Virginia Enriched by Hubard Silhouette
Secret of Artist's Scissor Ability Revealed 73 Years After His Death,
Adds New Laurels to Already Illustrious Name
By Helen B. McCormick
Seventy-three years after his death the secret that William James Hubard guarded so carefully during his life in Virginia has been revealed. Not that the secret was a guilty one. By no means that. As a matter of fact, the secret was something of which Hubard should have been proud. It was a secret only because the fact that he was a cutter of excellent silhouettes was full of unpleasant associations for Mr. Hubard.
Hubard came to the United States in 1824, after having enjoyed a distinguished career as a silhouettist in England, Ireland, and Scotland. In England, he was permitted to cut the likeness of the "Little Princess Victorine," later to be her majesty, Queen Victoria. In Ireland, so great was the reputation that he had accrued, he was advertised as the "celebrated Master Hubard." In Scotland, he was presented with a silver palette by "admirers of his genius."
All of this recognition and success is the more remarkable when it is known that the recipient of such honors was but 17 years old when he left Great Britain and landed in New York to begin his American career.
William James Hubard was born in Warwick, England, in 1807. His early years are still somewhat of a mystery, but it is said that his talent was made manifest early in his life, when his parents, investigating his unusual attentiveness in church, discovered that what seemed to be piety was merely keen observation of the face of the rector for the purpose of cutting his likeness.
This talent was soon discovered by some one else, some one who turned it to advantage for himself. This was a person named Smith, a man about whom little is known with certainty except that he had an unusual flair for writing advertising copy. It was he who conducted young Hubard's tours through the British Isles, and it was he who brought him to America. Samples of his salesmanship include such gems as this, quoted from the Columbian Sentinal of Boston, November 16, 1825:
"The Papyrotomia, or Hubard Gallery, is a splendid collection of cuttings in paper, the productions of Master Hubard, a boy who possesses the peculiar faculty of delineating every object in nature and art simply with a pair of common scissors."
There was much more, including a description of the novelty, which accompanied the Papyrotomia; this was a wonderful piece of "musical mechanism which performed a delightful concert on 206 instruments," and was called gloriously the "Panharmonicon."
Hubard and Smith Part Company
In Boston, also, Smith published a memoir of Master Hubard with a complete list of the cuttings displayed in the Papyrotomia. This collection includes such interesting items as: "The Epsom races, with upwards of 200 figures of equestrian and pedestrian groups, including a carriage and four, a mendicant on crutches, an open landau at speed, and a swell, riding at ease."
Boston was the last place visited by Hubard in his capacity of cutter of shades. Eighteen was rather a great age for an "infant prodigy;" perhaps the young man was irked by having to dress and behave as a person of lesser years to make his skill seem the more remarkable; and perhaps Smith had discovered a younger and more docile prodigy. A combination of causes is conceivable, but the latter is certainly true, for the Charleston Courier of January 10, 1828, tells us that the Papyrotomia with "cuttings" by Hubard and Hankes is being shown, but profiles are being taken by Hankes, and not by Hubard. So, deserted by the man who had exploited him, abandoned in a strange land, young Hubard probably resolved to cut no more silhouettes in America, even to speak no more of silhouettes.
Hubard did not, however, as prodigies are apt to do, resign himself to oblivion. His promotor and taskmaster gone, he turned to another and more congenial art. Perhaps the silver palette presented to him by "his admirers in the city of Glasgow" spurred him on. Certainly a palette isn't a very useful implement to a cutter of silhouettes. To put it to use and fulfill the hopes of his friends and well-wishers young Hubard took to painting.
In Boston he found congenial friends. He is said to have worked for a short while in the studio of Gilbert Stuart, and to have had the advice of Thomas Sully. Perhaps it was at Sully's suggestion that Hubard went to France with two young men for travel and study. We are indebted to one of them, Cameron, for a glimpse of this journey. They traveled, he said, as vagabonds; whenever they ran short of money, Hubard would interest the women and girls of the country inns, with his remarkable ability to produce their likenesses with scissors and bits of paper. Thus he would win for them a meal and a night's lodging. But such idle adventuring was not to be the aim of Hubard's existence. He returned to the United States and resumed his career as a painter.
