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Prosopographus (McKechnie Section 1)

See also Sections Two and Six

The name of a mechanical device for drawing the outline of a silhouette, which was, in effect, adopted as the name of a gallery managed for about twelve years by the silhouette artist Charles Herve II. It is recorded by Jackson (Dictionary) under the headings 'Automaton' and ‘Prosopographus', but she does not mention the connection with Herve, which has only recently been discovered.

According to an advertisement quoted later, Herve was himself the inventor of Prosopographus. The machine was probably operated by Herve's assistants, who would secure the basic outline of a silhouette by this means and, if a plain black cut profile was required, complete the work themselves. If, however, a cut and painted silhouette was required, the work would probably be completed by Herve. For Herve's career as an independent silhouette artist, see the entry on him.

Jackson quotes in her Dictionary an eye-witness account (published in Notes and Queries) of the machine in operation:

‘I remember very well the Automaton that professed to draw silhouettes. Somewhere about 1826 the Automaton was brought to Newcastle; it was a figure dressed in flowing robes, with a stylus in the right hand, which by machinery scratched an outline of a profile on a card, which the exhibitor professed to fill up in black. The person whose likeness was to be taken sat at one side of the figure near a wall. One of our party detected an opening in the wall through which a man's eye was visible. This man, no doubt, drew the profile, and not the Automaton. Ladies' heads were relieved by pencillings of gold. Another performer, I remember went to work in a more scientific manner: a long rod worked in a movable fulcrum, with a pencil at one end and a small iron rod at the other, was his apparatus. He passed the rod over the face and head, and the pencil at the other end reproduced the outline on a card, afterwards filled in with lampblack.’

The machine described in the latter part of this account is a physiognotrace (see Chapter Two).

In view of the fact that Prosopographus was managed by Herve and his staff for at least twelve years, and the output (according to the group's announcements) was considerable, it is surprising that so few silhouettes are known. The movements and activities of the concern can be pieced together from a series of handbills and advertisements. What appears to be the earliest of these was illustrated by Jackson. The text is as follows:





at No. 161, Strand

Opposite the NEW CHURCH



The Public will probably be startled, when it is stated that a Lifeless Image is endowed by mechanical powers to draw likenesses of the Human Countenance, through all its endless variety, yet it is no exaggeration to say, that this beautiful little Figure not only traces an outline in less than one minute, but actually produces more perfect resemblances than any living artist can possibly execute: and as the Automaton neither touches the face, nor has the slightest communication with the persons whilst sitting, they are scarcely conscious of the operation, which renders these likenesses more natural and pleasing than any that have been produced by previous methods. The novelty of sitting to an Automaton, united with the advantage of obtaining a correct resemblance, will, it is hoped, induce every one to sit, however often their likenesses may have been attempted before. The public are not usually backward in patronizing works of art and ingenuity, and this, as a unique and original invention, deserves, it is fully trusted, a considerable share of encouragement.

Visitors for One Shilling each, not only see the Figure perform, but are entitled to their own likeness, or if not inclined to sit, may receive a copy of any one of the various specimens in the room, among which are His MAJESTY, Mr. CANNING, Sir W. SCOTT, &c. As most persons will probably require their likenesses to be finished in a superior manner, Artists are retained to complete the outlines taken by the Automaton, in various styles, at different charges.

Hours of Attendance from Ten till Dusk

Printed by J. Davy, Queen Street, Seven Dials.

This handbill seems to have been issued during the years 1818-20 (see Trade Label No. 1, below, seen on the back of a profile which was apparently taken during these years).


Jackson also quotes two advertisements from the press, but gives no dates:

Unparalleled Mechanical Phenomenon, now exhibiting at No. 161, Strand opposite the New Church, Prosopographus, the Automaton Artist. The Public will probably be startled when it is stated that a Lifeless Image is endowed by Mechanical powers to draw Likenesses of the Human Countenance through all its endless variety, yet it is no exaggeration to say that this beautiful little figure, not only traces an outline in less than one minute, but actually produces more perfect resemblances than any living artist can possibly execute, and as the Automaton neither touches the face, nor has the slightest communication with the person, whilst sitting, they are scarcely conscious of the operation. &c.

Visitors for One Shilling each, not only see the figure perform, but are entitled to their own Likeness, or if not inclined to, may receive a copy of any of the Likenesses exposed.

