After falling out of fashion in the 1970s, the black-paper silhouette portrait seems to be making a comeback, if its 6,200 search results on the handcraft site Etsy.com are any indication. With roots in ancient Greek pottery painting, silhouettes first appeared in the early 18th century as “shades,” an art form in which likenesses were quickly and easily cut with scissors from black paper. Initially adopted by European aristocrats, “having your shadow taken” became an inexpensive means of portraiture among the lower classes. The art form got its nickname from Etienne de Silhouette, a French finance minister whose unpopular frugality made his name synonymous with doing things fast and on the cheap. Anything deemed affordable was labeled “à la Silhouette.”
Silhouettes soon crossed to America. In 1802 the painter and inventor Charles Willson Peale installed a silhouette-making machine called a physiognotrace in his Philadelphia museum. According to the Smithsonian, the public loved it, with more than 8,500 silhouettes cut the first year. Peale’s slave, Moses Williams, earned enough money from operating the machine to buy his freedom.
By mid-century, however, photography had eclipsed the shadow portrait. Yet the romantic allure of the flat black silhouette ensured that it would never completely disappear from popular culture, and in the 20th century silhouette makers recast themselves as scissor artists, cutting on-the-spot black-paper portraits at popular venues like fairs, sideshows, and vacation resorts. Traveling, “internationally renowned” silhouettists became all the rage, with some even appearing in vaudeville shows.
The Silhouette Lady comes to the beach
The middle class popularity of silhouette portraits bred elitist detractors who questioned whether the making of silhouettes was an art form at all, since, as one writer put it, “there is so little art about them.” But then, the critics weren’t referring to the famous French painter Henry Matisse, who began “painting with scissors” when an illness confined him to a wheelchair in the 1940s—around the time that Lillian Clarke was snipping her way to renown as the “Silhouette Lady” of Hampton Beach, New Hampshire.
Lillian was born in Massachusetts in 1900, just one year after the opening of the Hampton Beach Casino, where from 1933 on she would spend nearly 50 summers in a small shop on its promenade, cutting silhouettes portraits and drawing pastel profiles for the vacationing public. Before coming to the beach she studied at the Boston Museum School (now the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University), worked as a jewelry designer, and devoted a few years to teaching with the League of New Hampshire Arts and Crafts. In the off-season she snipped portraits all around the Boston area, at charity bazaars, home and flower shows, and Jordan Marsh’s Toyland.
Lillian didn’t just work at the beach, she was literally invested in it. Over the years she had owned at least five properties, most with multiple dwellings and situated on Town or Hampton Beach Improvement Company leased land. Her first Hampton Beach cottage was The Gables on K Street, which she bought in 1943, one year after the death of her first husband. Others she would later buy with her second husband, John Bunker, who ran John’s Popcorn on the boulevard.
Lillian was also known to occasionally “cut a few shadow pictures in limerick form.” In 1934 the Hampton Beach News-Guide published her limerick about life at Hampton Beach.
If to the ballroom you wish to retreat
To do some dancing with nimble feet
Billy’s Arcadians are very good.
And so I think you really should
Spend lots of nickels to make it complete.
In Hal’s Hampton Beach Band is a sweet gracious man
Who’s admired by many a feminine fan
For it’s “IT” he possesses
And who ‘tis you’ve three guesses
Adolph Blazer’s the one who’s so grand!
Now Hal has a Daddy, in the band he does toot
He’s a little fat man from his hat to his boot.
When his son says “obey”
He ne’er tells him “nay”
Want to see him? He wears a tan suit.
Hap Rowell the “Sheriff” in the band is getting old
>He wears flannels and boots to keep out the cold.
I’ll be blest where he’ll go
When we get ice and snow
Let’s give him a cold range to hold.
On Monday nights at the bandstand is a very good show
And who thinks he’s Bing’s double? Why Lawrence you know.
After attempt number three
An endurance prize got he
Now we’ll endure him as long as he’ll go.
Last year Bill Stickney was a cop
And tagging cars kept him ahop
But he got a chance
For a little advance
As a captain now, he’s no flop.
Now we’ve Jim and we’ve John of the family Dineen
As two corking brothers as you’ve ever seen
Who own half the Casino
And no wives in Reno
Now, girls, you can’t make a real choice between.
If the future or past you wish to know
To Madame Cooper you want to go
She’s as clever as can be
Just take a try and see
She’s a whiz as a palmist ‘tis so.
This beach, it is great for Conventions of late
If you wish to have any be sure not to wait.
If all rooms are not taken
For vacations, you may be mistaken
And our transients think Hampton Beach is just great.
In 1936 the Hampton Beach Advocate gave us Lillian’s poem of wind-blown woe titled, “North-easter? Watch Out!” In 1955 the Beachcomber published her poetic testimonial to Bill Elliot, the town’s singing cop, of whom she had cut a full-length silhouette 19 years earlier.
No longer a thing
Not only had the Silhouette Lady cut an untold number of black-paper portraits in her forty-plus years at the Casino, but she had captured in silhouette and poem a piece of Hampton Beach history. She was as much a beach institution as the Singing Cop and the Carnival Queen, both of whom she outlasted. But by the 1970s hand-cut silhouettes were no longer a thing, and when the Casino’s new owners took over in 1976, they replaced old-timers like Lillian Clarke with a new generation of retailers.
Fortunately for us, her daughter presented a set of Lillian’s silhouette portraits—which include full-length profiles of all 17 members of the Hal McDonnell Band, the beach “house” band from 1925-1936—to the Hampton Historical Society. These original portraits can be seen at the Tuck Museum, 40 Park Avenue, Hampton. For anyone interested in the history of Hampton Beach, they are worth a look.
Originally published in the Hampton Union, March 1, 2019.
History Matters is a monthly column devoted to the history of Hampton and Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. “Hampton History Matters,” a collection of new and previously published essays, is available at amazon.com and Marelli’s Market. Contact Cheryl at email@example.com or lassitergang.com.