Silhouette Artist and Prosopographus Inventor Charles Samuel Hervé II

The silhouette artist and prosopographus inventor Charles Samuel Hervé II (hereafter referred to as Hervé) was christened on 28 February 1785 at the All Hallows London Wall. His father was a British-born French Huguenot merchant named Peter Daniel Hervé and his mother Margaret Russel. They had several sons Peter (born 1779), Henry (born 1783), Francis (born 1787) and Hervé, who was the youngest.

Likenesses created from the prosopographus. Courtesy of Bonhams.

Some of Hervé’s brothers made a name for themselves. One was Peter. He was passionate about helping the less fortunate, and he founded the charitable National Benevolent Institution in 1812 as there was no welfare state in the nineteenth century. It immediately received royal support and a Royal Charter in 1859 and was an institution that acquired money through member subscriptions and paid pensions to people who were unable to work due to old age or illness. Despite Peter’s charitable work, it may be Francis who became the more well-known. He was a writer and artist and was commissioned by a British general to produce a series of portraits related to the Greek War of Independence. Francis’ impressions of his journey through Hungary, Balkans, Turkey, and Greece were detailed in two volumes, which included tinted lithographs engravings of pictures he drew. These pictures included a view of Hungary, houses in Constantinople, and Otho, King of Greece. In addition, he was a close friend of the famous wax sculptress Madame Tussaud and trained her son Joseph in the art of silhouette creations. Francis also wrote Madame Tussaud’s memoirs, “Madame Tussaud’s Memoirs and Reminiscences of France: Forming an Abridged History of the French Revolution,” that were published in 1838, and, later, he wrote “How to Enjoy Paris in 1842.”

Drawing by Francis Hervé of Otho, King of Greece. Public domain.

In 1808, Hervé married Catherine Elizabeth Stanley. Together they had several children, including a son named Charles Stanley, who was born on 9 January 1812. Charles Stanley was sometimes identified as C.S. Hervé or C. Hervé, Junr, or just Hervé. In addition, many of Hervé’s brothers and sons were involved in art and became miniaturists, painters, and silhouette artists, which made it very confusing to sort out who was being referred to when someone mentioned a Hervé.

Hervé’s mother died at the end of 1819 and that is when Hervé began exhibiting his invention called a prosopographus. It was a machine shaped like a man dressed in a splendid costume that created perfect silhouettes of subjects, or in other words an automaton that drew the likenesses of people. Like the automaton chess player called the Turk, the prosopographus was also reliant on human intervention but that fact was not disclosed to observers, and, so, they were often awed that a machine could create their likenesses. However, a real artist looked through the automaton’s eyes and used the machine’s right hand to draw the sitter in profile. Another description stated that if you “will imagine one of the arms behind a transparent screen, and the other connected with the arms of a moveable-jointed doll, they will easily understand the contrivance of Prosopographus, the automaton artist.”[1]

Advertisements, posters, and handbills publicized the prosopographus. One of Hervé’s earliest advertisements was published in The Scotsman on 10 January 1820 and is shown to the left. Other advertisements followed with one noting that the prosopographus “represents an Artist, with Pencil in hand, with which it draws a perfect resemblance of any Person, who will keep their features still during the space of a few moments, producing an effect … most startling!”[2] Another advertisement published in 1824 reported that “it is the only Figure of the kind ever invented, has been considered a Mechanical Phenomenon, and must probably remains without competition.”[3] A third advertisement published in 1826 provided the following information about the machine:

“[A] beautiful little mechanical Figure, that draws the likeness of any countenance that may be presented, producing an outline in a few moments without touching the features; thus performing more perfect resemblances than is in the power of any living hand to trace: thousands have already witnessed the fact, and thousands, it is presumed, are yet forthcoming; for who possessing common curiosity will suffer the opportunity to pass of sitting for their Picture to an Automaton? The singularity of such an event must surely stamp an additional value on the Portrait.”[4]

Prosopographus ad in the Scotsman in 1824. Author’s collection.

One handbill likely published between 1818 and 1820 was reprinted by Emily Jackson in 1938. In part, the handbill stated:

“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.”[5]

Prosopographus ad from Theatre Royal at the Haymarket. Public domain.

Another advertisement that appeared in 1830 touted the benefits of the “Automaton Artist” and gave a slight explanation as to how the prosopographus accomplished its drawing using a sitter:

“[I]t is actually seen to draw and Outline Resemblance of every Countenance that may be presented to it, and that without touching, or having the slightest communication with the object whose Likeness it executes, which will be mathematically correct, if the person [the sitter] remains perfectly still during the few moments that are required for the operation.”[6]

Basic portraits achieved with the prosopographus were outlines of a person’s profile. One of Hervé’s assistants then colored it black and Hervé added embellishments. Later, he began mounting the likenesses in a frame under glass. One newspaper advertisement noted that “each visitor will be entitled to a Likeness, finished in a plain way, or in a superior style, for an additional charge.”[7] The “superior style” included portraits that were shaded, created in full color, or bronzed, and they could also be mounted in more elaborate frames for a surcharge. Labels identifying prosopographus creations were sometimes attached to the final product. For instance, a label might state: “Taken by PROSOPOGRAPHUS The Automaton Artist 161 Strand,” which was the address of the prosopographus from the spring of 1826 until about the summer of 1827.