The second advertisement appeared in a Huddersfield newspaper. Jackson quotes an excerpt: “ 'The Automaton Artist,' a machine for drawing the Likeness in one minute in black for Is., Coloured 7s. 6d. upwards. Open from 10 to 8, Huddersfield.” Another advertisement (drawn to my attention by Lady Chapman, archivist at Madame Tussaud's Exhibition) appeared in the Liverpool Mercury on Friday 19 October 1821:

The Exhibition of the Automaton Artist continues at 46 Lord Street, corner of Whitechapel. Admittance one shilling entitling each visitor to a Profile Likeness taken by the Figure.

As some thousands of Likenesses have already been executed in this Town by the Automaton, it is unnecessary to explain the nature of the operation but the Proprietors beg leave to offer this remark that the correctness of the resemblance depends entirely upon the person keeping his head and features perfectly still whilst sitting, which does not occupy the space of one minute; and as nothing touches the face there is no excitement to disturb the natural expression of the Countenance which is exactly caught by the Figure, so exquisite is the nature of the machinery contained within it.

Two handbills (in the Bodleian Library, John Johnson collection) issued by the Prosopographus concern bear another address in London, and although undated, may have been published in 1822-24 (the reference to bronzing is new, and these years are not otherwise accounted for). Typographically, the handbills differ, but the wording is almost identical and the same prices are given. One of the handbills is quoted below:





In the Room over the Gallery of the

Western Exchange, Admittance 1s.



(The First Staircase on the Left from Bond-street.)

When we reflect upon the infinite variety that the human countenance exhibits, and witness the feeble efforts of men to copy those forms so beautifully varied and expressed in nature, — when we know that it requires the united faculties of the mind to direct a living hand to trace even at best these faint resemblances, — how must our admiration be excited on beholding an AUTOMATON, whose hand (mechanically impelled) can draw in one uninterrupted line the PROFILE LIKENESS of any person that is placed before it, in less than one minute; and if the object remains perfectly still during the operation, a more natural and pleasing resemblance is obtained than a Profile usually represents; for as nothing passes over the face, no unpleasant sensation is excited, whilst sitting, that might alter the expression of the countenance. An endeavour has been made to render this figure more pleasing in its appearance than is generally beheld in Automata: it is splendidly attired in a Spanish costume, and the symmetry of its form has been considered exquisite. — visitors are presented with an outline of themselves, or of any one of the busts of public characters that are placed in the room for the satisfaction of those who may have an objection to sitting; and those who are desirous of having their outlines filled up, may have them neatly executed in black for an additional eighteen pence, or bronzed in a superior style for five shillings. – no person is required to pay the admission a second time, but are ever after free.

We know from the eye-witness account quoted by Jackson from Notes and Queries that the Prosopographus concern was in Newcastle in c. 1826. Another handbill (illustrated) gives a new London address (128, or possibly 123, Strand) and bears a picture of the machine splendidly attired in Spanish costume.


I date this handbill to 1828, in which year Herve sent in work to the Royal Academy from a London address.

In 1829 the group was in Bath, as we know from three advertisements in the Bath and Cheltenham Gazette. The first of these, dated 17 February, reads as follows:

As Prosopographus, the Automaton Artist can fairly challenge all the world to produce his fellow, it is but reasonable to expect that all the world will come and see him, and profit by his productions, for who is there who would forgo the opportunity of having to say: 'I have had my picture drawn by an Automaton!'Among the performance of this extraordinary figure are the Likenesses of many distinguished Characters.

To be seen at 6, Union Street, where the Automaton operates from 9 in the morning until 9 in the evening.

The second advertisement appeared on 24 February:

As the Automaton Artist, Prosopographus, will remain but a short time longer in Bath, the Public are respectfully advised to lose no time in procuring the most perfect LIKENESS, produced in the shortest space of time, and for the least expence, and performed in such a manner so extraordinary and novel that the effect has been compared to enchantment.

Exhibition Room No. 6, Union Street. Attendance from 9 in the morning until 9 in the evening.

— A party of ladies, leaving the initial L. D., who fetched their Likenesses on Saturday last, left on the table a Reticule containing a purse and other articles: not having sent for it, they may probably conclude it is lost.

The third advertisement (3rd March) is the most interesting in that it is the earliest (and only) extant announcement which reveals the name of the inventor of Prosopographus:

Mr. C. Herve (Inventor of Prosopographus, the Automaton Artist) returns his best thanks to those who have kindly come forward to encourage the Exhibition; and in soliciting further Patronage, begs leave to remark that his stay is limited to only a fortnight longer. He therefore trusts that his friends will not delay their attendance.

