Saturday, 5 September 2015

As cheap as a pot of ink.

 Ètienne de Silhouette was a French finance minister in the middle of the eighteenth century who because of pressures caused by the seven years war found himself (and the country) a bit out of pocket.  So in 1759 he brought about changes(as finance ministers so often do) that forced strict economic measures on the people, especially the rich.  This meant that everybody had to make cutbacks and economise in their daily lives and so the ministers name was applied to anything that was deemed cheap.  Like a small cut out portrait.

I suppose this dose of harsh living may have helped to lead the French to their revolution later in the century, and it did introduce a new word to the English language - Silhouette.  And the cheap cut out or painted portraits which came to bare the finance minister's name were much quicker and easier to have made than the traditional miniature portrait.   

Actually the name Silhouette wasn't generally applied to English cutout miniatures until the beginning of the nineteenth century, and there was at least a century long tradition of making them before the name was applied.  They were the ideal thing for small business, could be cut out of black card with a pair of scissors at a fete or fairground or as a party piece at a drawing room gathering.  Or a pot of ink and a brush together with some fancy paper and some skill was all that was needed.  Of course there's always a sliding scale of such things, and more expensive versions were produced on glass, gesso and stone.

Aubrey Beardsley:  self portrait in sillhouette.
The ancient Greeks were using black figure images on their pots and amphrora thousands of years ago and Pliny the Elder states that he believed that painting itself originated when ancient artists painted around a shadow cast on to a flat surface.  We usually think, however, of the eighteenth and early years of the nineteenth century as the heyday of this art form, and a number of practitioners made quite a good living once it became fashionable, even having prime ministers and presidents as their clients.  Photography pretty much put an end to the widespread desire for such images, after all why pay for a mere black outline when you can have a realistic face or image of someone you know sitting there as if they were real, for little more in outlay?

Cinderella by Arthur Rackham.  Wikipedia Commons.
But in the world of illustration silhouette's continued to be used by some very famous artists to help the process of telling a story and to decorate chapter headings.  Aubrey Beardsley, a natural black and white artist occasionally used silhouettes early in his career, and Arthur Rackham used them as extra decoration to the luxury illustrated works he published in the early twentieth century. 

One of the most magical uses of silhouette I have seen however was with the publication of 'The kingdom Under the Sea' by Joan Aiken with illustrations by Jan Pieńkowski in 1971.  My young brother had only just been born and this was one of his first books.  I took a keen interest in it as the approach was novel, it being a method I'd not seen used in illustration before.  The pictures used marbling of paper, where liquid oil paints are floated on water in a tray, and paper is then placed onto the surface for long enough for the swirls of colour to be transferred onto the paper.  I assume the paper was then stretched as quickly as possible and allowed to dry before the actual work was done.  He then painted his silhouette's on to the paper.  This is merely my interpretation of his approach, because I remember trying this at about the age of 15, and finding it hellishly difficult.

By Jan Pieńkowski from 'The Kingdom under the Sea' by Joan Aiken.  This story involves the hut of the Russian witch the Baba Yaga.  Click on the picture to go to Jan's website.

I've probably got the whole thing wrong, as marbled paper has been used as end papers for expensive books for a hundred years and more, printed obviously but probably from a source that was a lot easier to produce than my efforts.  Maybe Pieńkowski's silhouettes were cutouts that were glued onto the paper, I don't know but the effect was exceptional.  As I write this in the early hours of Friday the 4th, by complete coincidence I see on Google that it would have been Joan Aiken's 91st birthday today, and so thanks Joan,  - and you too Jan for a great book.

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  1. Some of Andrew's own beautiful silhouettes will soon appear in a new edition of my 'The Story Collector.'