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 th