Prosopographus, the Automaton Artist

Between 1820 and 1835, a machine was exhibited around Great Britain that was advertised as taking people’s portraits by strictly automatic means.  Someone had only to pay a shilling and sit perfectly still next to it for the space of a minute to obtain a likeness alleged to be more accurate than anything a living artist could have drawn.  The machine relied on principles very different from those of photography, first introduced to the world via the daguerreotype in 1839, and its portraits didn’t anticipate the photographic portraits of later years in any technical sense.  However, they did anticipate them quite closely in a cultural sense.  As far as subjects were concerned, they might have gone to get their pictures taken by this machine in 1825, and again by a photographic camera in 1845, without perceiving any fundamental difference between the two experiences.  In both cases, they would have been told that their likenesses were being captured automatically, without the mediation of a human observer, although they might still have paid extra for someone to touch up the results afterwards or add color to them.  The earlier machine went by the name of “Prosopographus, the Automaton Artist,” and it produced silhouettes—thousands upon thousands of them, if reports from the time are to be believed.  I was recently fortunate enough to acquire one, which is what prompted me to pull together the following account.


prosopographus-engravingIn appearance, Prosopographus was a miniature android figure dressed in fancy Spanish costume, shown above as illustrated on a period handbill.[1]  I’ll refer to it here myself as “it,” but contemporaries generally anthropomorphized it as “him,” consistent with the grammatical gender of its Greco-Latinate name: Prosopo- (“face”) -graph- (“writer”) –us (second declension nominative masculine ending).  It held a pencil in its hand, and when someone sat down next to it, it would use this pencil—within full view of spectators—to trace an outline of the person’s profile.  The process was described variously as taking less than a minute, half a minute, or less than half a minute, but subjects had to hold perfectly still during that time: “The least movement on the part of the sitter will occasion the Automaton to shake his head, and the operation of taking the outline to be recommenced.”[2]  Advertisements emphasized that this work was carried out “without even touching the Face,”[3] and indeed “without touching, or having the slightest communication with the Person.”[4]  Daylight wasn’t necessary either, patrons were assured, so that likenesses could continue to be taken after sunset.[5]  The proprietor never revealed the specific process used to capture people’s profiles, but it was claimed to be wholly mechanical, and hence superhuman in its accuracy.  Thus, Prosopographus was billed as “performing more perfect resemblances than is in the power of any living hand to trace,”[6]  and as “so contrived that by means of mechanism it is enabled to trace a more accurate and pleasing resemblance of any face that may be presented than could be produced through the agency of any LIVING artist whatever.”[7]

The spectacle and the product were both supposed to be part of the attraction, and this was reflected in the pricing scheme.  At first, patrons were charged a shilling for admission and another shilling and sixpence for a portrait, as stated in the earliest known advertisement, found in the London Morning Post of July 24, 1820:

prosopographus-newspaper-2I suppose the busts would have allowed Prosopographus to show its stuff even when nobody in the audience had paid for a portrait.  But this arrangement didn’t last for long.  The next advertisement I’ve seen, chronologically, appeared in the same newspaper on June 4, 1821.  By this time, everyone got a portrait free with the price of admission, but having these embellished by hand cost extra, with the specific amount depending on how much work needed to be done:

prosopographus-newspaper-3The basic portrait to which every visitor was entitled by default seems to have consisted of the profile painted in black, and some later advertisements specified that this included glass and a frame.  For a surcharge, however, the profiles could also be cut out, shaded, bronzed, or done up in full color, as well as mounted in a fancier frame, at prices up to thirty guineas if anyone cared to pay that much.[8]  The result, in any case, was something visually indistinguishable from a conventional silhouette portrait of the period.

And that complicates our present ability to identify surviving specimens of Prosopographus’s work.  According to Profiles of the Past, a website dedicated to the history of British silhouette portraiture, “very few silhouettes [by Prosopographus] are known today,” even though countless thousands are said to have been taken.  Technically, however, what’s rare is a silhouette that can be attributed to Prosopographus because it’s labeled that way on the back.  The few reported types of Prosopographus trade label are linked to just a few exhibition venues, so it may be that silhouettes taken in other places weren’t labeled, making them impossible to tell apart from “ordinary” silhouettes.  For all we know, nearly all unlabeled silhouettes of the 1820s and 1830s might be the work of Prosopographus, which would make them extremely common.  However, it’s only when there’s a label that we know for sure what we have.

Some labels state: “Taken by / PROSOPOGRAPHUS / The Automaton Artist / 161, Strand.”  That was the automaton’s London address from the spring of 1826 through mid-1827, and multiple examples and varieties of this trade label are known.  As far as I’m aware, however, no trade labels have been reported for other documented London addresses: Western Exchange (1820-1821), No. 128, Strand (late 1827), and No. 138, Regent-street (late 1834 and early 1835).  Maybe none of the silhouettes taken in those locations have survived, but I suspect labels simply weren’t used at the other addresses.

