SCALPEL in hand, John Speight sits at his drawing board, carefully carving out a silhouette of Newcastle’s famous Quayside. He wields his blade with a surgeon’s precision, slicing out each tiny space in the picture he has drawn, leaving intact the striking arches of the Tyne and Millennium bridges.
It demands huge concentration, a steady hand and a keen eye. And, with highly intricate images, like the tree series he has branched out into, cutting one picture can take up to 36 hours.
“The trees are a week’s work effectively, if you take into account the design process,” John says. “Some of these cuts are finer than a laser can do and the picture gets very fragile by the time I have finished it.” He turns over the serrated white paper which is black on the back to reveal a perfect Tyne riverscape, which, when mounted on to watercolour paper, will look from a distance like pen and ink.
Papercut art has been enjoying a resurgence of late, thanks in part to the work of people like London’s Rob Ryan who is well known for incorporating words into his pictures. John’s papercuts are less abstract yet none the less skilful and certainly more affordable.
Although John does produce some limited edition work with no more than ten originals that sell for up to £800, his ‘bread and butter’ work consists of local scenes like Sycamore Gap, Northumberland’s castles and St Mary’s lighthouse and pastime pictures like his game shooters and golfers. At the Kirkharle studio he shares with his wife, the jewellery maker Lorna Speight, John keeps between 150 and 200 signed silhouettes.
“The big pictures are really so that when I retire I can know I have done my best work. But the whole point is to get original art work to people which is cheaper than traditional prints. We even get kids in buying them with their pocket money,” John says.
John is a third generation papercut artist – following in the footsteps of both his maternal grandfather and uncle. But he came to the craft late and is self-taught.
When he first left Whitley Bay High School John joined the Forestry Commission. “I always enjoyed graphic design and when I was 12 I won a competition for designing a logo for the British Safety Council. I had wanted to go to art college but my dad persuaded me not to go.
“In the Seventies everything was turning to Letraset (the transfer lettering system) and dad was dead right that I preferred hand drawing and would not have been happy using transfers. I stormed out of the house and literally the week after leaving school I was on a chain saw course learning how to fell trees.”
John went to forestry college. Then, in the mid-eighties he spent two years with the VSO in Nepal combating deforestation. “I was 20 miles due south of Everest in a very isolated spot called Bhojpur which means ‘town of parties’,” he recalls. “You used to look out in the morning and see the Himalayas turning gold.”
“The paper he used was printed black on one side. He would have the customer sit sideways to him so that he could see their profile clearly. They faced a light-box featuring a silhouette of Sir Winston Churchill smoking a cigar. This was enough to hold their interest and keep them still for the minute or so that the silhouette would take to cut.”
On his return he decided to turn his back on trees and worked in a picture frame factory for a while before unemployment hit and he made a pivotal discovery. “I found a carrier bag on the top shelf of my wardrobe containing a whole pile of my grandfather’s and uncle’s paper together with their scissors.”
Grandfather, Arthur, had started selling silhouette profiles in 1921 and continued until the 1970s. “He started in Bournemouth. They used to work at the seaside during the summer and in the cities during the winter. There were no SLR cameras and when you were on holiday you couldn’t get photographers so tourists would have their silhouettes cut.”
Arthur cut portraits of many stars of the day including at Blackpool, the radio favourite, Wilfred Pickles and a fresh faced Morecambe and Wise before they broke into television. During the 1960s and 70s, Arthur ran his own studio halfway along Brighton Palace Pier and John would sometimes visit.
“As a small child I loved my holidays in Brighton because the studio was the base, and I could run freely up and down the pier every day visiting the amusements, ghost train, dodgems and helter skelter,” he recalls. “When I returned to the studio Arthur would invariably have a customer, and usually a queue of people, waiting their turn to have a silhouette portrait cut.”
Arthur cut his pictures with a large pair of vining scissors. “He was so finely attuned to them that if someone used them when his back was turned he would know because of their altered sharpness,” John says.
“The paper he used was printed black on one side. He would have the customer sit sideways to him so that he could see their profile clearly. They faced a light-box featuring a silhouette of Sir Winston Churchill smoking a cigar. This was enough to hold their interest and keep them still for the minute or so that the silhouette would take to cut.
“Unseen by the customer, Arthur would fold the paper neatly in half with the black side facing inwards. This would keep the paper sturdy, protect the black surface from finger marks, and looking at the white side of the paper rather than the black was easier on the eyes.”
After the sitting Arthur would hand the customer their pictures, black side up, charging them two for a shilling. John jokes, “He was an early pioneer of ‘buy one get one free’.” For an extra cost they could be mounted, tinted with gold pencil or gold leaf, and framed.
Many silhouette artists gave the customer one copy and kept the other in an album as a record but Arthur preferred to give his customers value for money which means collectors find it hard to track down his work.
“Neither did he sign his portraits, perhaps, John believes, because he usually had a queue waiting.
However he did have a form of signature – the way he cut the base of his silhouettes – and some of John’s customers have brought in papercuts of themselves they believe his grandfather did.
Upon Arthur’s death, his son, John Forrester took over the studio. “With John, you could have either a caricature done or a portrait and many people believed John was a better profile artist than his father,” says John.
Sadly, he died at just 36 and was therefore not around to offer any guidance to his young nephew when he took up paper cutting in 1990.
Finding the stash of forgotten paper, John realised that he could update his grandfather and uncle’s art form.
“Although there were still a few silhouette artists in Britain, they produced traditional profiles and I believed silhouettes would lend themselves to a wider range of subjects.
“This was before the internet and as I hadn’t heard of papercutting I just followed my own ideas.”
He started by using a razor blade and his first cut was of Bamburgh Castle.
“It looked like a Lego brick!,” he laughs. Investing in a Swann Morton scalpel from a medical supplies shop in Newcastle afforded him more precision and he’s never looked back. “It’s the sharpest thing you can find,” John says (and he nurses the finger cuts to prove it).
The irony of a one time forester becoming a paper cutter is not lost on John. “People have pointed it out,” he says. “I must have planted thousands of saplings and yet my entire career will probably come out of one tree.”
His life’s work to date is around 80,000 papercuts and he admits he’ll never beat his grandfather’s record. “He reckoned he cut one million people’s portraits, which, if true, I calculate to be a minimum of 627 for every week of his career.”
* A Pathe news clip entitled The Silhouette Cutter features John’s grandfather Arthur Forrester and can be viewed at www.britishpathe.com/video/the-silhouette-cutter