10.03.2017 by Charles Burns
One year on falls the paper anniversary.
A little over a year ago I was booked to attend a wedding at the Savoy, London. It was a wonderful event and I cut some memorable silhouettes, including a three-minute cutting of one of the most complicated hats I’ve ever seen.
About 10 months later I received an unexpected call from the bride. She was thinking about her “paper anniversary” and had had an idea. Could I cut another silhouette of the two of them, on their wedding day, and somehow incorporate a poem? They were planning to go on holiday and she wanted it as an anniversary gift.
She then told me the story of how they met. She was waiting for a train at Waterloo station one day when a strange, but good-looking man approached her and complimented her on her hat. They fell to talking and boarded the train together. And – well – one thing led to another. The poem was composed by the groom to commemorate this event, and read out during his wedding speech. It went like this:
I left the darkness behind,
Uncertain, what to find,
Wheels set in motion, a journey started,
Old life left on the platform departed,
Your card, my pen, my number,
A message, a meeting, I wonder,
This chance I almost could have missed,
But forever was sealed when we kissed
It was a lovely story. I said I’d think about it and would send her some sketches. I was slightly concerned: I could cut their portraits easily enough, but the poem was another matter. Text takes time and patience. Left to themselves paper letters tend to detach themselves from words and fall to the floor. The whole composition needs to be carefully laid out so that every dotted ‘i’ and x-ed ’t’ is connected to every other.
I decided to centre the composition on their silhouettes and arrange the poem in an oval around them. I added the ‘Waterloo’ roundel, to add narrative, and realised I would need to see a picture of that hat! My initial sketch was well received and the bride sent a series of sideways selfies of herself wearing the hat (not an easy operation, if you’ve ever tried it). I began to work on a more detailed layout.
It soon became problematic. The bride hadn’t been wearing it on her wedding day, so where should I put the hat? Inside the oval didn’t work and directly on top seemed a little too formal, almost military. I tried putting it to one side, but that didn’t seem to work either. I considered leaving the hat out altogether, yet it was clearly such an important part of their story.
How, also, should I link everything to the lettering? If the poem was to go in a loop, some of the words would end up upside down! The first verse, which logically should go outside, was shorter than the second. How could I make it all fit without squashing the final lines?
Various versions of the layout were sent to and fro. This was a time-consuming but important process. As I explained to the now-rather-apologetic bride, it was important to get it right first time. Once I got the scissors out, there would be no going back, alterations would not be possible.
The silhouettist’s motto is “One cut, one chance!”
In the end we put the hat on top, but set at a slight angle to reduce it’s formality. I solved the problem of the lettering by making verse 1 flow clockwise over the top and verse 2 anti-clockwise around the bottom, the longer lines overlapping the shorter. Finally I added my initials to a loop on the “f” of “forever”.
The cutting was to be in blue, so I taped a sheet of blue paper securely to the final drawing, took a deep breath, and stabbed both sheets with a pair of scissors.
I began with the many internal cuts, initially taking the centres out of all the ‘o’s and other encircling letters. I phased the cutting over several days, leaving the outside cut until last so that the two sheets remained taped together. At the end of each day I sent a photo to the bride to keep her informed of progress. Gradually, the cutting took shape.
The final, long, outside cut was another heart-in-mouth moment. Would I tear the poem? As the two sheets of paper became progressively more detached and harder to handle, the composition came to life and assumed a fragile, lace-like quality. Handling a complicated, unmounted paper cutting is a unique experience and one you will never get from seeing it framed. I wanted the couple to experience this, so I suggested I sent the artwork unmounted, for them to frame after their holiday. I sent it between two sheets of board together with a white, signed backing card for framing.
A week to so later I received a ecstatic email and a photograph of them holding my cutting in front of a hotel-room window, palm trees and a bright blue sea behind.
When people ask how long it takes me to cut a silhouette my usual response is:
“anywhere from 30 seconds to 3 minutes, depending on how complicated the hat is!”
Now I’m thinking that a better answer might be:
“anywhere between 30 seconds and 3 days… “