Three generations of papercutting

Silhouette cutting was in my family from the day I was born. In the late 60's and early 70's my grandfather Arthur Forrester had a silhouette profile studio halfway along Brighton Palace Pier next to The House Of Hades. As a small child I loved my holidays in Brighton because the studio was the base, and I could run freely up and down the pier every day visiting the amusements, ghost train, dodgems and helter skelter.

When I returned to the studio Arthur would invariably have a customer, and usually a queue of people, waiting their turn to have a silhouette portrait cut.

A Pathe News video showing a young Arthur cutting a profile can be viewed here.
He began silhouette cutting in 1921, and so this is very early footage.

He cut the pictures with a large pair of vining scissors to which he was so finely attuned that if someone used them when his back was turned he would know because of their altered sharpness. The paper he used was printed black on one side. He would have the customer sit sideways to him so that he could see their profile clearly. They faced a light-box featuring a silhouette of Sir Winston Churchill smoking a cigar. This was enough to hold their interest and keep them still for the minute or so that the silhouette would take to cut.

Unseen by the customer, Arthur would fold the paper neatly in half with the black side facing inwards. This would keep the paper sturdy, protect the black surface from finger marks, and looking at the white side of the paper rather than the black was easier on the eyes. When the cutting was finished he had two papercuts which he would hand to the customer black side up. They could be purchased loose, two for a shilling, or at extra cost be mounted, tinted with gold pencil or gold leaf, and framed.

Many silhouette artists gave the customer one copy while retaining the other for use in an album as a record of their work. Arthur always presented both to the paying customer, prefering to give them better value for money, rather than keeping one as a record for the future use of collectors who would only be interested in his work after his death. Perhaps too, he was an early pioneer of "buy one get one free". He rarely signed his silhouettes for the same reason.

It is of course very logical for the collectors to be largely interested in the work of dead artists - when dead they can create no more work. Everything that was made is now a sort of limited edition - it can't be added to.

Another reason for Arthur not signing some of his work was probably that he had a queue waiting. Taking extra time to sign pictures could result in someone at the back of the line being impatient and leaving.

I guess Arthur, by producing unsigned work, has made the collectors' job a touch harder. Nobody knows exactly what he produced. He certainly claimed to have cut over one million profiles which, if true, I calculate to be a minimum of 627 for every week of his career. It should however be noted that I'm not generally known for my great mathematical skills.

When Arthur died, his scissors and studio were taken over by his son John. My uncle John was, in my memory at least, a bit of a joker. He employed a helper called "Billy The Quid" who concocted a strategy for beating the slot machines in the pier's amusement arcade. On one occasion Billy and I were working his system (actually it wasn't working) and were booted off the pier by the arcade manager. That evening I explained to my uncle that we'd done nothing wrong. We hadn't nudged the machines or cheated in any way.
"Don't worry" John said, "I'll sort it out tomorrow".

The next day as the manager passed the studio, John called out to him and whispered to me that he'd tell him straight. "Excuse me" he said to the manager, "This is my nephew and I gather you kicked him off the pier yesterday. I'd just like to say that he's on holiday and he really likes playing the slot machines, so next time you see him in there I'd be really grateful if you'd just kick him off the pier again. Thanks".

Well thanks to you too John. Anyway, the truth is that John was great fun, even if the joke was sometimes (often, nearly always) on me.

Eventually John gave up silhouette cutting and instead turned his hand to running a "Tricks and Jokes" shop at the end of the pier, which no doubt suited him very well. He was sadly killed at the young age of 36.

However, in his cutting years John made a bit of a reputation for himself. He was known for his ability to cut either an accurate portrait or a caricature according to the customer's preference. Many believed that John was better profile artist than Arthur.

Arthur and John were not alive when I began silhouette cutting in 1990. During a period of unemployment I discovered a carrier bag full of their paper together with their scissors in a cupboard, and I realized that nobody had updated the art form. There were still a few silhouette artists in Britain but they produced traditional profiles and I believed silhouettes would lend themselves to a wider range of subjects.

This was, of course, the days before the internet and as I hadn't heard of papercutting I just followed my own ideas. Unknown to me there had always been seriously good papercutting traditions in other countries, China and Switzerland to name but two. I think it's fair to say that my style is different to other traditions and this is purely because it was uninfluenced. Even today I avoid looking at other papercutter's work. To me, it's a very sad side-effect of the internet that it enables artists to be too easily influenced by other artist's ideas, rather than to be creative and express themselves in their own way.

My first designs were of Bamburgh Castle and Holy Island and after several poor attempts with a razor blade I was convinced the designs would work if I found the right cutting tool. After a long search I discovered the perfect tool for me - a Swann Morton scalpel with a 10A blade, and I've always used that since.

I put the first pictures in an Alnwick craft shop and they sold straight away. The customers soon began to request other designs of subjects that interested them. Their ideas gave me the inspiration for the next designs and although I rarely accept commissions, requests from my customers still point me in the right direction today.

 

All above photographs were taken by John Forrester (© John Forrester. All rights reserved).