Another reported trade label reads: “TAKEN AT THE / Automaton Exhibition, / 126, HIGH STREET / CHELTENHAM.”  Prosopographus was exhibited at that address in July 1835, and to the best of my knowledge this was its last-ever appearance in Great Britain.  But no trade labels have been reported, as far as I’m aware, for the many other exhibitions outside London I’ve seen advertised in contemporary newspapers (see Appendix below for details).  Where are the trade labels with addresses in Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham, Aberdeen, Newcastle, Norwich, Ipswich, Inverness, Bristol, Bath, Exeter, Portsmouth, Chichester, Brighton, Shrewsbury, Worcester, Sheffield, Leicester, Coventry, Leamington, and Stamford?  Again, I suspect the silhouettes produced in these places just weren’t labeled.  After all, it would have cost the proprietor something to get new labels printed up for each new location, and it might have been hard to predict how many would be required, particularly since the closing dates for local exhibitions seem often to have been extended on short notice.

The trade label types I’ve mentioned so far are pretty rudimentary: they identify a silhouette as work done by Prosopographus in a particular place, and one variety from London adds a line advertising an ancillary service (“miniatures copied and reduced from portraits”), but that’s all.  However, one final trade label type is unique in that it aims to accomplish something more ambitious.  Inscriptions found on the backs of silhouettes taken in Halifax and Huddersfield not only identify them as the work of Prosopographus but also spell out the impressive and mysterious process by which they were made, together with prices and hours of operation:

NOW EXHIBITING, In a Room in the Old Market-Place, HALIFAX, PROSOPOGRAPHUS, The Automaton Artist!  This splendid little Figure possesses the extraordinary power of drawing by Mechanical Means, the Likeness of any Person that is placed before it, in the short space of one Minute.  It is hoped that the Inhabitants of Halifax will come forward with their usual Spirit, to encourage a piece of Ingenuity, at once so novel and curious.
A LIKENESS in Black for 1 s.
Coloured from 7s. 6d, upwards
Open from Ten till Eight

The Huddersfield variant, known to me only from its quotation in a book published in 1913, appears to be identical except for the address.[9]  It’s not clear exactly when Prosopographus visited Halifax and Huddersfield; the date range “1827-28” that’s sometimes cited appears to be a guess based on the stylistic features of a couple of the portraits.  The printing house for the labels is identified as “Gawthorp & Kitchen”; unfortunately, I don’t know when this partnership was founded, although it dissolved at the start of 1832.[10]   Perhaps more significantly, the promotional text resembles an advertisement in the Leeds Mercury of May 3, 1823, more closely than it does any other Prosopographus publicity I’ve seen:

prosopographus-newspaper-4I’m not sure why a detailed advertisement would have been printed on silhouettes in Halifax and Huddersfield, but nowhere else.  Maybe the usual advertising channels weren’t available there for some reason, or maybe this was early enough in Prosopographus’s career that the proprietor was still experimenting with different approaches to publicity.  But regardless of timing or circumstances, I’d argue that Prosopographus’s silhouettes with Halifax and Huddersfield labels are by far its most eloquent artifacts.  Not only were the likenesses themselves traced by its pencil, as in other cases, but their backs also feature a promotional message about the “mechanical” process that made them.  We get the whole Prosopographus mystique bound up in a single object.  What could be cooler than that?

The Prosopographus portrait I recently acquired is one of those with the Halifax trade label and promotional text on the back, augmented by a handwritten inscription identifying its subject as Ellen Waterhouse.  The silhouette itself is a likeness of the basic type that was thrown in free with the price of admission: the profile painted in black, with just a few embellishments added in the same color to represent hair and veil.

prosopographus-ellen-waterhouseIt’s also mounted in a rectangular ebonized frame with an oval opening rimmed in gilt metal and an acorn-shaped hanger, an extremely common frame type of the period.  This is almost certainly the original frame into which the portrait was put at the exhibition, with the card being trimmed to fit the oval opening on site.

prosopographus-ellen-waterhouse-in-frameI’ve seen references to only three other specific silhouettes with the Halifax label, though I imagine there must be others out there.  One is in the National Media Museum in Bradford, West Yorkshire, but its frame doesn’t look original, at least to my eye, and it certainly isn’t typical of the genre.  The other two are reportedly in color, with painted landscape backgrounds, which I believe would make them more desirable for the average silhouette collector but less compelling as specimens of “automatic” portraiture.  All things considered, I like to think my portrait of Ellen Waterhouse might just be the most perfectly representative specimen of Prosopographus’s work known to exist.