Hervé claimed that the prosopographus took a “better LIKENESSES than any of his living contemporaries,”[8] and because of its superiority, it seemed to encourage many people to obtain a prosopographus likeness. In fact, there are reports of thousands of people patronizing Hervé during the early 1800s. The prosopographus is also known to have been used to create a likeness of the famous Scottish historical novelist, playwright, and historian Sir Walter Scott. In addition, it has been verified that a likeness of the German guitar virtuoso, composer and teacher named Madame Sidney Pratten was created with the prosopographus by Charles Stanley in 1843.

Sir Walter Scott by Sir Henry Raeburn. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Hervé and his prosopographus travelled everywhere between 1819 and 1831. In England, besides London, he visited Liverpool, Birmingham, Worcestershire, Bristol, Ipswich, Bath, Suffolk, Devon, and Leicestershire. He also claimed in Norwich that “scarcely a family remained unprosopographusised.”[9] He also traveled to the Scottish cities of Edinburgh, Angus, and Midlothian, and his success was documented in Perthshire in 1824 when it was stated that the prosopographus was the only one in existence and then continued with the following praise:

“There have been exhibited Dancing Figures, Musical Figures, and even a Chess-playing Figure, but never before an AUTOMATON ARTIST! It has executed upwards of 100,000 Likenesses! An outline is accomplished in a few moments, and finished by an Artist in different styles, from 1s. to 5s.”[10]

Prosopographus likeness of Madame Sidney Pratten. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery.

One sitter who witnessed the machine in action reported the following:

“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 style 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 lamp-black.”[11]

Exactly why Hervé stopped exhibiting the prosopographus seems unclear. Some historians believe it might be because his eyesight was poor and it continued to decline until it was too difficult for him to draw. However, his son was also known to use the prosopographus, and one newspaper reported in 1830 that a note was sent from the Duchess of Kent to Charles Stanley, who was at Malver at the time. The note was dated 14 October 1830 and stated:

“Sir John Conroy is directed to state, that Mr. Charles Stanley Herve, may consider his Automaton Exhibition as under Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Kent’s patronage.”[12]

In 1843, German papers reported the presence of the prosopographus in Paris. It was probably Hervé’s son Charles Stanley using it. Details of the machine in Paris appeared in an 1847 Parisian guidebook titled, “Guide-conducteur de l’étranger dans Paris avec plans des fortifications et de Paris.” The guidebook stated in part that the celebrated machine and its inventor had newly arrived, that it was “a popular drawing automaton, from London,[13] and a new process for achieving portraits.

Today, Hervé is recognized as one of the leading British silhouette artists of the nineteenth century. One silhouette website that focuses on British portrait silhouette history noted of Hervé and his style:

“Charles Hervé II painted much of his work in black watercolour on dark grey paper. He did not use any gum Arabic, but often highlighted his work using Chinese white. He used a delicate brush to depict details such as hair. He also painted many silhouettes using gold highlights on a black base, which was indicative of the style of the Hervé family. Both bust-length and full-length works by Hervé have been recorded. His bust-line terminations were generally a long, sloping line.”[14]

Image of Marianne Noble by Charles Hervé II in approximately 1842. Courtesy of Profiles of the Past.

During his lifetime, Hervé was said to be a “fine copyist” and a skilled miniature painter, but after about 1848, he did not paint or cut silhouettes, although he may have continued to paint miniatures. Throughout his life he was also a motivated and hard worker, and it has been noted that when he traveled with his prosopographus, he was busy creating silhouettes from dawn to dusk working from 9am to 9pm. When he died in England in 1866, a small death notice was printed in a Hampshire paper stating:

“At No. 8, Montpelier-place, Brompton, on Wednesday, May 9th, in his 83rd year, Mr. Charles Herve, the beloved father of Mr. C.S. Herve, of this place. Deeply regretted.”[15]


  • [1] Mechanics Magazine v. 12 (London: Knight; Lacey, 1830), p. 356.
  • [2] Bristol Mirror, “Mr. C. Hervé,” July 19, 1828, p. 3.
  • [3] The Scotsman, “Automaton Artist,” January 17, 1824, p. 4.
  • [4] L. Hunt, The Examiner no. 934, pt. 87 (John Hunt, 1826), p. 285.
  • [5] E. Jackson, Silhouette: Notes and Dictionary (London: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1938), p. 137.
  • [6] Montrose, Arbroath and Brechin review; and Forfar and Kincardineshire Advertiser, “A Century Ago,” March 7, 1930, p. 2.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Globe, “-,” July 24, 1827, p. 1.
  • [9] The Suffolk Chronicle; or Weekly General Advertiser & County Express, “Automaton Artist,” November 19, 1825, p. 2.
  • [10] Perthshire Courier, “Automaton Artist,” September 24, 1824, p. 1.
  • [11] Notes and Queries (London: Oxford University Press, 1882), p. 458.
  • [12] Leicester Chronicle, “The Automaton Likeness Taker,” January 26, 1833, p. 3.
  • [13] Guide-conducteur de l’ étranger dans Paris avec plans des fortifications et de Paris (Paris, 1847), p. 306.
  • [14] “Herve, Charles II,” Profiles of the Past
  • [15] Aldershot Military Gazette, “Births, Marriages, and Deaths,” May 12, 1866, p. 2.

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