Prosopographus: the silhouette automaton

I always enjoy election day. I like the expectant silence, especially on the radio. Radio 4 traditionally takes a day off politics and reports on a distracted variety of quirky topics. It’s in this spirit of election-day distraction that I’d like to take you back in time today. I’m looking for ideas to help me design a silhouette machine.

A 200 year anniversary.

I’m going to take you back exactly 200 years.
At the end of 1819, just before the dawn of the 1820s, a silhouettist called Charles Hervé was pondering the ever-expanding craze in silhouettes (or “shades” as they were then known). He was wondering if he could automate the process.
I’m reminded of this when people ask if I worry that somebody might invent a smartphone app to make silhouettes faster and better than I do. This question has come up a few times already during this busy Xmas event season. I reply that I’m not in the least concerned because it’s already been done: Charles Hervé did it 200 years ago!
He didn’t, of course, invent a smartphone app (had he done so Hervé would now be a household name). Instead, he invented an automaton.


Automata were all the rage at the time: complex mechanical contraptions which appeared to perform complicated tasks all on their own. Charles called his machine “Prosopographus” and advertised that:
“The Public will probably be startled when it is stated that a Lifeless Machine is endowed by mechanical powers to draw likenesses of the Human Countenance… it not only traces an outline in less than one minute, but actually produces more perfect resemblances than any living artist could possibly execute…”
Sadly, no illustration or working diagram of this impossible machine has survived. i read a description of a small figure seated on a large box, or table. In one hand it held a tablet, and in the other a stylus. An operator placed a sheet of paper onto the tablet, onto which Prosopographus then traced the outline of the sitter’s profile. 
Prosopographus was a huge success. operating from a shop at 161 Strand, London throughout the 1820s, and making Mr Hervé into a wealthy man. It cut thousands of silhouettes, many of which survive. They vary in quality from rubbish to rather good; some are even embellished with white and gold paint (see illustration at top). 
A print of Strand, London, near the site of Prosopgraphus around 1820
Strand, London, just before the dawn of the 1820s

How did Prosopographus work?

The only clue to the mechanism comes from a published eye-witness account of the time, which reports seeing a human eye peering out from an opening in a curtain. Was Prosopographus a scientific fraud? Did the table simply hide an artist, seated underneath with a pocketful of paper and a pair of scissors? 
If so, I could’ve been that artist, I can visualise exactly what they were doing. I think Prosopgraphus was a kind of fairground attraction. It lured people in with an impossible claim, and sent them away happily holding their automaton silhouette. It’s possible that many people saw through the disguise, but went along anyway because it was fun and because Charles Hervé was a talented silhouettist.
A plain Prosopographus silhouette together with it’s label
A plain Prosopographus silhouette together with it’s label

Time for a revival?

This got me thinking: in this 200-anniversary year could it be time to revive Prosopographus? How would a modern audience react to such a machine?
At first, I was put off by the lack of any drawing or illustration. On reflection, however, I realised this could be an advantage. It leaves me free to redesign Prosopographus from scratch, to create a version more suited to the 2020s. I’m dreaming the very best of steam-punk inspired confabulations, the only prerequisite being the inclusion of a tablet and stylus. What should it look like?
Which brings me to my election-day distraction. 

What would your Prosopographus look like?

If, like me, you’ve had enough of politics I invite you to focus your mind on Prosopographus instead. Please sketch on paper (or tablet if you prefer) the image which first comes to mind. What do think it should look like? Will the public of the 2020s enjoy it?
Feel free to sketch in as much or as little detail as you like. In the New Year I’ll pick a few out and work the most promising ideas into a design. Note that I’m not expecting you to draw a machine which actually works, so please let your imagination go wild!
Introducing Prosopographus: the fully-automatic Selfie Machine
Here are a few thoughts I had on publicity for Prosopographus
“Fully automatic” is a bit of an exaggeration.

