News from the Archive

The Curious Cuttings of Charles Hutton Lear

This week in the archives we have been sorting through a collection of drawings, paintings, prints and letters produced by or relating to the accomplished Liverpool-based artist Charles Hutton Lear (1818-1903).  The collection is eclectic and ranges from folders stuffed full of ephemera (including receipts and library tickets) to individual sketches and artworks hidden in a centuries old newspaper.

The Hutton Lear collection contains a large assortment of drawings inspired by the sea and many studies of figures and faces, but one of the most striking parts of the collection is a group of paper cuts or silhouettes, each of which have been carved entirely by hand.

Silhouette art required artists to draw or more commonly cut and mount black figures which were then set against a pale background.  Typically associated with less well-off artists (portrait miniatures were the trend amongst the wealthier illustrators) the art of paper cutting experienced a surge in popularity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries wherein an artist would cut figures in fairgrounds and busy public areas for a small fee in the manner of a modern-day caricaturist.

Perhaps the most enduringly well-known artist who favoured this style was Hans Christian Andersen, the Danish writer of fairy tales, poetry and plays, who cut cards for hosts in thanks and at dinner parties for the purposes of entertainment.  One particularly extravagant piece of Andersen’s work is produced in the negative and contains a hand carved poem in the centre of the cut, and can be viewed in the Royal Library, Copenhagen, where it is currently held.

Hutton Lear’s own silhouettes are incredibly detailed and include leaves and foliage as small as 2mm in diameter.  His scenes range from the exotic (gazelles, panthers, fairies) to familial portraits of close relations painstakingly produced in miniature and mounted on cream card.  Charles Hutton Lear produced a large number of remarkable landscapes and sketches but there is something unique about a collection of art which is simultaneously featureless and expressive.  Although more commonly remembered for his detailed paintings, we feel as though these deceptively complicated silhouettes are the real gem at the heart of the Hutton Lear material.


Written by Stephanie Bushell