21.10.2018 by Charles Burns
After watching Silhouette Secrets, recently launched on Amazon, people often ask: what sparked my interest in silhouettes? It isn’t such an easy question to answer. However, my mind often returns to this silhouette, which has been in my family for years. It may well be the first silhouette I ever saw.
This family portrait was cut in 1907 by an unknown artist. It shows my Chilean great grand-mother, Clara Swinburn, with eight of her nine children. The eldest child, Charles (standing at the front) is my grandfather, while the third child is my great uncle David. Charles and David were both old enough to fight in the Great War. Charles was injured, and returned home, while his younger brother David was killed in Flanders, aged 19, during the closing weeks of the war. I was named after both of them.
Last week was the 100th anniversary of David’s death. A number of my family, including my son and I, assembled in the small village of Slypskapelle in Belgium, near the spot he fell, to commemorate him. I’m not alone in having David as “the uncle who died in the war”. Many of the children in our family silhouette – with the obvious exception of David – went on to have families of their own, so many that there are now over 200 of us who describe David as an uncle, great uncle, or great-great uncle! They didn’t all make it to Slypskapelle, but it was still quite a gathering.
Unusually, they buried David in small plot next to the badly-damaged Roman Catholic village church in Slypskapelle. Clara was a devout Catholic and couldn’t bear to think of David being buried in unconsecrated ground. Today, this plot has become the village war memorial, complete with four flagpoles and a newly-planted centennial oak tree. Many villages have the tomb of an unknown soldier at their centre, but Slypskapelle has the tomb of a known soldier, my great uncle David.
This means that all the local school children know his story well. They know that he was born in Chile, was of mixed Scottish / Spanish ancestry, and that he enlisted in the Black Watch to fight in a war far from home. They know he fell in a doomed assault to take a low-lying hill – which had changed hands many times during the war – with the signing of an armistice already in sight.
Quite apart from the family history, the silhouette itself still fascinates me. The artist cut each child freehand with scissors, before embellishing them with gold paint and writing their name and age written underneath in pencil (you can click on it to see these details). Sadly, the artist omitted to sign the finished piece. This is a shame as he or she was obviously an artist of considerable skill and experience. The ages of the children date it to late 1907. Since this was before the family moved permanently to London, it may well have been cut in Santiago, Chile.
Silhouettes have a deep connection with the Great War. The 1900’s saw a revival of interest in silhouette portraits all over Europe (and possibly also in Chile!) Street artists were cutting silhouettes in old city centres across Europe and sticking them onto blank postcards for visitors to send home. This lucrative trade ended abruptly in 1914 and many of these artists would have gone on to fight in the war.
Silhouette Secrets features the story of one such soldier-silhouettist, Harry Lawrence Oakley. Oakley trained as an artist and, like me, quickly became fascinated by silhouettes. He enlisted in the Green Howards at the outbreak of the Great War and served right through it.
During the war he cut a huge number of silhouettes scenes depicting life in the trenches. He sent them to Bystander Magazine (today known as Tatler) who published them as a monthly column under the heading “Trench Life in Silhouette”. It was a popular feature. Oakley’s silhouettes depicted life in the trenches with exactly the right combination of humour and pathos to appeal to the audience of the day.
Later, the War Office commissioned Oakley to design recruitment posters for the army. The most well known features a silhouette of a solder advancing, with bayonet fixed, under the slogan “Think! Are you content for Him to fight for You?” This poster was everywhere during the war. It’s inconceivable that young David did not see it before enlisting in 1918.
After the war Oakley found his reputation as a silhouette artist was secure. Wherever he went people would queue to get their silhouette cut by the author of Trench Life in Silhouette. During the winter months he would set up temporary studios in the large department stores of London, Edinburgh and other major cites. When summer arrived he would open up his kiosk on Llandudno Pier in North Wales. This was his favourite venue, it became a second home for him. As well as the ever-popular postcard silhouettes Oakley would cut full length portraits and arrange family groups onto larger pieces of card.