14.08.2020 by Charles Burns
It’s only by any accident of history that anybody knows anything about the silhouettist William Alport 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 Alport I run some of my virtual studio days in tribute to this artist. The next will be on Monday 3rd May 2021.
From 1806 to 1810 William Alport 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 Alport.
These kind of hidden signatures in the bustline are quite common in the world of silhouettes and some artists still use them today.
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 Alport
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.
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 Alport 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.