The proprietor and inventor of Prosopographus was identified in newspaper reports and advertisements as one Mr. Herve or Hervé, and in the London Morning Post for December 2, 1826, he is named specifically as “Mr. C. Herve”:

prosopographus-newspaper-1In the past, art historians have correctly identified this “Mr. C. Herve” with Charles Hervé (1785-1866), who is “regarded as one of the finer British silhouette artists,” according to Profiles of the Past.  “No figure appears more often in the literature on nineteenth-century silhouettes,” writes Sue McKechnie;[11] and he was also active as a miniature painter in the 1800s and 1810s.[12]  Unfortunately, there’s been a lot of confusion about his relationship to several other artists also named Hervé, resulting in a rat’s nest of compounded inferences in the secondary literature.  Thanks to the many genealogical resources now conveniently available online, however, I think I’ve managed to sort things out, at least to my own satisfaction.[13]

According to a parish register, “Charles, Son of Peter Daniel & Margaret Herve” was christened at All Hallows London Wall on February 28, 1785.[14]  His father, Peter Daniel Hervé—a British-born French Huguenot merchant who went bankrupt within a year of Charles’s birth—had married Margaret Russel in 1778, and three of their other sons were Peter (born 1779), Henry (born 1783) and Francis (born 1787).  Charles married Catherine Elizabeth Stanley in 1808, and they had several children including Charles Stanley (born 1808),[15] sometimes identified as “C. S. Hervé” or “C. Hervé, Junr.”; Alfred (born 1812); and Edwin (born 1816).  In addition to himself, Charles’s brothers Peter, Henry, and Francis and his sons Charles Stanley and Alfred all turned to art for a livelihood, working as painters, silhouette-makers, miniaturists, and the like.  This occupational tradition within the Hervé family seems to have begun with a miniature painter identified in later sources as “Mrs. C. (Margaret) Hervé” and said to have exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1783 and the Royal Academy of Arts in 1800.[16]  I’m not sure how to account for the “Mrs. C.,” but the only Margaret documented as marrying into the family was Margaret (Russel) Hervé, Peter Daniel’s wife and the mother of Peter, Henry, Charles, and Francis.  Maybe she was the one responsible for introducing her children to artistic pursuits.  She died at the end of 1819,[17] and her sons might have inherited some money from her, since Henry splurged on a trip to America in mid-1820,[18] and Charles first began exhibiting Prosopographus at the same time.  The other brothers had their own distinctive claims to fame besides: Peter had founded the National Benevolent Institution in 1812, and Francis went on to become a travel writer in the 1830s and to edit the memoirs of his friend Madame Tussaud.  For his part, Charles had a disability that must have impacted his work, as his son Charles Stanley recalled years later in an autobiographical sketch:

Born in London, January 9th, 1808, of French parentage, I was educated at the University of Aberdeen, but did not graduate, having had to partly educate five brothers and sisters owing to the partial blindness of my father—a miniature painter, by whom I was initiated into the art, commencing at the early age of sixteen as a profilist.[19]

So the elder Charles Hervé, the inventor and proprietor of Prosopographus, had a problem with his eyesight—a detail that appears to have escaped the notice of art historians, but that makes his accomplishments and reputation all the more remarkable.  Silhouette experts hypothesize that he did the finer embellishment work on the Automaton Artist’s portraits himself, while leaving the simpler stuff to assistants, but the precise division of labor is unclear.  He was probably responsible for composing advertisements as well, my personal favorite being the one published in Aris’s Birmingham Gazette on April 19, 1830, likening his invention to a guillotine:

prosopographus-newspaper-5I imagine he’s also the one who coined the whimsical term unprosographusised, which he used in his publicity to refer to people who hadn’t yet been “decapitated”;[20] but some Liverpool journalist was probably responsible for another bit of new vocabulary: prosopographusiania, meaning “the desire of being rendered immortal by means of the Automaton Artist,” said to have become a veritable “epidemic.”[21]  Some people definitely fell prey to it, if we’re to believe the claim made in one advertisement of 1825: “not unfrequently among Persons of Title and Fortune he [Prosopographus] has had from 12 to 20 Likenesses of the same Person to complete, and in some Instances more.”[22]  Business was apparently pretty good.  But in 1826, Hervé made a notable offer in the London press:

Dull as things are said to be, and empty as the town appears, yet the performances of PROSOPOGRAPHUS are still in full requisition….  The Inventor of this extraordinary little Mechanical Figure has been applied to by so many to know if he would dispose of his invention, that he has at length resolved that although he cannot part with that which yields him so much profit, yet he is willing to construct a similar AUTOMATON for 500l. or one fitted up in a still superior style for 800l., which would ensure a fortune to two or three Artists that would combine their forces and conduct it with spirit and ability.[23]

