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Phelps, W. J.

Gender: Male
Date and place of birth:
Date and place of death:
Date and place of death: Unknown
(fl) 1784-1791
Known places of work:
Known techniques:
Cut paper
Known materials:
Pressed brass
Not Recorded


Phelps was a rather unusual silhouette artist working in the late eighteenth century. His work is distinctive in its use of white and strong colours for dress. This unique feature has meant that his work has been somewhat looked down upon by more traditional collectors. However, his style and skill has recently grown in recognition.

Little is known about Phelps’ background or early history. He lived and worked on Drury Lane, London in the late eighteenth century but may have been working as a silhouette artist at an earlier stage. Fortunately, Phelps himself seems to have been rather rigorous about recording dates and provides not only the year but the actual day profiles were taken as an inscription on the reverse. From this we have a clear idea of the period he definitely was working, 1784-1791. During this time his output was not huge, and in contrast to inscriptions trade labels are rare. Phelps appears to have preferred oval pressed brass frames.

It has been suggested that Phelps’ use of colour, particularly white, was a faithful representation of contemporary fashionable dress which favoured white dresses with coloured sashes, ribbons and hats. His best work is indeed that with dashes of colour such as apple-green, mauve, and pink. Phelps mostly painted directly onto plaster, but he also pasted paper cut-outs onto paper and experimented briefly with glass. From a collector’s point of view, Phelps’ work on plaster is most significant. For this he used thick, buff paper to cut the silhouette which was then stuck to the plaster. The buff colour of the card was used to represent buttons or shirt-frills, with detail added in paint. McKechnie claims that the edges of the cut-outs were then carefully and skilfully painted in an attempt to conceal them. Joll however states that neither she nor other collectors see evidence of this. One distinctive silhouette of Phelps’ – a high-hatted lady in a turquoise dress – is still universally reproduced and used in decorative arts.

Additional research about W. J. Phelps:

Source: McKechnie (Author of, British Silhouette Artists and their Work 1760-1860)

Phelps, W. J. (McKechnie Section 2)
Phelps, W. J. (McKechnie Section 3)
Phelps, W. J. (McKechnie Section 4)
Phelps, W. J. (McKechnie Section 7)

Source: Joll (Hon. Secretary of the Silhouette Collectors Club and Editor of the Club's newsletter)

Phelps, W. J. (SCC Newsletter July 1997)