14.08.2020 by Charles Burns
I’ve arranged just three studio days for October.
Each is named after a historical artist, all still beginning the letter ‘A’. You can book sittings here and read about the artists below.
You missed these ones, but there are plenty more virtual events coming up!
It’s only by any 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.
From 1806 to 1810 he worked at the “House of W.Bullock” in Liverpool. The House was an eclectic museum consisting of a series of sideshow exhibits, designed to entertain as much as to educate. William’s silhouettes were 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 se this clearly in the illustrations. If you find a painted silhouette with this feature it’s likely to be by William Allport.
The museum staff usually framed William’s silhouettes, including a brass hanger with the word “Museum” on it. They then stuck a museum-branded label saying “Painted at the House of W.Bullock” on the back. For this reason most silhouette collectors assumed for years that Bullock was also the artist.
The error only came to light in 1969 when a single silhouette with the distinctive extra lines was sold at auction. Instead of the museum label there was a handwritten note stating that the artist was William Allport. This single silhouette is still the only reason anybody knows the real name of the extra-lines artist!
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.
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.
William Allport 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.
Who was she? It’s a good question! Considering that only one pair of silhouettes has ever been identified, researchers have written a surprising amount about this artist (or artists).
Mrs Ames painted this pair of elaborate Georgian silhouettes on glass using enamel paint. She then placed each oval glass over a pale green gesso backing inside an oval frame. Both frames are backed with a boastful, printed trade label claiming that her “mode is superior to any other yet attempted in any Kingdom”
Perhaps it was, they are beautiful silhouettes, but where is the rest of her work? The style and label both indicate a professional artist of many years experience.
In her label on the back, Mrs Ames writes that she made silhouettes of many royal and important people, including Prince William Henry in Cork. She adds that her sitting time is one minute and that her silhouettes cost between 9s 9d and £1 2s 9d. The silhouettes are undated but seem likely to be from the 1780s or 90s.
Without a first name it’s very hard for anybody to find out much more about her. The usual routes of searching census and property rental records is almost impossible. There are simply too many Ames’!
The British Museum has a copy of a Miss Ames’ trade label (sadly without it’s silhouette) who made silhouettes opposite the Pump Room in Bath in 1784. The label says she’ll take your likeness in the most elegant taste for 2s, far cheaper than Mrs Ames silhouettes. Is this the same artist?
Apart from these two trade labels, there’s a single advertisement placed by Mrs Ames in the Birmingham Gazette in 1785. This states that her silhouettes cost between 2s and 5s, the higher price being for her silhouettes painted on glass. These are also much cheaper, but the “Mrs” and the reference to painting on glass both indicate it is the same artist.
These silhouettes leave us with more questions than answers. Were Miss and Mrs Ames the same person? Did she marry and keep and keep using her maiden name as a professional label? Where are the rest of her silhouettes?
Collectors and authors are divided on these issues. Personally I incline to the view that they are the same artist and that her widely varying prices simply reflect a desire to test the market. Silhouettes on glass are notoriously fragile, so it’s sadly possible that the rest of work simply broke!
Secretly, I’m hoping a few more of Mrs Ames silhouettes may yet emerge from an attic or two!
I debated whether or not to include John André in my list of historical tributes. Better known as a military man than as a silhouettist, Major André was famously hanged as a spy during the American war of independence. His exploits as a soldier, and the unfortunate manner of this death are well recorded in wikipedia and other sources. His silhouettes are less well known.
Sue McKechnie included his work in her anthology of British silhouettists, so in the end I decided what’s good enough for her…
John André was a keen amateur silhouettist. He left behind a number of interesting silhouettes, including a portraits George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. He career as a soldier gave him access to “high places” on both sides of the Atlantic and he lost no time in taking advantage of this to cut a profile or two.
His silhouettes are on the amateurish side, consisting of simple black outlines that sometimes struggle with proportion. Nevertheless, they possess are certain charm and are hugely interesting as a record of the people and the turbulent times he lived in.