There’s some evidence to suggest that he followed up on the idea of building a second machine shortly thereafter.  On May 11, 1828, the following notice appeared in the London Examiner:

prosopographus-newspaper-6The name “Corinthian Maid” referred to a story recounted by Pliny the Elder about a potter’s daughter who had traced the outline of her beloved’s shadow on a wall before he set off on a long journey.  The address cited—128 Strand—was the same one Hervé had been using to exhibit Prosopographus during the latter half of 1827, which suggests that the Corinthian Maid was another of his creations rather than the work of an upstart competitor.  Indeed, it’s tempting to suspect the Corinthian Maid was simply Prosopographus refurbished in female garb.  However, it appears that there must really have been two different machines, and that Hervé eventually divested himself of one of them.  The Corinthian Maid was advertised again in the London Morning Post of February 15, 1830, this time at “No. 109, Strand,” an address associated with the Hubard Gallery, in which Hervé had no known interest: “Although no trumpeter, this Automaton is said to produce performances which actually speak for themselves, Fame having declared that no living artist could ever execute likenesses with such unerring exactness.”   Prosopographus seems to have been simultaneously on exhibition in Brighton, based on reports near the end of its stay in Chichester that indicated this was where it was headed next; but it also underwent a noticeable change in appearance at some point, which may be significant.  According to an advertisement published in Norwich in 1833: “Those who recollect this little figure being exhibited in the year 1825…will be struck with the very material improvement that has taken place in his appearance since that time.”[24]  I wouldn’t say the evidence I’ve seen supports any firm conclusions, but here’s my best guess about what happened: Hervé built an improved version of Prosopographus in 1827-28, put a new costume on the old mechanism to feminize it into the Corinthian Maid, exhibited the latter himself for a month or so (perhaps while putting the final touches on the new model), tried for a while to sell it, and finally disposed of it to the Hubard Gallery in 1830, after which it soon fell into disrepair without his expert maintenance to keep it up and running.  In any case, there’s no indication that the Corinthian Maid was based on a different principle than Prosopographus, or created by someone other than Hervé, or that it was exhibited at all extensively.

One puzzling question is why Hervé seems to have stopped exhibiting his Automaton Artist in Great Britain in 1835, and I have no good answer for that, unless the problem with his eyesight had progressed to a critical state or he had earned enough money by then to retire comfortably.  A few years later, however, his son Charles Stanley received word through the family grapevine of a revolutionary new technology that hinted at great changes to come in the business of portraiture:

[I]n the year 1838 [I] received a curious letter from an uncle in Paris, who was also an artist, “It is all up with miniature painting!  Come to Paris immediately and see.”  Now as mine uncle forwarded a hundred franc note, I obeyed his invitation to hear of Mons. Daguerre’s extraordinary invention, which was called the Heliograp[h] or suntype, and was only just becoming talked about in the Quartier-Latin, “where artists most do congregate.”

Mons. Daguerre’s secret was, as yet, kept tolerably dark, but not quite; and only privileged visitors were admitted to his five-storey high atelier.  My uncle was, however, one of the select and accompanied me there at once.[25]

Charles Stanley got to observe Louis Daguerre photographing a bust of Napoleon.  “It certainly astonished me,” he recalled, “yet did not kill my hopes in the matter of miniature art, and the first Daguerreotypes…did not catch on with the public.”  In fact, the Automaton Artist itself resurfaced in France a short while later, suggesting that the Hervés had sized up the situation and decided that the market was ripe there for their own alternative form of automatic portraiture after all.  The German press reported in December 1843 that Prosopographus was on display in Paris, noting that its portraits “are not to be confused with ordinary silhouettes and surpass even daguerreotypes, whose advantages they possess without having their flaws.”[26]  A lengthier account appears in a French-language guidebook to Paris published in 1847.  I’m not yet sure whether to ascribe it to a follow-up visit in that year, a continuation of the earlier visit, or out-of-date information, but here it is in English translation:

Portraits for 1 franc, by a new process.  PROSOPOGRAPHUS, famous drawing automaton, from London, Boulevard Montmartre, 9.—[…] The inventor is an artist from London, recently arrived in our capital, hospitable to all kinds of merit regardless of origin; and already his exhibitions, accessible to all, are filled with visitors.

You who have a distant family, absent friends, ties of the heart in short, come pose a minute in the boudoir of Prosopographus.  This new enchanter, which a spring sets in motion with accompaniment of a sweet melody, is inspired at the very moment of your desire, and shortly, without you being able to divine the magic, his hand guides a pencil, always sure, and traces the profile of your portrait with inexpressible fidelity.

