Circle of Mrs Sarah Harrington fl.c.1774–1787

Circle of Mrs Sarah Harrington fl.c.1774–1787

This exquisite collection of hollow-cut silhouettes are by a single hand working towards the end of the 18th century. The hollow-cut technique, more common in America than in Britain, involved cutting the silhouette from a light coloured piece of paper so that the middle drops away leaving the negative, which is then backed with dark paper or fabric. The leading hollow-cut silhouette artist working at the end of the 18th century was Mrs Sarah Harrington (fl.c.1774–1787). There are few other known British exponents working professionally in the 18th century. Four other artists were Mrs Collins, a partner of Mrs Harrington for a time, Abraham Jones (fl.c.1779–1810), Steell (fl.c.1781) & Henry Herve (c.1800–1820). In the case of the first three there are no known definitely attributable examples of their work. Sarah Harrington also very rarely signed her work. This silhouette shares Harrington's precision and flair and is stylistically very similar to her work, displaying her distinctive cut 'eyelash' and detailed cutting of elaborate hats and hairstyles.

Two of the silhouettes in the collection are dated, 1785 and 1787, and they are cut into a variety of cream papers; one is Whatman wove watermarked '17[...]', another is laid with blindstamp of Dripsey Mills, Cork. The glossy black backing paper is consistent across the collection and is a rough-textured buff wove, which has been hand coated on the facing side, presumably by the artist. Pre-dyed black paper did not become available until 1826 so artists had the challenge of blackening sheets of white paper for their craft. The pigmentation was often bone black and Prussian blue with a binder of silica and waxes, possibly paraffin and/or beeswax, to achieve the gloss finish. Some of the silhouettes in this collection have smudges of black pigment on the verso of the backing paper, confirming the hand-coating process.

The sitters in the collection comprise military figures and finely dressed ladies: the men are often bewigged with single ponytail (or queue) on the nape, tied with a bow, and finely scalloped cravat or shirt front; the women are shown with feather-plumed hats, elaborate chignons and ribbon-tied bust-lines. Mrs Sarah Harrington was particularly skilled at cutting these fine details of dress. Many of the military figures are associated with the East India Company. Illustrious figures include Captain Bennet Marley, later Major-General Bennet Marley, who commanded 8,000 troops in the Anglo-Nepali War (1814–16), and Saadat-Ali-Khan II, Nawab of Awadh (or Oudh) who ceded half of Awadh Kingdom to the British in 1801. Many of the other figures, although mostly named below the silhouette, are more junior army officers or affluent ladies of the day, whose identity is unknown. Sarah Harrington encountered a broad number of sitters and was a pioneer in the field of travelling silhouettists. She is known to have travelled through England practicing her craft, particularly in university cities such as Oxford and Cambridge. It has been speculated—though not confirmed—that she also worked in Ireland. By 1782 she had set up business at 131 New Bond Street in London. Harrington claimed in one advertisement to have produced over 30,000 works.

These silhouettes are rare extant examples of a fascinating art form, which had a short-lived but important place in the history of portraiture. The popularity of the silhouette grew quickly in the 1770s as a new rapid and inexpensive way to capture a sitter's likeness. This coincided with the publication of Johann Caspar Lavater's treatise on physiognomy, and the idea that moral and spiritual character could be studied in the human face, and the most accurate vehicle for examining the countenance was through the machine-traced silhouette. Sarah Harrington herself patented her own pantographic device for creating a profile in 1775. Lavater went on to define the silhouette portrait as 'the justest and most faithful [ … ], for it is the immediate impress of Nature, and bears a character of originality which the most dexterous Artist could not hit, to the same degree of perfection, in a drawing from the hand'.

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