Collection of the week: Silhouettist H. L. Oakley

Each year, between 1920 and 1958, holidaymakers walking along the pier at Llandudno on the coast of North Wales, could have stopped at a booth to have their silhouette portrait cut by Mr H. L. Oakley, otherwise known as the 'man with the magic scissors'. Harry Lawrence Oakley (1882-1960) hailed from York and had studied at art schools in York, Leeds and the Royal College of Art where his talent with paper and scissors soon led him to pursue a career as a silhouette artist, setting up his first studio at the Army and Navy Department Store in London just prior to the Great War.

He served as a Captain in the 8th Yorkshire Regiment (the Green Howards) during the First World War when he produced the famous Army recruiting poster, 'Think!' which was subsequently adapted for the Navy. He also cut a series of fascinating silhouettes for The Bystander magazine (part of the Illustrated London News archive here at the library) depicting scenes of life in the trenches and behind the lines. Many, including one entitled, 'Our Soldiers - How They are Made and Mended' could be autobiographical: Oakley was wounded in 1916 and sent back to England to recuperate.

After the war, Oakley returned full-time to silhouette art dividing his time between portraiture, magazine and commercial work. He would set up temporary studios at smart department stores in London, Edinburgh and other places and during the summer season, gave himself a working holiday by taking kiosks or booths at seaside towns around the country; Llandudno was a particular favourite. During a career spanning four decades, Oakley cut literally tens of thousands of silhouettes, among them portraits of several members of the royal family, writers, artists, sportsmen, entertainers and prominent personalities.

Our collection of Oakley's work includes the silhouettes he made for The Bystander and, later, Holly Leaves, as well as the extensive archive held by his family including railway company commissions, advertisements for clients such as Selfridges, Dr. Barnardo's and Worthington's brewery, as well as charming silhouette portraits from the 1920s, 30s and 40s. Many of them are of some of the period's most well-known figures including the Prince of Wales, David Lloyd George, tennis champion Helen Wills Moody, cricketers Don Bradman and Jack Hobbs, Theodora and Margaret of Greece (the Duke of Edinburgh's sisters) and a number of fellow artists and illustrators.

To find out more about H. L. Oakley, we can recommend, 'Profiles of the First World War' by Oakley's nephew Jerry Rendell, published by The History Press. Jerry also travels the country lecturing on Oakley's life and career.

Combining artistry and rare talent, H. L. Oakley's silhouettes are both of their time and timeless and an interesting choice for book covers, cards and other design projects. Click here to see a selection by the man with the magic scissors.

Mary Evans Picture Library Ltd.  59 Tranquil Vale  Blackheath  London  SE3 0BS. United Kingdom.
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