Silhouettes of a man facing right and a woman facing left in two separate oval frames

John Miers’ Legendary Studio at 111 Strand

John Miers is one of my favourite artists. I find there is still much to be learned about the art of painting silhouettes from studying his work. He worked from a studio at 111 Strand, London, and is known amongst the silhouette-collecting fraternity as the finest silhouettist of the eighteenth century.

His work seems to represents the best of English painted silhouette portraits (“shades” as they were known at the time) as is largely responsible for the pre-eminent position of English silhouettes around the world.

My first encounter with John Miers

Large black oval frame with a silhouette surrounded by a golden laurel-leaf pattern
Painted silhouette of a man, from the studio of John Miers, in an expensive turned wood frame with a gold verre eglomisé border

I first heard the name John Miers early in my career whilst cutting silhouettes at an event at the Royal Academy. An elegant, elderly lady reluctantly agreed to pose for me, remarking as she did so that she knew quite a lot about silhouettes and had a large collection of them.

As I finished cutting her portrait, a minute or two later, she seemed pleasantly surprised by the result and became more amiable. She began expanding about her collection, telling me it included a number of silhouettes by the well-known artist John Miers.

“Who?” I asked.

Sadly, that was the end of our conversation that evening. But this brief exchange left me with a desire to know more…

John Miers as a young man

Close-up view of a woman's silhouette wearing a translucent head scarf
One of John Mier’s earlier silhouettes painted while working as an itinerant artist in the north of England

Miers came from a family of artisans in Leeds. His father was a coach painter and there were a number of other crafts within the family business. He acquired many of these skills, including the mixing and packing of artist’s paint.

His early interest in silhouettes seems to have been an attempt to bring another product line into the family business. From the start, he was keen to employ assistants in the studio, who would help create the slabs of plaster on which he worked, and the hammered brass oval frames in which his silhouettes were set. As well as being a skilled artisan, Miers also seemed adept at marketing his services, stating that his work was “made by a new method far surpassing any other”.

Unlike many silhouettists whose work I admire, Miers’ life is well documented. After spending his early days establishing his reputation in Leeds he began travelling around Britain (sometimes with his growing family in tow) to a variety of northern cities including Liverpool, Newcastle and Edinburgh.

Engraving of an early nineteenth-century street scene, showing people, horses and carriages in the road and a large building behind covered in signs reading 'Exeter Change, Royal Menagerie', 'Edward Cross, dealer in Foreign Birds & Beasts', 'Billiard Room' and many others.
A view of Strand looking west from where Aldwych is today and showing
Exeter Change, opposite which was John Miers’ studio.

In the late 1780s, he arrived in London, setting up his studio on the busy Strand, then known as the artistic quarter of London. Strand was the natural place for miniaturists and silhouettists, as well as all kinds of other artisans, to set up their studios. Visitors would stroll along the wide road, looking in at the many shops and studios lining both sides the street. He worked briefly from a studio at no 162 before opening the studio at no 111 where he remained for the remainder of his working life. This was opposite the famous Exeter Change which included, amongst other attractions, a zoo with cages for lions, tigers and even an elephant.

Label reads: Miers, Profile-Painter & Jeweller, No 111, opposite Exeter Change, Strand, London.
An early Miers label, probably dating from the 1790s,
identifying his new studio at 111, opposite Exeter Change, Strand

The missing studio at 111 Strand

Today, if you walk east along the south side of Strand from Charing X you’ll arrive, shortly before you reach Aldwych, outside a modern-looking building at 111 Strand. The architect who designed it made sure the number 111 was carved, in 4-foot-high letters, deep into the stone facade of the building. Did they perhaps know the significance of this address to a silhouettist and historian of silhouettes like myself? 

It certainly seemed that way to me when I first made a pilgrimage to the site of John Miers’ legendary silhouette studio.

Doorway of a modern building with a glass revolving door and large numerals 111 to the right of it
The entrance to the CVC London offices on Strand, where I found the
large numeral 111 carved deep into the stonework

This building is the London offices of CVC, a global private-equity firm with €118 billion worth of assets under management. Two hundred years ago, visitors to the same address would have paid 5 shillings to obtain a black-painted profile of themselves, traced by shadowgraph screen in a few minutes, before being painted onto a white plaster slab and framed in a black papier-mâché oval with a brass ring and hanger. 