Could some hidden combination place that portrait in the album of this painter of a previously unknown school?  Could Prosopographus hide beneath his rich Spanish costume a chest of drawers from which some prestidigitator brings out your portrait, the result of manual work?  If it were so, we should already acknowledge with admiration an execution so surprising for its promptness.  But no, nothing of the sort: it is in front of you, before your very inspection, that the automaton operates; an artist as modest as disinterested, all his care is to please you, and if you give a smile to his efforts, your image will return this smile to you.

This spectacle which we would try in vain to describe is one of those whose double marvel leaves a double memory, and if it weren’t for the affability of the proprietor of Prosopographus putting you at ease, one would find oneself in a truly embarrassing situation, for one is disposed to think that the trifle of one franc doesn’t pay the whole debt; one wonders which has not been paid, that of the spectacle or that of the portrait one takes with oneself.

With a little more expenditure, this portrait, without losing its primary truth, is covered under the skillful brushstrokes of M. Hervé de La Morinière with all the accessories that make of it an exquisite miniature, and a final finish.

Full-length portraits, 6 fr.
Portraits in color, 15 and 30 fr.
Miniature portraits in color, 50 fr.[27]

We read here that Prosopographus was being exhibited in Paris personally by its inventor, which seems to imply that “M. Hervé de La Morinière” was the elder Charles Hervé.  However, the expanded surname “Hervé de la Morinière” (sometimes cited as “de la Monnière”) is more commonly associated with his children, including sons Charles Stanley and Alfred, and it’s worth noting that Charles Stanley later identified the same address—”9, Boulevard Montmartre”—as the place where he was working as a miniature painter at the time he met Daguerre.[28]  Perhaps the whole branch of the family had gone along and adopted the “de la Morinière” moniker during this period.

Charles Hervé died back in England in 1866, but his son Charles Stanley Hervé lived on until 1897, having branched out from miniature painting into music (“The Banished Fay”), writing (Traditions About Aldershot), and photography, to which he had eventually turned as his main profession—see his biography at PhotoLondon for details.

1511Another of Charles’s sons, Edwin, also became a photographer (this according to the 1851 census, taken when he and his father were living together in Wimbledon).  These sons must both have been well acquainted with the family business of exhibiting Prosopographus during their childhood and adolescence, and I can’t help but wonder how much that background helped them later on as photographers to know how to make getting one’s picture taken into an enchanting experience.  It can’t have hurt.



In 1842, a reader who must have been curious about Prosopographus sent a query in to the Magazine of Science, which obligingly published it: “Automaton Artist for taking profiles, &c.—How is this constructed?”[29]  There was no reply.  Whatever the secret was, it seems not to have been widely known at the time.  Even today, there seems to have been little effort made to penetrate the mystery of Prosopographus by historians of either silhouette art or stage magic, both of whom tend to dismiss its method of operation as obvious and uninteresting, even when their favored “solutions” don’t account for all the known facts.  For instance, here’s the explanation offered by Profiles of the Past: “The actual artist would look through the eyes of the figure, operating its right hand to draw the profile outline.”  That’s a fair guess, but it overlooks (among other things) the detail that Prosopographus was a miniature android, with a head of corresponding size, such that nobody could plausibly have been using its face as a mask and peering out through its eye-holes.  A little over a century ago, the famous illusionist Harry Houdini stated his opinion of Prosopographus as follows:

It seems to have lacked legitimacy and, from what I can learn from newspaper clippings, was worked like “Zoe,” with a concealed confederate, or, like the famous “Psycho” featured by [John Nevil] Maskelyne, it was worked by compressed air….  In 1901, while in Germany, I saw a number of these automaton artists, all frauds.  The figure sat in a small chair before an easel, ready to draw portraits in short order.  The figure was shown to the audience, then replaced on the chair, whereupon a man under the platform would thrust his arm through the figure and draw all that was required of the automaton.[30]

Again, Prosopographus was a miniature android, so its arm wouldn’t have been large enough to conceal the arm of a living human artist.  But there was similarly no question of such concealment in the case of “Zoe,” a figure exhibited by Maskelyne starting in 1877 which produced line drawings (but not profiles) of famous people whose names were suggested by the audience (but not of individual patrons); and “Psycho,” a similar figure best known for playing whist.  Both figures must have been remote-controlled in some fashion to have done what they did, and “Zoe” might have been operated as shown in this illustration from Will Goldston’s 1912 book, More Exclusive Magical Secrets (for which I’m indebted to

sketching-automatonThe playbill illustration from 1827 shows Prosopographus seated atop a cumbersome stage, so it was presumably controlled from beneath in some way, whether manually or mechanically.  However, the specific arrangement shown above does nothing to account for how the Automaton Artist would have been able to trace a highly accurate profile of anyone who sat down beside it.  Maybe Houdini didn’t know about that aspect of its work.

