Once upon a time there were no cameras. Really! Not even cell phone cameras. People wanted images of their loved ones, or of themselves to share. No doubt sketches and carvings were made from earliest times on whatever materials could be obtained. The likeness of the person would depend upon the skills of the artist and other factors, such as materials.
This is a sketch of Jane Austen from A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1870. It is based on a drawing done by her sister Cassandra, which contemporaries did not consider to be a successful likeness.
Perhaps Cassandra's watercolor is more accurate.
Skilled artists were sought by those who could afford their services. One early form of likeness is the cameo. Ancient cameos were often made from semiprecious gemstone, usually onyx or agate, where two contrasting colors meet. Less expensive cameos are made from shell or glass. Artistic cameos were made in Greece as far back as the 3rd Century BC. They were very popular amongst the Augustus family of ancient Rome.
Shown here is a cameo portrait of Augustus. Sardonyx cameo; gilt silver mount with pearls, sapphires and red glass beads, 16-17th centuries. Photography: © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons
Revivals in popularity of the cameo have occurred periodically. The first such revival in Britain was during the reigns of George III and later his granddaughter, Queen Victoria, to the extent that they were being mass produced during the latter half of the 19th Century.
French Finance Minister Etienne de Silhouette cut black profiles as a hobby. The cuttings were originally called profile miniatures or shades. The name silhouette was in use by the early 19th Century. These provided family members with a likeness that was much less expensive than a painted miniature, and it is thought that Silhouette's name became associated with them because of his severe economic policies. The likeness could be cut by a skilled artist in minutes using paper and scissors. At times, gold accents and colored paint were used to add interest. The cost of a silhouette could run from a shilling to more than a guinea.
Resort and spa towns came to have at least one silhouettist. The daughter of King George III, Princess Elizabeth, was an amateur in the field. Materials used included paper, wax, glass or plaster. More costly silhouettes were framed. A famous English artist was John Miers (1756-1821), who began his career in Liverpool and then moved to a London studio at No. 111 Strand in 1788. He charged a guinea per silhouette. Some that he did on ivory came to be used in rings, lockets and bracelets.
A proliferation of unskilled artists took up the lucrative trade, decreasing its popularity. Then another advent threatened the silhouette medium: commercial photography. In 1854, a Parisian photographer named Andre Disderi patented a multilensed camera which produced eight small likenesses on one large glass negative. The resulting print was cut, the portraits were trimmed, and they were then mounted on cards measuring two and a half by four inches. This was the usual size of a visiting card, and so these photos were dubbed cartes de visite. In 1859, Napoleon III had his photograph made up in this manner, initiating a craze throughout Europe, and then in America, called cardomania. The craze reached England in 1861 when J.E. Mayall took carte de visite portraits of the royal family. Soon, studios opened in every town. A photographer in Bath reportedly sold between sixty and seventy thousand cards in a single year.
Thomas Stevens introduced something new in 1879- the silk-woven picture or Stevengraph. Two scenes of local interest were woven on a loom. These sold for a shilling, with new pictures being issued once a month. Portraits were later done in this manner, featuring members of the royal family, sportsmen of the day and so on. By the early twentieth century, even silk-woven postcards portraying famous passenger liners were sold as souvenirs to passengers aboard the ships.
Debra Brown is the author of The Companion of Lady Holmeshire, an early Victorian mystery with sweet romance. Watch for her second novel, For the Skylark, in 2012.
1. The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England From 1811-1901 by Kristine Hughes.
3. Pictures from Wikipedia and Wikimedia.