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Silhouette of an unknown man

  • Object:


  • Place of origin:

    England (painted)

  • Date:

    ca. 1790-1848 (painted)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Field, John, born 1771 - died 1848 (artist)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Watercolour on ivory set on a hair bracelet

  • Credit Line:

    Given by Captain Desmond Coke

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Prints & Drawings Study Room, level F, case RMC, shelf 7, box E

In the 18th century, cut-paper images (usually blackened) were called 'shades' or, if they were portraits, 'profiles'. The taste for profiles grew in the 1770s when the archaeological discoveries of Roman sites at Herculaneum and Pompeii encouraged a wave of neo-Classicism. Profiles were given added popularity by the publication in 1775 of the hugely popular Essays on Physiognomy by the Swiss theologian and poet J. C. Lavater. This was illustrated with numerous simple black profiles, because, Lavater claimed, by concentrating on a person's main features one could detect their character, both their virtues and their vices.

The 'silhouette' (so called after a French minister notorious for wasting his time on this popular hobby) was primarily commercially successful because in its simplest form it was a cheap and quick method of portraiture. With mechanical aids, a sitting could be one minute and endless repetitions for friends and family could be done without further tedious sittings. But the desire for novelty on the part of both artists and clients soon led to diversification from the original cut paper or simple painted profiles on paper. Artists could paint on the under surface of flat or convex glass, using oil colour or watercolour. The glass was then framed against a plaster background, and sometimes those profiles painted on convex glass would be backed by a thin coating of wax. Artists could paint on plaster, but watercolour, ink or oil were not suitable and it seems that artists used some kind of soot or charcoal based pigment. In another popular method borrowed from miniature painting, the artist worked in watercolour on ivory, often with bronzed highlights as in this example by John Field.

Physical description

Silhouette portrait of an unknown man, painted in black and bronze colour, on a quasi-rectangular piece of ivory with rounded corners. The silhoeutte is set onto a bracelet which has been woven or plaited with hair. Signed by the artist.

Place of Origin

England (painted)


ca. 1790-1848 (painted)


Field, John, born 1771 - died 1848 (artist)

Materials and Techniques

Watercolour on ivory set on a hair bracelet

Marks and inscriptions

Field II Strand
Signed below the bust


Height: 1.28125 in Size of ivory, Width: 1.96875 in

Descriptive line

Silhouette portrait of an unknown man, painted on ivory by John Field and set onto a bracelet woven with hair. Great Britain, ca. 1790-1848.


Watercolour; Ivory; Hair; Metal


Painting; Silhouette

Subjects depicted

Silhouette; Bracelet


Paintings; Portraits; Jewellery; Accessories


Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

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