The most likely explanation for how Prosopographus really functioned was set forth by Charles Babbage, a polymath who is celebrated today as a “father of the computer,” thanks to his invention—on paper—of a programmable calculating machine.   In a passage first published in 1827, Babbage describes an automaton artist that had been “exhibited in London a short time since.”  At that point, he could only have been referring to Prosopographus, since the Corinthian Maid hadn’t yet put in an appearance.  He explains it as follows:

Of the pentagraph.—This mode of copying is chiefly used for drawings or maps: the instrument is simple, and although usually employed in reducing is capable of increasing the size of the copy produced.

An automaton figure, which drew profiles of its visitors, and which was exhibited in London a short time since, was regulated by a mechanism on this principle.

A small aperture in the wall, opposite the seat in which the person is placed whose profile is taken, conceals a camera lucida. If an assistant moves the point, connected by a pentagraph with the hand of the automaton, over the outline of the head, a corresponding profile is traced by the figure.[31]

It’s not clear how Babbage came by his information, but what he writes is consistent with a rare eyewitness exposé composed many years after the fact.  In 1882, E. Leaton Blenkinsopp wrote in to Notes and Queries recalling an exhibition of Prosopographus in Newcastle-upon-Tyne “about 1826,” which newspaper advertisements show had actually taken place in March and April 1825:

I remember very well the automaton that professed to draw silhouettes. Somewhere about 1826 the automaton was brought to Newcastle; it was a figure seated 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.[32]

Both Babbage and Blenkinsopp agree about there being a hole in the wall.  Blenkinsopp claims further that “a man’s eye was visible” through it, probably meaning to imply that a concealed human artist was looking directly at the subject and somehow controlling the automaton’s pencil remotely while going through the motions of drawing the profile freehand.  By contrast, Babbage states that what was hidden behind the hole was actually a camera lucida, an optical device that—in its simplest form—employs a semitransparent half-silvered mirror tilted at a forty-five-degree angle to allow someone looking into it to see a subject’s reflection superimposed on a drawing surface.  I imagine someone looking in through the “wrong” end of the camera lucida would have been able to see a reflection of its user’s eye, which would explain that part of Blenkinsopp’s account.

camera-lucidaIn the scheme Babbage describes, the hidden assistant would have moved a point around the “outline of the head” reflected in the camera lucida, and the point would have controlled the automaton’s hand in turn by means of a pantograph (a.k.a. pantagraph, pentagraph), a copying instrument based on four jointed rods in the shape of a parallelogram.  I’m indebted to Wikimedia Commons for this animation illustrating how a pantograph works:

pantograph-animationThe red heart would correspond to the outline of the sitter’s reflection as seen in the camera lucida, and the green heart would correspond to the outline traced by the automaton’s hand.  Of course, further linkages may have been required to extend this movement underneath a floor and up into Prosopographus through the stage.

I believe that Babbage’s explanation of Prosopographus, published in 1827, is probably correct, even though Hervé claimed during the same year that “not One Individual has been able to discover the exact secret of the Invention.”[33]  However, someone identified as “H. J.” gives a starkly contradictory account of it in a letter published in Mechanics’ Magazine in 1830:

One man at least is filling his pocket by means of the pantagraph: for, if your readers will look at Mr. J. O. B.’s diagram [of a pantograph], and 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. The patient’s head is wedged into a place in the back of a chair, where it is held firm, whilst the artist goes behind and traces the outline of the face (which is thrown upon the screen by a gas light); he afterwards does it over with black. But you will observe, that it can only take profiles; whereas, by means of the Camera Lucida, we can take full, or three-quarter-face likenesses at pleasure: thus leaving the above-mentioned little gentleman far in the back-ground.[34]

The arrangement H. J. describes here is an older invention, dating back to at least the 1780s.  The simplest form of it was the “silhouette machine” associated with Johann Kaspar Lavater, by which a shadow was cast onto a translucent paper and traced:

silhouette-machineDevices contrived in this spirit had come to be known as physiognotraces or physionotraces, especially when they involved the use of a pantograph to trace the profile at reduced scale.  A second variety of physiognotrace didn’t rely on shadows, but instead linked the pantograph to a rod which the operator moved physically around the subject:

[T]he profilist takes in his hand the long end of the rod, and passes it slowly and steadily along the features of the sitter, taking care not to press upon the soft parts, such as the lips.  It is best to begin at the back of the shoulders, and move the rod carefully over the head and down the front of the face.[35]

This second approach was plainly not the one Prosopographus used, since Hervé’s advertising repeatedly emphasized that there wasn’t any physical contact involved.  But the special lighting required by the first approach, as outlined by H. J., doesn’t come up in other primary accounts of Prosopographus either.  More importantly, the concealed hole in the wall—noted by both Babbage and Blenkinsopp—would have served no purpose in the scenario H. J. describes.

