A regency couple face to face in two oval frames

William Allport, Liverpudlian silhouettist

IT’S ONLY BY an accident of history that anybody knows anything about the silhouettist William Allport at all.  He was a workman-like artist who spent his whole life in Liverpool, and never tried to draw much attention to himself.

As a fan of William Allport I run some of my virtual studio days in tribute to this artist. The most recent was on Monday 3rd May 2021.

Bust of a regency man facing left
Thomas Wilkinson, by William Allport

A Museum Artist

From 1806 to 1810 William Allport worked at the House of W.Bullock, a well-known museum in Liverpool. As well as fixed exhibits the museum contained an eclectic series of sideshows, designed to entertain as much as to educate. William’s silhouettes were one of these and an important museum attraction.

He never signed his work, but instead used a hidden signature in the form of two or three extra lines painted under the bust line. You can see this clearly by clicking on the illustrations. If you ever find a  painted silhouette with this feature it’s likely to be  by William Allport.

These kind of hidden signatures in the bustline are quite common in the world of silhouettes and some artists still use them today.

An Accident of History

Label reads: Drawn by the Patent Physiognotrace at no 46 Stanley St, Liverpool, by Mr Alport
The handwritten label which gave the first clue to the artist’s true name

The museum staff usually framed William’s silhouettes in the square, black paper-maché frames which were so popular at the time. They including a brass hanger with the word “Museum” on it. You can see this in the pair of silhouettes at the top. They also stuck a museum-branded label on the back saying “Painted at the House of W.Bullock”. For this reason many collectors of silhouettes originally assumed for years that Bullock was the artist.

The error only came to light in 1969 when a single silhouette with the distinctive extra lines was sold at an auction. Instead of the usual museum label there was a handwritten note on the back which says:

Drawn … By the Patent Physiognotrace
at no 46 Stanley St, Liverpool,
by Mr Allport

This single silhouette is still the only reason anybody knows the real name of the extra-lines artist!

Physiognotrace machines were commonly used by silhouettists of the day. They came in a wide variety of weird, patent designs.

In 1810 the Bullock museum moved to London but William remained in Liverpool. He carried on painting silhouettes for a while before joining his son in a painting and decorating business. I guess that the silhouette with the handwritten note on the back was probably one of those he made during this period.

What can we Learn?

His silhouettes are always beautifully painted in thick black watercolour, using thinned paint for hair and collar details. It’s clear hat he took great pride in his work and always did a good job, I’ve never seen a sub-standard or hastily painted Allport silhouette.

As an artist he never indulged any kind of self publicity. He simply relied on his museum wage and later on word-of-mouth referrals.  I love his steady. professional approach to his work, as well as his apparent lack of ego.

Further information about William Allport

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3 years ago

My elderly relative has a silhouette of a lady ancestor which is very much in the style of Wm Alport/Mrs Ames; but nearer Alport than Ames, as seen by your examples of their work on here. The outfit of the lady sitter (from memory) is c.1790’s, a head and shoulders bust portrait on black paper with finishing/accent details. This ancestor was said to be a Huguenot refugee (or the daughter of such), and I still own her tea-dish and saucer from the full tea-set that she or her family bought when they arrived in England. (Apparently they very much liked all the finer things!) This has always been passed down the female side of the family, and losing cups to others as it went. My relative lives in Lancashire, which also makes me think Alport is the most likely artist for her silhouette (proximity). From memory, I think the square frame is the same, too. I hope to be able to retrieve the sitters name…..

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