggesting there were long periods when the artist did not want to be disturbed...John Field started his career as assistant to John Miers...Field seems to have been fascinated by the idea of adding reflected light on the back of the head, which he did by applying fine areas of gold."

- Mastering Silhouettes by Charles Burns

Unknown lady by John Field

"From their ancient origins as traced shadows - described by Pliny as the origins of art - through to variations in classical Greek friezes and side-views of Caesar on Roman coins, graphic depictions of profile outline have eminent beginnings that belie their later status as the poor man's portrait...named after the parsimonious eighteenth century French Minister of Finance in reference to their cheapness and speed of production (his period of office was notably short-lived). This nickname also becomes a neat metaphor for the silhouette's economy of means and suggests an interesting parallel between government cuts ad decorative knife and scissor work." p5 Profiles of the Past, Silhouettes, Fashion and Image 1760-1960 from the Introduction by Annebella Pollen

Silhouettes, whilst originally cut free-hand from paper were later also "...painted onto glass, plaster or ivory." They might be "...traced from a projected shadow or produced by the pantograph technology of a physiognotrace machine...They could act as personal keepsake, public object of display or social unit of exchange; they could, through Lavater's pseudodcientific system of physiognomy, divine aspects of character and even analyse the soul. Alternatively, they could merely provide a quick, cheap memento of a visit to a seaside or spa town." p6 as above

"The art of the Sihouette creates intrigue in the eye of the beholder because the sitter's shadow portrait lacks physical facial detail. R. L Megroz comments that ''For many people the very simplicity -perhaps also the dreamlike gloom - of the ordinary black silhouette is a special attraction. This art form uses the blank expressionless profile to conceal the inner-self that is so often captured in facial expression. Neoclassical in their essential aesthetic pursuit as an artistic form, late eighteenth and early nineteenth century silhouettes represent the ultimate use, as David Irwin explains, or 'contour or line, so important for neoclassical art...described as the chief aim of the Greek artists.' The silhouette also reflects the complexity of thought that a simple line can unravel and in so doing, reflects the power of the artists' brash to depict the inquisitiveness of the human mind In its most elevated form, the humble silhouette bears testimony to the power of art to capture and reveal the quintessential essence of humanity." p37 Profiles of the Past Chapter 3 E-J Scott and Lou Taylor

In his introduction to Mastering Silhouettes by Charles Burns, Peter Furtado refers to the way that silhouettes manage "...the incisive capturing of individuality through simplification and exaggeration..." to "...provide their own special insight..." as above.

The idea that a world can be seen to grow from a simple single line which itself begins from a simple single point in space and on paper is one that would recapture Twentieth century abstract artists, most notably Paul Klee who claimed: "A drawing is simply a line going for a walk...A line is a dot that went for a walk.”

"...Neoclassical art and design in Britain reached its height of popularity towards the end of the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century, Judy Marle comments that 'Neo-classical art, born in the second half of the eighteenth century, was the outcome of a re-examination and re-interpretation of the Classical heritage in Western art (whereby), square brackets, men began to look afresh as the great works of antiquity.'" p37 as above

An unknown lady and man by William Bache, American Silhouette Artist 1771- 1845

"'To Turn sideways' was a eighteenth century phrase which no longer resonates today unless you are familiar with the practise of having one's 'shade' or silhouette painted. Looking at the 'sideways' portraits of a selection of silhouettes of women from the 1780s and 1790s, opens up other possibilities for the twenty-first century researcher...including an examination of the styles of dress and accessories..." p15 Chapter 1 of Profiles of the Past by Bridget Millmore

"In considering silhouettes as a resource for the study of dress history and popular image culture, intriguing questions are raised...To what extent can silhouettes be read as evidence of fashion and dress available and worn in the period? To what extent are these objects of fantastical constructions, the stuff of idealisation and projection, the making of imaginary selves? Was their purpose to reveal or to flatter...we shall never precisely known, though we do know that hats were borrowed, often provided by the silhouette artist. Other aspects of the image, from decorative embellishments to fantastical head pieces, may have been entirely fictitious. Nonetheless all these sartorial manifestations were set closely to fashions and social expectation of their day." p6-7 Introduction - Profiles of the Past