Based on these discrepancies, I suspect that H. J. had never seen Prosopographus in action and had drawn conclusions based on advertisements or second-hand reports: namely, that Prosopographus couldn’t plausibly be using a camera lucida because it only took profiles, whereas a camera lucida would have permitted drawing a face at other angles.  Since there was no physical contact either, H. J. may have reasoned by process of elimination that Prosopographus had to be relying on shadows cast onto a screen by lamplight.  But this analysis overlooks the importance of speed, simplicity, and spectacle to Hervé’s operation.  Tracing a profile was far quicker and easier than tracing a three-quarter-face likeness would have been, and relatively unskilled assistants could have been taught how to do it.   Besides, silhouettes were already a well-established form of inexpensive portraiture and a stock in trade of the Hervé family, which made them an obvious commodity for Prosopographus to produce.  The pantographically linked styli could have followed a single looped path, perhaps returning conveniently to the same spot at the end of each session.  The same thing could surely have been accomplished more simply by arranging for a shadow to be cast onto a screen.  But the spectacle of Prosopographus owed much of its appeal to the sense of magic and mystery it evoked, and that consideration would have given Hervé ample cause to choose a camera lucida (an unexpected approach that also permitted concealment) over a shadow on a screen (which would have been blatantly obvious to everyone).  Even if Hervé didn’t take full advantage of the camera lucida’s potential, then, he still would have had a solid motive for using it as a means of misdirection.  It’s also possible that he found the camera lucida technique to be more congenial to his own partial blindness than other approaches, or that he had hit upon it while exploring his options with that disability in mind.

The illustration of Prosopographus that appeared on playbills during 1827 contains one peculiar detail which we haven’t yet accounted for, and which nobody seems previously to have noticed.  Its left hand is shown resting in its lap, apparently idle, with no surface visible underneath to hold a piece of paper, so I assume it must have been the right hand—the outstretched one—that did the tracing.  However, that hand is shown positioned behind the six strings of a lyre, seemingly poised to play something on them.

prosopographus-engraving-detailWe also see something attached to the side of the lyre by an L-shaped support, which I assume must have been a frame for holding a piece of paper while a profile was being traced on it.  None of the written sources I’ve seen mentions the lyre, so its precise purpose remains frustratingly obscure; indeed, if it weren’t for the playbill illustration, we wouldn’t even know it had existed.  However, the French account from 1847 does contain a unique and intriguing reference to music: “This new enchanter, which a spring sets in motion with accompaniment of a sweet melody [avec accompagnement d’une suave mélodie], is inspired at the very moment of your desire, and shortly, without you being able to divine the magic, his hand guides a pencil, always sure, and traces the profile of your portrait with inexpressible fidelity.”  I can think of only one explanation, and, in the words of Sherlock Holmes, “when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”  The “truth” in this case seems to have involved a more complex set of exhibition practices than sources describe.

Regardless of whether Prosopographus was really spring-driven or not, Hervé may still have made a pretense of winding it up as part of the show.  After all, we know that Charles Wheatstone practiced the same ruse in 1821 during exhibitions of his “enchanted lyre.”[36]  Since the French text associates the melody with the act of setting the automaton in motion, and the playbill illustration shows its hand at rest behind the lyre, I suspect the first thing it did during each session after being “wound up” was to pluck the lyre’s strings one after another by drawing its pencil across them.  Next, it must have moved the pencil over onto the paper in the nearby holder and begun tracing the profile.  When it was finished, it would presumably have lifted the pencil again and returned its hand to a resting position behind the lyre, ready for the next sitter.  This arrangement would have made it easy for someone to remove and replace paper in between sessions.  The “sweet melody” was probably just a simple pass across the strings, since even if the hidden assistant could have played longer tunes remotely by manipulating the pantograph, doing so would have taken up valuable time: the emphasis here was on speed.  Besides, the melody didn’t need to be elaborate to serve a useful purpose.  As long as the lyre was sounded at both the beginning and end of each session, this would have let the sitter know when to start holding still and when it was safe to move again.  The spectacle would have involved both visual and aural elements, even if the latter weren’t impressive enough to draw much attention.

