I have been scrounging around in my basement this week, not to reorganize my fabric, or re-evaluate my need for all my saved yarn, but to find something my son asked for: the silhouettes cut by my great-grandmother. Somewhere in the mess, I knew I had a box of her silhouettes saved and preserved in a special paper. I found them. I also found four notebooks carefully assembled by an aunt of my great-grandmother’s work, including a short description of how she cut the silhouettes and what she did with them. I put away most of the notebooks when the Otterbees arrived. I left out one book of her work and the write-up done by my aunt. I thought the ladies might be interested. I was surprised and amazed when they showed more than a brief interest.
My aunt wrote a brief description of her grandmother at work. It is worth reproducing here as silhouette cutting is an old art and rarely seen, though I have seen the traditional profile silhouettes of family members. These were different.
She wrote: My grandmother told me that her art teacher made his students learn the names of all the bones in the body; the origin, insertion. and action of every muscle, and practice endlessly drawing every part of the whole body from all angles. This must account for the grace, the motion, the poise, and the spirit shown in her charming figures which we call “fairies”.
Sitting in a sunny corner of her living room on Cape Cod, she would spend the morning stretching white paper on glass, drawing from fresh-cut sprigs of pine, sprays of woodbine, prickly bits of scotch thistle, oak or brier, and add the charming fairy figures.
This was the day of oil lamps, and sitting down to read, she was annoyed by the glare of the lamp frame which showed below the lamp shade. So on a small wire rectangle, covered both sides with white batiste, she pasted her fairy silhouettes, covered both sides with china silk, attached two pieces of copper spring wire, and then hung this “shade” to the edge of the lamp shade to block the glare. The light shone through and the fairies danced. As one interested in starting a library in this small town, she made these shades and sold them to benefit a new library. She later made four, six, and eight sided lamp shades.
I have samples here of the shades and the silhouettes, carefully preserved in wax paper. We are not sure this method of preserving them is the best, but this was how my aunt saved them 50 years ago. The family is searching out a better way now available and as well as trying to decide how to share these treasures among members.
Nobody in the current family has tried to cut silhouettes but the artistic talent has shown up in various family members in woodworking, drawing, fairy dolls, quilts or stained glass making. I am sure there will more talent in the generations to come.
There was more to this talented woman. She wrote stories for a publication called Saint Nicholas magazine. She also published two books: The Chezzles (1888) (including tiny sketches as chapter headings) and Rachel Stanwood (1893). I have both copies and am currently reading them.
Her silhouettes were published in a book called The Breezes but most people looking at the pages fail to understand that she actually cut the shapes as they just look like an ink painting.
This is a photo of my great-grandmother: Lucy Gibbons Morse.