Silhouettes of a man, facing right, and a woman, facing left, in separate rectangular black frames with a old oval inset.
Silhouettes of a man and wife painted by John Miers at his London studio
(111 Strand) and framed in papier-mâché frames

Press advertisements tell us that the studio at 111 Strand was open from noon to 4pm each afternoon. This probably means the artist spent the mornings and/or evenings painting and framing silhouettes. Customers would typically visit the studio, pose to have their profile ‘taken’ by shadowgraph (which Miers guaranteed would take no more the five minutes) then return a day or two later to collect their finished silhouettes.  

Old etching of man sitting next to a screen while an artist traces his shadow onto it.
A shadowgraph screen in action. Clients needed to sit absolutely still
for a few minutes while the artist took a life-size profile by candlelight

Today, no sign of this famous studio remains, nor any picture showing what it looked like. Just the numerals 111 carved deep into brickwork mark the spot. The whole of Strand was demolished and rebuilt by the Victorians, along with works to build Victoria Embankment, Aldwych, Trafalgar Square and Waterloo Bridge.

John Miers Technique

Miers’ working method was to take a life-size tracing on oiled paper, using the shadowgraph screen.

Silhouette of a woman with ribbons in her hair inside a gold oval border
Profile of a woman painted onto plaster (sadly now cracked) in John Miers’ later style at his 111 Strand studio

This procedure required to sitter to sit completely still in a darkened room, their face very close to the shadowgraph screen which could be adjusted to their height. The room was lit only by a single candle placed in front of a mirror some distance from the screen. This candle cast a shadow onto the glass screen, behind which was a sheet of paper treated with linseed oil. The oil made the paper translucent enough for this faint shadow to be seen by the artist, seated behind the screen, who then traced a rapid outline with a graphite pencil.

Later, this life-size tracing was carefully reduced in size using a pantograph: a series of interlocking rods arranged in such a way as to reduce any drawing to a fixed scale. Miers typically used a 1:10 scale, which would be considered quite small by most silhouettists working today. Customers could also order much smaller silhouettes to fit inside lockets and other jewellery items. To this end, the original shadowgraph drawings were all signed, labelled and filed away by the studio so that clients could order further copies, at a variety of scales, without needing to pose a second time.

Grey-painted pantograph with printed numbers along each arm. Pins are set to the number 10.
A modern-day pantograph set to reduce a drawing by 1:10 scale.
The design of these tools hasn’t changed much in 250 years.

Miers’ favourite medium was to paint the finished silhouette onto small, oval plaster slabs, made to his own recipe which he called “composition”. He painted using lamp black, a mixture of finely ground soot and beer, which soaked into the plaster and so dried very quickly. By diluted this mixture he was able to paint hair and drapery in progressively darker shades of grey, each brush stroke overlapping the last, around the outside of the profile before filling in the entire silhouette with dense black paint. This technique was very effective and clearly popular. It became the signature style of the studio and was widely copied by other artists of the period. Even today it leaves viewers in awe: little miniature marvels of watercolour technique.

John Miers boasted that this composition would never darken or fade the way paper does. Over two hundred years later, this has proved to be no idle sales talk. The white backgrounds to his silhouettes remain as fresh and white as the day they were painted. Only the paper trade labels, stuck to the back of the frames, betray the true age of these works.

John Field, a partner at the firm

In the early 1790s the silhouette would have been painted by John Miers himself.  By the mid 1790s, and on into the early nineteenth century, the silhouettes were more likely to have been painted by one of a number of other artists who trained and worked at the studio. Principal among these was John Field, who perhaps painted more of the later silhouettes than Miers himself. His work was so highly regarded by Miers that eventually he became a partner in the business, changing the name to the Miers & Field studio.

Label reads: Miers & Field, 111 Strand London (opposite Exeter Change.) Profile Painters, Jewellers, Seal Engravers and Manufacturers of every description of Miniature Frames, Cases, &c.
Unbroken Miers & Field label from the studio at 111 Strand
from the back of one of the pair of the silhouettes above

John Field began by copying Miers’ style of painting very faithfully. However, he later went on to develop his own more elaborate signature style, which involved embellishing his silhouettes with gold paint. This work is perhaps the subject of a future blog.

More information about both John Miers and John Field is on Profiles of the Past website. There are also chapters about both artists in my book Mastering Silhouettes, together with projects based on their respective styles of painting.

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Chris Woodward
Chris Woodward
2 months ago

Always fascinating – always informative. Brilliant! and I highly recommend a silhouette in person cut by Charles

Ian Cross
Ian Cross
1 month ago

Charles is an excellent artist, very knowledgeable and does a great job on selling his expertise. Long may he continue to develop his expertise beyond ‘cutting’.

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