Prosopographus 2020

I’ll describe my Prosopgraphus as the nineteenth-century selfie machine. I’m hoping to build and launch it sometime in 2020. I’m planning to offer anybody who sends me a truly inspiring sketch a chance to showcase Prosopgraphus 2020 at an event of their choice. So, if the idea tickles your fancy, please do get involved. 
Could this be you? Do you have occasion to plan such an event?
Lend me your thoughts below.

Should an Artist Recycle their Art?

Yesterday I spent the whole day recycling art……or at least preparing to. There’s an awful lot of it!

So I’m writing to ask for help. Can you give a painting a new home? Could you take delivery of a drawing or two?

The table of art in my studio.
At first visitors seem nervous about touching it,
but they soon get the idea and start rummaging through it!

Cutting and Painting

I originally took up cutting silhouettes to support my work as a painter. As time passed, however, these roles have reversed. Today it’s the painting which supports the silhouettes.I’ll be honest, cutting silhouettes can be repetitive. Even somebody will my autistic level of obsession with silhouettes does need an occasional artistic break! Otherwise the repetitive nature of the work can lead to problems.

I’ve seen this happen to other silhouettists. They begin full of talent and enthusiasm. Their work develops quickly and they become really good. But then they somehow stop; they reach a plateau. A few years later their silhouettes begin to look very similar: formulaic faces under a variety of hairstyles. Perhaps it doesn’t matter too much – as long as the guests are entertained and the client is happy – but to me it seems a terrible shame. It feels like a waste of artistic promise.

This is where painting comes in. The habit of drawing and painting is what keeps the silhouettes alive. Drawing is a wonderful way to train the eye, while painting in colour is a huge freedom for an artist always working in black. By filling my head with paintings I find I can keep the silhouettes alive.

Full-Studio Syndrome

It’s a real problem. I left art college many years ago but have never really lost the art habit. The result is easy to see: folders of drawings take up all the selves, the canvas racks are full, over-used studio frames fill the wall space. The lack of space has become a real disincentive to paint. As an artistic business model, it isn’t working. The art has to leave the studio.

Over the last ten years I’ve been painting less and less. This is partly because of the increasingly international nature of my silhouette-cutting engagements. It’s also partly because I wrote a book (Mastering Silhouettes) and then made a film (Silhouette Secrets). I really did have to put my painting career on hold. However, I’m now realising that the main reason is simply because my studio is full. I cannot paint because there’s nowhere left to put the paintings!

Am I Mad?

Most people I talk to about this think I’m mad. There’s a received wisdom that artists should hang onto all their work “in case it becomes valuable”. They’re right, it may. So rehousing a work of art or two could represent an opportunity. It isn’t often that an artist clears out their own studio. I have, after all, cut the Queen’s portrait.

Mays Barn Studio Clearout

If you follow us on Facebook you may already have seen pictures of this. I’ve been advertising a series of open days and inviting people to come in and take away some art. Yesterday and today are the first such days. The studio will be open tomorrow and more dates will soon be announced on Facebook for next week. 

Recycling art is a fascinating process. It involves opening folders of work and spreading them over the studio table. Mostly, I’ve no idea what’s in them, so they’re full of interesting surprises. There are huge numbers of life drawings, a smaller number of landscapes, and endless experiments with cutting and tearing paper. They range in scale from enormous to really tiny. There are also a number of painted carvings, some of which are quite large. I welcome any proposal for what to do with them.

I understand that not everybody can simply pop in and visit the studio, so I am offering a second option:

Option 1: Pop in and Rummage.Take what you want and make a suitable donation to a charity of your choice. Most of the work is unframed, so you will need to budget for a suitable frame. 

Option 2: An Art Postal Lottery.  Get in touch and let me know the size available and set a postage budget. I’ll choose something for you, put it in the post and send a Paypal request for postage. There’s no need to visit the studio and rummage, but your pictures may be an unexpected choice. Hopefully you’ll like it, if not you can pass it to somebody who does.

An unfinished painting combining silhouettes and oil paint.
This is my current work which needs space to grow. 

I hope you feel able to take part and will enjoy your new art!