"...photographs may seem to offer a privileged means of ascertaining the actuality of historic fashion and dress compared to the silhouette image. In fact, which photographs were appreciated from the start for their ability to depict every button and bead of a garment, it is well-known that all aspects of photographic portraiture were tightly managed. In the theatrical space of a photographic studio, a range of props from backdrops to books, furniture to potted ferns classical columns and carpets could be assembled according to preference. The technical imperatives of the machinery and the prescriptive advice of the photographer meant that all aspects of pose and costume were shaped by social and cultural requirements. Studio photographs, for all their beguiling realism, were as constructed as silhouettes...Both formats reveal performances of the self for posterity rather than providing simple windows into the past. That is not to say, of course, that neither form of portraiture is without historical value; each is richly instructive about social and cultural expectations for self-presentation." Introduction p8-9 as above

We are of course asking the same questions today of the self-images we take and send and post online. That is, how true to life are they? We may no longer know the expression 'To turn sideways' but we do of course still sometimes ask "which is my best side?" And indeed social media is often accused of offering us all the chance to show only the best side of our lives, to turn our lives sideways on in effect, and to choose which side we want to present to the world and which we will turn away from the glare of public scrutiny. The media seems fascinated by questions concerning whether we can get a truthful sense of someone else through their carefully taken selfie snaps, their purposefully presented dating profiles, all of the neatly positioned, carefully edited images around us apparently designed to show us only a fictitious, neatly coiffured, carefully manicured version of people and things. In the realms of fantasy today we can go further creating avatar selves and scenery that respond to our every whim. No longer have we the need to walk out into messy, unpredictable nature we can sit at home and be surrounded by a carefully drawn version of the world.


Scenery is a wonderfully evocative and informative feature of silhouettes. Augustin Edouart (1789-1861) is a very well-known silhouette artist who often placed his sitter's silhouette image onto a lithograph or watercolour background.

Once you've seen a silhouettes set against a background the contrast between that and a group of individuals placed together on plain paper becomes stark.


Similarly evocative was their use of colour on the garments being worn by a subject. This is an intriguing and variable feature.

Colour, form and three-dimensions were sometimes just hinted at with highlights of gold or beige or white.

Madame Sidney Pratten (Catharina Josepha Pratten (née Pelzer)) See:

The National Portrait Museum has an interesting collection:

The use of white to show decorative lace especially can be exquisite:

And just occasionally you find colour used in more unexpectedly modern ways.

"The introduction of colour, texture and luxurious finish distinguished silhouettes as a form of decorative art distinct from photography's mass-production. Only those with access to specialist, expensive technical equipment and knowledge could produce photographs until the widespread circulation of push-button cameras and roll-film in the last decades of the nineteenth century; while silhouettes, at their most basic never required much more that paper and knife. The simple, demotic means give silhouettes a greater claim to the status of folk art than nineteenth century photography". p8 Profiles of the Past

This has to be my favourite of all those I've seen:

Example of a conversation piece silhouette. Auguste Amant Constant Fidèle Edouart (France, 1789-1861), William Buckland and his Wife and Son Frank, Examining Buckland's Natural History Collection, c. 1828-9. Cut-out full-figure silhouettes from matte black coated white wove paper mounted to beige wove paper. Mary L. Smith Fund, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1966.964.

For more fascinating information about silhouettes please have a look at a project developed by The Brunswick Town Charitable Trust via The Regency Town House Heritage Centre and members of the Silhouette Collectors Club please see: Profiles of the Past

And these are interesting accounts:


This research was done as part of the process of designing and making The Regency Wardrobe collection.

This project has been supported by:

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