Family sells a profile of history

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The Independent Online

Arts Reporter

One of the finest private collections of silhouettes to come on the market for a decade is to be sold this autumn.

The group of about 120 profiles was begun by Madge Christie, who bought her first example on Brighton pier in 1893 at the age of eight, and continued by her son, Michael.

The collection, which has not been publicly displayed for 50 years, shows the various styles of silhouette ranging from plain black cut-out card to profiles painted onto paper, card, plaster of Paris, glass and ivory.

The portraits, which have been kept on the walls of Mr Christie's Buckinghamshire house, are estimated at between pounds 30 and pounds 3,000. They include examples by John Miers and Isabella Beetham, and the most expensive is a half-length of a lady by Beetham, expected to fetch up to pounds 3,000.Their name derives from the unpopular 17th-century French finance minister, Etienne de Silhouette, but the art originated in the late 16th century - Alexandre Dumas once described Queen Catherine de Medici cutting out profiles of her courtiers in the Louvre.

Previously known as "shades" or "likenesses", they were popular in the 18th century as a hobby and a cheap form of portraiture before the invention of photography. They became seriously regarded in 1775 when Johann Lavater, a Dutch pastor, published a book on physiognomy in which he argued that the simple profiles, by concentrating on the salient features of the face, gave a clear insight into character.

His theory became a huge talking point throughout Europe. Even the writer Goethe became an accomplished profilist and helped Lavater design a silhouette chair for artists.

The Christie collection (unrelated to Christie's auction house) includes a profile of the playwright Richard Sheridan (est. pounds 7-800), whose sister Betsy was convinced by Lavater's theories. "I have been reading Lavater and intend becoming wise in my judgements on the cut of people's faces," she wrote in a letter to her sister. "[He] positively insists that a nose or mouth of certain formation almost invariably belongs to a particular character."

The profiles to be sold at Bonhams on 9 November also include a card cut-out of Elizabeth, Empress of Russia (1709-1762, est.pounds 3-500), and a silhouette of Mr Hatsells, George III's messenger (est.pounds 3-400).