Saturday, September 12, 2015

Shades of the Past: Silhouette Artist John Miers

Silhouette by Miers, said to be a portrait of
Margaret Ruskin
We generally associate the silhouette with an image cut out of black paper, but in the 18th and early 19th centuries, there were many other methods for producing “shades” or “profiles.” Indeed, since black paper was not commercially available until the late 1820s, many artists preferred to paint silhouettes on paper, ivory, glass, or plaster. The master of painting on plaster, and one of the most prolific and accomplished silhouette artists of the period, was John Miers.

The Alice’s collection includes one silhouette by Miers—the profile of a young woman with a fashionable short haircut. Alice T. Miner purchased this silhouette from the antique dealer T.H. Telford of Grasmere, probably during the trip she made to England in 1937. Telford identified the sitter as Margaret Ruskin, the mother of critic John Ruskin. There is some doubt about the accuracy of that identification, but it is nonetheless a charming portrait and a very fine example of Miers’s work.

An early Miers silhouette, ca. 1783-84
John Miers was born in 1758 in Leeds, England, the son of a coach painter. By 1781 he had set up his own business painting silhouettes, and between 1783 and 1788 traveled to various towns in Scotland and the north of England to offer his services. On October 26, 1784, Meirs placed this advertisement in the Manchester Mercury:

“J. MIERS Begs Leave respectfully to inform the Ladies and Gentlemen of MANCHESTER, That he has invented a new Method of taking the most exact Likenesses in Miniature Profile. He has succeeded beyond his most sanguine Expectations, in remedying the Defects with which the common uncertain Method of reducing Shades have universally been attended; and has been honoured by all who have seen his Performances, with the most flattering Encomiums, for giving the true Proportion and most animated Expression of the Features.” The cost was a “trifling” 5s. to 7s. 6d. (To put that in perspective, 5 shillings was a respectable week’s wages for a working man in the 18th century.)

A “Method of taking Profiles,”
Lady’s Monthly Museum,
October 1799
What exactly Miers’s remarkable method entailed is not recorded, but since he advertised that the sittings took only two or three minutes, it must have involved a machine of some kind. A variety of devices existed to trace profiles and then reduce them in size, generally using a pantograph. Miers boasted that his method was unique, because “in proportion as the Profiles are reduced, they invariably acquire increasing spirit and animation, a circumstance directly opposite to every other previous invention.” This made his likenesses ideal for “wearing in rings, pins, lockets, bracelets, faux montres, &c.”

In 1788, John Miers and his family (which eventually would grow to eleven children, many of whom became artists themselves) arrived in London, and in 1791 they moved to 111 Strand, which was to remain their home and place of work for many years. The Strand was the home of many fashionable shops as well as government buildings, and Miers drew his clientele from the well-to-do middle and upper classes, and even nobility and royalty, including King George III.

The label on the back of “Margaret Ruskin’s” portrait indicates that it was made during this early London period, between 1791 and 1809. After 1800 Miers produced few profiles, and most of the portraits made after that time were probably executed by his equally talented assistant, John Field (1772-1848). It is likely that the silhouette in the Alice’s collection was made by Field rather than Miers himself.

John Miers left a fortune of £20,000 upon his death in 1821, so he was obviously very successful as an artist and businessman. Miers offered his customers silhouettes in a wide range of sizes which could be adapted for various purposes. Once a likeness was made, it could be infinitely reproduced. He even offered the option of copying other artists’ silhouettes, and if one wished, having them updated by being “dress’d in the present Taste.”

A view of the Strand, ca. 1800

An excellent resource for learning more about British silhouettes (and the source of the information about John Miers in this post) is Profiles of the Past.

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