CHARLES BURNS 
If you have attended an event recently - perhaps a friend's wedding or your company Christmas party - you may have been fortunate enough to meet a silhouette artist. If so, you probably came away with a small cut-paper portrait and thought it all a lot of fun. 
 
While placing it onto the mantelpiece you may like to reflect that your new silhouette is part of a living tradition stretching back to Georgian times. The first silhouettists were portrait miniaturists seeking to broaden the appeal of their art by creating a quicker (and less expensive) kind of miniature. Calling their new portraits ‘shades’ they started a craze for cheap, on-the-spot profiles which went viral throughout eighteenth-century Europe and the New World. People rapidly discovered a passion for small, inexpensive likenesses of family and friends which could be passed around as personal mementos. The craze lasted for over 100 years, until the invention of the camera which did the same job far better. 
 
Cutting a silhouette requires the same careful hand-eye coordination that an artist needs to draw from life, but without the luxury of time. A silhouette artist does not stop to plan his work, but cuts straight into the paper with barely a glance at his subject, producing an instant portrait with an ordinary pair of scissors and a extraordinary amount of skill. This traditional technique is known among artists as ‘cut and hope!’ 
 
Shocking likenesses 
 
Anybody who has ever had a successful silhouette cut in this way will recall the shock of recognition on seeing a paper-miniature version of their own shadow. As with any form of portraiture, silhouettes stand or fall by this ‘likeness’ - they are either recognisable or not - yet likeness is an elusive quality for any artist to capture. With it, they make wonderful and evocative heirlooms; without it, they are best put in the recycling bin! The skill of a true silhouettist lies in being able to reliably capture this likeness with just a few snips of the scissors. 
In walks a silhouettist. It is not immediately obvious that he is any different from the other guests in the room, but this is a guest with a rather unique talent. He approaches a small group of people and begins to engage them in conversation. After a short while he produces a pair of scissors and - seemingly in a matter of seconds - cuts an astonishingly accurate portrait of a fellow guest and holds it up to the light for all to see. The cries of amazement from the group quickly attract the attention of others in the room, some of whom gather to see what is going on. The silhouette, now mounted on a card, is passed around the room. 
Registered Address: 19 Hemingway Gardens, Whiteley, Fareham, Hampshire, PO15 7EY  
Tel: 01489 578777 
 
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