LIFE ON THE SHARP EDGE by Elestr Lee
MOST artists build up a range of favoured ‘tools of their trade’ – but Emmer Green silhouettist, Charles Burns, lives by just one item – his surgical scissors. His latest pair has served him for 12 years so far – and he doesn’t intend to hang up his scissors just yet!
Charles studied Fine Art at Wolverhampton and, having moved to London, he managed to get a pitch at Jubilee Market, Covent Garden, where he produced ten minute pencil portraits. “The pitch fee was £50 per day, which doesn’t sound much now, but this was the 80s! It was rare not to make this, especially in the summer holidays or coming up to Christmas. My pitch was where I earned my living, while my wife worked as a translator.”
“I learned a lot. There is an art to selling stuff – you have to connect. At school I was very shy and introverted, so putting myself forward and engaging with people really taught me a lot.”
“I started out as a portrait artist, but then I moved to doing silhouettes,” Charles recalled. “As a street artist you are often approached by other artists who also want a pitch and I had to explain that Jubilee Market needed a range of skills, they would have to do something different – why not try silhouettes? They would say, ‘I can’t do silhouettes!’, so it occurred to me, can I?”
“So I had to teach myself the skill, no one else was doing it. I had to adapt my drawing skills. I went to the National Portrait Gallery, which owns 30,000 examples by Hubert Leslie, who had been working during the 1920s. Previously silhouettists had passed on their skills to their sons, or an apprentice. By the 1980s there was only one silhouettist left and he was very elderly – the tradition had virtually died. So I had to teach myself.”
Charles started doing silhouettes at his pitch in Covent Garden; then he started being approached by events planners who wanted him to entertain guests at weddings, corporate events and parties.
“In 1997 I gave up my pitch at Covent Garden and started to make my living from these events – mostly within the UK, but also travelling to the Channel Islands, Europe and the Middle East. I have even been asked to create my silhouettes at charitable events associated with the Royal Family – and created a silhouette of the Queen at her 80th birthday party!”
Silhouettes first became very popular in the late 18th century. They were named after Etienne de Silhouette, a French Finance Minister who imposed severe austerity on the French during 1759 – ‘silhouette’ became the byword for cutting costs. But the profile portraits, which were quick to do, cheap and fun, also required real mastery and ‘secrets of the trade’, which were jealously guarded. The advent of photography during the Victorian era drove silhouettists to purchase cameras instead. There was a brief resurgence of interest in the skill following World War 1, when Hubert Leslie plied his trade.
Due to the pandemic, events and parties have abruptly ended. But Charles has discovered that he has no need to pack his scissors away. Through the wonders of Skype and Zoom, he is just as able to create the perfect silhouette – he created mine within minutes at the close of this Skype interview!
“The interesting thing is that I am returning to being a street artist again, through my online street art website. People can book a time slot, so in ten minutes I can do two people – for example, someone with two children could have their portraits done.”
“It’s like my days back at Covent Garden – people book a slot and, once I have cut the portrait, I mount it on card, then post the finished work to the client. So while in recent years I have been booked to attend events, now I am available to the general public, and I am also available world -wide. I am very enthusiastic about being online and have put a lot of work into creating my website. My new website is truly global!”
“I am also keen to become a virtual artist from an environmental point of view. When I work from my studio my carbon footprint is reduced. I can do my silhouettes using my surgical scissors and simply post them off without travelling all around the UK or flying half-way across the world.”
To find out how you could have your silhouette cut out, go to www.silhouettist.uk