Romance Catches Him in Gloucester
He produced excellent cabinet-sized portraits in Baltimore and in Washington and finally came to Virginia. There romance, which should have been dogging the heels of so adventurous a person as Hubard, finally overtook him in Gloucester, where he met and married Miss Maria Mason Tabb. Miss Tabb is shown, in a miniature of her by her husband, to be a clear-eyed, steadfast young lady, capable of recognizing in an itinerant painter a person of unusual character.
Mr. and Mrs. Hubard went to Italy. There they knew Horiation Greenough and Hiram Powers, two of this country's first sculptors. There Hubard studied the paintings of the old masters so closely that their impress is very evident in his work.
Hubard finally came back to Virginia in 1850. Many ancestors who smile calmly down from mellowing frames on the walls of Richmond homes today are there because of Hubard's art and his popularity.
Hubard had acquired another art in Italy. He was now equipped to practice the profession of a sculptor. None of his productions in this branch of art remain except his six replicae of the Houdon statue of Washington. He was the first ever to obtain permission from the Legislature of Virginia to copy this statue. One of the copies, a plaster one, is in the rotunda of the National Capitol. The bronze copies--among the earliest bronzes to be cast in this country--are in Lexington, Va.; Columbia, S. C.; Raleigh, N. C.; St. Louis, Mo., and New York City.
Converts Art Foundry Into Arsenal
Then the war came and put a stop to all interest in the gentler arts. With a reversal of the "swords into plowshares" admonition, Hubard converted his foundry, erected for the casting of the Houdon replicae, into a foundry for cannon and shells. In February of 1862, when experimenting with a ball for the Brook gun, Hubard met his death.
His obituary in the Richmond Dispatch says that he was regarded as one of the most gifted artists who have lived in the South for many years, "a good citizen, and a gentleman of varied accomplishments.
That Hubard was a person of unusual fascination as well as of varied accomplishments is shown by estimates of him written by those who knew him. Sartain, the "very old man" who published his reminiscences in 1894 at the age of 90, thought it worth recording that he had merely seen Hubard on the steps of his house in Philadelphia. Mann S. Valentine described him as a person of bold thought, vivid imagination, and strong will. The late Edward V. Valentine, a pupil of Hubard's, remembered him as a person of great charm. But none of these knew him as a silhouettist. None, in fact, knew very much about him. Sartain says that his friends concluded from stray words dropped now and then that he had escaped from the thrall of a traveling showman. Mann Valentine said: "There seems to hang about him a forbidding mystery, no one knows his history. He says he is an Englishman of good descent; Greenough thought him a gypsy child." All that is known about him now has been pieced out from the memoir contained in his "catalogue of cuttings," from letters in the possession of his family and from chance finds.
Virginia Gets Gift of Silhouette
Now one of Hubard's silhouettes has come to Virginia. Recently an English collector made inquiries of local museums about the American life of this English profilist. An exchange of information resulted, and the courteous Englishman, John C. Woodiwiss of Upper Parkstone, Dorset, has presented the Valentine Museum with an example of Hubard's work. The silhouette, a full-length standing figure of a man, is cut from black paper and pasted on white. The subject is Stansfield Rawson of Wastdale Hall, Cumberland.
Perhaps those who possess silhouettes will be willing to take them from their frames and see whether in the lower left-hand corner is stamped the legend (as in the case of Stansfield Rawson's portrait) "Taken at the Hubard Gallery," or whether there is stencilled in ink the words: "Cut with scissors by Master Hubard, without drawing or machine; at the Gallery of Cuttings and Panharmonicon Concert Room."
The former is the mark used in England, the latter is used on his American productions. If such be found, Virginia, which possesses already Hubard's bronze cast of Washington, Hubard's paintings and drawings in museums and private collections, will be greatly enriched.