Among the specimens of Likenesses drawn of this extraordinary figure are His Majesty [George IV], the late Mr. Canning [Prime Minister during 1827]. Sir Walter Scott, &c.

To be seen at the Room of performance, No. 6. Union Street. Hours of attendance from 9 in the morning until 9 in the evening.

Herve was a first-class copyist, and it is possible that some of the portraits of famous personages referred to here were copies made by him from other artists' works. The mention of Scott, however, suggest the possibility that the concern had been in Edinburgh, if the writer's profile had been taken from life.

A profile of one William Goldney, inscribed as being taken by 'Prosopographus, Bristol' and sold at Sotheby and Company, London, on 25 July 1966, suggests that the stay in Bath during February and March 1829 was either preceded or followed by a stay in Bristol; the sitter's costume suggests a date of c. 1829, and Bristol would have been within easy reach of Bath. To judge from the costume of the sitter, a profile taken by the gallery in Cheltenham can be dated to c. 1829-30. Thereafter, the Prosopographus concern disappears from view. A summary of the gallery's itinerary, in so far as it is known or can be surmised from handbills, advertisements or trade labels (discussed later), is given below.

1818-20 161 Strand, London; the gallery may have opened at this address

1821 Liverpool

1822-24 Bond Street, London

1826 Newcastle

1827-28 Halifax and possibly Huddersfield

1828 London: probably first at 161 Strand, then at 123 Strand

1829 Bath and probably Bristol

1829-30 Cheltenham

The reappearance of the gallery at 161 Strand is suggested by the existence of two different trade labels bearing this address.

As I have mentioned, Herve’s assistants were probably responsible for securing the outline of a profile with the Prosopographus (viewing the sitter from behind curtains, or through the eyes of the costumed figure), and may also have completed plain black profiles. Herve himself, however, was probably responsible for all the painted work done by the gallery. One illustrated example shows his characteristic style.


‘Bronzed’ work was certainly offered at some period. Coloured work was offered later, at Huddersfield and Halifax.(See Section Six)

Herve was such a fine copyist that work in almost any style, bearing a Prosopographus label, might be found.

At the time of writing, only four trade labels have come to light. Two bear addresses at 161 Strand, London, but we do not know in which order they were used. The other two were used at Halifax and Cheltenham respectively. Other trade labels must surely have existed.

An example of Trade Label No.1 (illustrated) is on the back of a black silhouette of a boy, apparently take c. 1818-20.

Trade Label No. 2 was drawn to my attention by Mr. Graham Thomas, who saw it on the back of a profile of a child (see the entry in Section Two). It reads as follows:

Taken by


The Automaton Artist

161, Strand

Miniatures copied and reduced from portraits.

Trade Label No. 3 (the only extant label which mentions prices) has been seen on the two large coloured profiles in rosewood frames, taken in the late 1820s , referred to above:

Now Exhibiting

In a room at the old Market Place




This splendid little figure possesses the extraordinary power of drawing by Mechanical Means the Likeness of any person that is placed before it in the short time of One Minute. It is hoped that the inhabitants of HALIFAX will come forward with their usual spirit, to encourage a piece of Ingenuity, at once so novel & curious.

A LIKENESS in Black for 1s.

Coloured from 7s.6d. upwards

Open from Ten till Eight

Gawthorp & Kitchen, Printers.

Trade Label No. 4 (illustrated) was used in Cheltenham, apparently c.1829-30. Apparently cards on which profiles were to be painted were printed with the wording of this label on the reverse.

Ills. 554-558

Unknown boy
Cut silhouette
c. 1818-20
3½ x 2½in./90 x 64mm.
Trade Label No. 1
Frame: papier maâché


R. Kilner collection


Unknown man
Cut silhouette, painted (possibly in Indian link) against a dark-grey base colour
c. 1830
2 7/8 x 2¼in./74 x 58mm.
Trade Label No. 4
Frame: papier mâché


The date is suggested by the surtout with velvet collar worn by the sitter.


W. E. Fox-Smith collection


Handbill or advertisement of the Prosopographus gallery, dating probably from 1828.


Bodleian Library, John Johnson collection


Trade Label No. 1 of the Prosopographus gallery. Printed on pink paper. Width: 2in. on the reverse of the silhouette shown in 554.


R. Kilner collection


Trade Label No. 4 of the Prosopographus gallery. On the reverse of the silhouette shown in 555.


W. E. Fox-Smith collection