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Let’s hear it for Isabella Beetham once more: a shady lady if ever there was one!

Isabella Beetham, born Isabella Robinson (c.1744-1825) was an interesting character. She came from a wealthy family but when she was twenty she eloped with an itinerant Irish actor called Edward Beetham. Her family cut off her maintenance and she was forced to take up portraiture as a way of keeping the wolf from the door. She specialized in making paper cut-outs (we now generally call them silhouettes, but they were then called shades). She then studied with the London minituarist John Smart, and started to paint the silhouette of the sitter (rather than to cut it with scissors). She painted on glass as well as on paper, and some of the results are really beautiful.

Meanwhile her husband continued to work on the London stage. He also invented things – initially the roll-up weighted safety curtain to be used at theatres to prevent fire from spreading. But there was insufficient money to pay to take out a patent and the idea was soon copied by others, and he never made his fortune from it. Another invention – and one which he did patent, was called a “patent Mangle with Rollers”. Basically this was a primitive form of washing tub where the wooden rollers were kept pressed together so that the moisture in the clothes was wrung out. It was a considerable financial success and Edward was able to move in to shop premises at 26 and 27 Fleet Street in London. He sold his mangles downstairs and Isabella did her painting upstairs.

One of the things which make Isabella so collectable, and distinguishes her from the many gifted but anonymous amateurs who did paper cut-outs and painted silhouettes, was that she started backing her creations with a trade label giving her name. From around 1774 her works were backed with a splendidly verbose label of which part reads “By application leagued with Good Natural Gifts Mrs Beetham has enabled herself to remedy a Difficulty Much lamented and Universally Experienced by PARENTS, LOVERS AND FRIENDS.The former, assisted by her Art, may see their offspring In any part of the Terraqueous Globe. Nor can Death obliterate the features from their fond Remembrance. LOVERS the Poets have advanced, ‘Can waft a sigh from Indus to the Pole. She will gratify them with more substantial though Ideal Intercourse by placing the Beloved Object to their View. FRIENDSHIP is truly valuable was ever held a Maxim.…”

OK, so that is a bit over the top, but at least it means her works can be identified!

An advertisement, published in 1792, read:

PROFILES:  Mrs. BEETHAM, who has ever been distinguished as one of the most eminent who ever attempted PROFILE LIKENESSES, continues to execute them with that Taste and Elegance which remains unrivalled. She paints them on Chrystals, ornamented with gold and silver, displaying the hair and drapery in a manner more beautiful than can be conceived till seen: and if not the most striking likeness, no gratuity will be expected. She likewise finishes them on IVORY, COMPOSITION, AND PAPER, for RINGS, LOCKETS, BRACELETS, &c.

Time of Sitting, One Minute

Specimens to be seen at her house, no. 27, Fleet Street”.

In the early 1790s, the Beetham’s oldest daughter, Jane, began working with her mother, and continued to do so until she got married in 1797. A label from that period noted that “Mrs. And Miss BEETHAM” were creating “PROFILE LIKENESSES.” Jane  exhibited several of her works at the Royal Academy between 1794 and 1816, sometimes using the name ‘Beetham’, sometimes dropping an ‘e’ and calling herself ‘Betham’ and occasionally using her married name of ‘Read’








And, just in case I am accused of bias by not showing any male sitters, here are a couple of her portraits of  two splendid-looking gentlemen, courtesy of Bonhams auction house.





(For the biographical information I am indebted to an article by Joy Ruskin Hanes  in the New England Antiques Journal). I have dusted off this blog for re-issue because in the summer I am giving a talk in the West Midlands to a group of antique dealers and collectors – featuring silhouettes of the 18th Century.



12 thoughts on “Let’s hear it for Isabella Beetham once more: a shady lady if ever there was one!”

  1. Came across your web page whilst doing some research on an etching I have and there it all was. The back writing was difficult to decifer, but with Fleet St. and Betham just about visible I now know what I have.
    Its a left facing profile of a gentleman etched and framed on oval glass with a gold and black border.

  2. Étienne de Silhouette was a French finance minister in the mid 18th century who, because of major economic problems, introduced an austerity financial regime. The term ‘silhouette’ was then appropriated to something done on the cheap.

  3. Indeed he was – but he will be the subject of a separate blog. As Finance Minister at the start of the Seven Years War he made the mistake of trying to tax the clergy (previously exempt) and the nobility (ditto) at the same time as trying to persuade the King to eat off, horror of horrors, gilt plates rather than solid gold ones. The man had to go … I have read that he personally took up cutting shades but I think that was entirely fanciful. Indeed his name did not become associated with shadow-profiles until Auguste Edouart coined the phrase, in a derogatory way, to distinguish his own rather splendid creations form anything done before.

  4. Time of sitting, one minute! I am amazed at the amount of detail recorded in one minute and applied to the image. Do you know the system applied? How long would it take to complete the image and deliver it? A simple cut shade would presumably be quicker to finish than a painted one with details in the hair and clothing. I helped make large, simple silhouettes of my son’s fifth grade class, using lights and tracing the shadow, and they took longer than a minute per each. These are exquisitely intricate. Shade (or shadow) is a much better descriptor, too.

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