Wax and Silhouette Portraits - The silhouettes and wax portraits that once hung in groups on the walls of Regency homes make excellent subjects for a modern collection. Chatelaine's Antiques Collectibles Appraisals


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Silhouette & Wax Portraits


 The silhouettes and wax portraits that once hung in groups on the walls of Regency homes make excellent subjects for a modern collection.

During the Regency period, portraiture was one of the mainstays of British art. Not everyone could afford a famous painter or sculptor, but there were more modest alternatives. Two of these were silhouettes and wax portraits, which were at the peak of their popularity during the Regency.

 The principle of the silhouette goes back to antiquity - most Greek vases, for example, are decorated with outline figures. However, the form of the silhouette with which we are most familiar - the profile portrait in black against white (or vice versa) - was not established until about 1700. The name comes from Etienne de Silhouette (1709-67), finance minister of Louis XV of France who produced these portraits as a hobby.


 Although many talented amateurs made silhouettes, professionals soon dominated the art. Some opened studios and others toured the country. Their methods varied, some preferring, to work freehand, while others used mechanical aids. The most ingenious of these was the silhouette chair designed by Lavater. This featured a translucent screen against which the person being portrayed sat and on to which a profile shadow of the subject was cast by a candle. The artist stood on the other side of the screen and traced the outline, which could then be reduced to the desired scale by using a pantograph.

 There are two ways to make a silhouette by cutting out paper shapes, or by painting. Paper cut-outs could be in white on black or (more commonly) black on white. Painting, however, was by far the commonest method.


 Silhouettes could be painted on ivory, vellum and porcelain, but they were generally on card, plaster plaques or glass. Card was the cheapest and most common; the black pigment was pine soot or Indian ink. The matt white surface of plaster proved an ideal background for the intense black of the profile. In the third technique, the silhouette was painted on the underside of a flat or convex piece of glass, and it was framed so the silhouette cast a shadow on the backing material.


 Silhouettes rapidly went out of fashion after the middle of the 19th century, as they could not compete with photography, and much the same could be said for the miniature wax portrait. Wax - generally meaning beeswax - is a fragile material, which is easily broken and tends to crack through shrinkage. On the other hand, it is not subject to attack by insects or fungus or to serious chemical changes, and although it becomes dirty, it does not fade or change in colour.

 It is in some ways ideal for portraiture, as its translucent surface can capture the feel of skin and it can be easily coloured to represent realistic flesh tints. Portraits in wax were most popular in the 18th and 19th centuries.

 Up to the end of the 18th century, silhouettes were generally in pure black, but it then became fashionable to prettify the image by using touches of gold or bronze colour, fancy backgrounds and other adornments. But to many connoisseurs they mark a decline from the purity of black on white that is the silhouette's main attraction.


 There were hundreds of silhouette artists active during the Regency, but three stand out above all their contemporaries: John Miers (1765-1821), Isabella Beetham (1753-1825) and August Edouart (1769-1861). Miers is generally regarded as the greatest of the silhouette painters. He worked mainly of plaster, and one of his hallmarks was the way in which the sitter's hair was shaded to a delicate smoky grey, contrasting with the black of the rest of the image. Miers' trade label gives an interesting insight into contemporary working methods; it says that the time of sitting was three minutes, and informs us that 'Mr Miers preserves all the original sketches from which he can at any time supply copies without the trouble of sitting again.'

 Mrs Beetham (nee Robinson) is rated more highly than Miers by some critics, but she was not so prolific. Most of her work is on glass, often set in white and gold frames. Her sitters tend to he young and attractive Regency beaux and belles, dressed very fashionably.

 August Edouart was born in France and moved to England in 1814. He worked in Bath, Edinburgh and Dublin, before emigrating to America in 1829. Edouart was probably the finest cutter of silhouettes ever, his work having remarkable life and character. He was a purist, eschewing colour and relying entirely on his skill with scissors. To indicate the white of collars he used the technique of 'slashing' - snipping away the black paper so that the white background showed through.

 Edouart's output was enormous, consisting of more than 200,000 profiles. They included not only head or head-and-shoulder portraits but also full-lengths and groups.

Groups - sometimes called conversation pieces - are now among the most sought-after silhouettes. The master in this field was another French born artist, Francis Torond (1743-1812).

 Wax portraits tend to be more poorly documented than silhouettes and therefore form a more problematic field for collectors.  Whereas silhouettes often carry the artist's trade label on the back, wax portraits are rarely signed or labelled, and for this reason famous names have often been attached to anonymous pieces. 

 The leading specialists in wax portraits include Catherine Andras (1775-1860), Isaac Gosset (1713-1799) and Benedetto Pistrucci (1784-1855).

 There is also a problem with forgeries of wax portraits, many of which were produced in Birmingham in the early years of the 20th century. Wax is a versatile material; as well as carving it and modelling it like clay, the sculptor can cast it in a mould, so it is possible to make an exact replica in wax of a relief head in some other material. In this way a genuine Regency relief in, say, bronze can be reproduced in wax, with the forger secure in the knowledge that all the details will be correct.

 Forgeries are very often of famous personalities, so a potential buyer should regard a wax portrait of Lord Nelson, for example, with considerable circumspection.

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