The Age of the Silhouette

 Charles Burns is an artist who specialises in silhouettes. Ahead of our Valentine's Day Seduction Late, he shares the history of this fascinating art form. 

In the late eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries silhouettes, then known as “shades”, were at the peak of their popularity. The earliest professional silhouettists were portrait miniaturists, for whom the shade was a simple outline profile filled in with black paint. They were considered the poor man's portrait.

Portrait of Lord Nelson and Vice Admiral Collingwood
Lord Nelson drew this silhouette of his friend Collingwood (right).
The advance of the industrial revolution, and the new age of scientific enlightenment, brought many rapid changes in the production of silhouettes. Early artists used shadowgraph screens to trace sitter’s profiles by candlelight (hence the term “shade”). Later, this gave way to the physiognotrace - an unreliable contraption based on the pantograph - which was widely used by itinerant artists all over the country. It consisted of a thin metal rod which, when passed over the sitter’s face, would draw their outline in miniature on a piece of paper. This outline was then either filled in with paint or, more commonly, cut with scissors.
 Silhouette of Emma Hamilton by artist Charles Burns
Silhouette of Emma Hamilton by our roving artist Charles Burns. You could win it at our Valentine's Day event.
In the late-Regency period silhouette artists began using optics; devices such as the portable camera obscura and camera lucida became popular. In the early-Victorian period these devices led directly to the invention of photography. By 1860 all the silhouette artists of the time had either bought a camera or gone out of business. The silhouette was consigned to history.
Silhouette of Lord Nelson
Silhouette of Lord Nelson by our roving artist. You could win it at our Valentine's Day event.
Although none are known, it seems certain Emma Hamilton would have commissioned a silhouette or two. In 1790’s London the artist’s quarter was the Strand. Many silhouettists had their studios there, some of whom were well known and whose work is widely collected today. Visitors would stroll the wide street looking at their work and choosing which artist would take their shade today.

Seduction Late - celebrate Valentine's Day in style

You can find out more about the art of the silhouette, and even get your own, at our Valentine's Day event.

Win a silhouette

Our roving artist has even offered the two silhouettes above as prizes for the best dressed to our Seduction Late. 

Make sure you're arriving in style with 10% off costumes from Angels Fancy Dress, just show your event ticket.