Presuming the analysis presented above comes anywhere near the truth, the bottom line is that Prosopographus was a hoax.  Claims about the android figure “executing” the profiles might technically have been true, if misleading; but it wouldn’t have been “performing more perfect resemblances than is in the power of any living hand to trace” as advertised, because a living hand was in fact tracing them remotely by means of a pantograph.  The portraits alone would have been cheap for the price of admission, so people were getting their money’s worth, but the profiles would have been no more superhuman in their accuracy than those of an ordinary physiognotrace.

Nevertheless, I would argue that there are multiple issues at stake here, each of which should interest media historians:

  1. How Prosopographus actually worked.
  2. How Prosopographus was promoted as working.
  3. How people believed Prosopographus worked.

Thus, even if Prosopographus was actually a hoax (#1), it was still represented as a fully automatic technology for taking portraits (#2), and its patrons seem largely to have accepted that claim, or at least to have been willing to suspend their disbelief (#3).  After all, it wasn’t a blatantly implausible claim.  Some other android figures known at the time really were—and still are—capable of writing and drawing automatically: the “draftsman” and “writer” built by the Jaquet-Droz family around 1770 and a similar device built by Henri Maillardet around 1800.  Hence, the idea that a machine could write or draw by clockwork was not only plausible in 1820, but had already been demonstrated in actual fact.  These other machines were admittedly limited to fixed repertoires; Maillardet’s automaton, for example, could only produce the same four drawings and three poems over and over again.  But the physiognotrace had simultaneously established that the taking of silhouettes could be almost automatic, with the operator’s hand arguably doing nothing more than following a preexisting contour.  It wouldn’t have required too great a leap of faith to accept that Prosopographus had merged the functionalities of the automaton draftsman and the physiognotrace through some ingenious combination of optics and mechanics.

Today, automatic recording instruments ranging from phonographs and video cameras to cardiographs and x-ray machines are something we tend to take for granted, but the vast majority of people who visited Prosopographus would never have experienced one before.  Many of them might never even heard of such a thing, given the limited number of examples then available as points of reference:

  • Scientific recording instruments such as the self-writing barometer, known since the 17th century, but used only by specialists.
  • Mechanisms for recording the keystrokes made by musicians playing extemporaneously on organs, pianos, etc., known since the 18th century, but still rare and experimental.

Some visitors might have been familiar with autographic or “self-recording” processes that didn’t involve special instruments, such as nature printing or the taking of death masks, but these weren’t the stuff of common experience either.  There just weren’t that many other opportunities between 1820 and 1835 for the average person to encounter the concept that phenomena could be captured automatically on paper without a human being needing to mediate the details.  Prosopographus must have introduced large numbers of people to that concept for the first time, inviting them to participate concretely in acting it out in fancy or illusion, if not in reality.  In terms of the cultural and discursive history of recording technologies, then, I’d say that makes it a pretty big deal.


Below, I’ve presented a list of places and dates for known Prosopographus exhibitions, based on my own searching of digital databases of newspapers and other periodical literature.  In each case, I’ve seen an actual advertisement published locally during the exhibition itself or—if the place name is preceded by an asterisk—I’ve drawn the information from some other unambiguous contemporary statement: a passing reference to an earlier visit during a later visit, say, or a comment about where the automaton was headed next.

London (Western Exchange): July 1820; June 1821
Liverpool: September 1821 through February 1822
Manchester: March 1822
Leeds: May through July 1823
*Birmingham: sometime in 1823
Aberdeen: November 1824 through January 1825
Newcastle-upon-Tyne: March and April 1825
*Norwich: mid-1825
Ipswich: November and December 1825
Inverness: March 1826
London (No. 161, Strand): April, May, August, December 1826; to February and on through May 1827
London (No. 128, Strand): in “new abode” as of July 1827; November 1827
Bristol: July, September and October 1828
Bath: February and March 1829
Exeter: May 1829
Portsmouth: September and October 1829
Chichester: November 1829 through January 1830
*Brighton: early 1830
Birmingham: March through June 1830
Shrewsbury: August 1830
Worcester: November 1830
Sheffield: February and March 1831
Liverpool: May through July 1832
Leicester: January through March 1833
Coventry: May 1833
Leamington: June through September 1833
Norwich: October 1833 through February 1834
Stamford: April 1834
Leamington: May through October 1834
London (No. 138, Regent-street): November 1834 through January 1835
Cheltenham: July 1835
Paris: 1843

I’ve seen additional places mentioned as having been visited before a certain date, e.g., “London, Manchester, Halifax, &c.” (Leicester Chronicle; or, Commercial and Agricultural Advertiser, January 19, 1833); and “London, Liverpool, Edinburgh, &c.” (Sheffield Independent and Yorkshire and Derbyshire Advertiser, February 12, 1831); but I can’t yet pinpoint the times of these other visits more precisely.


1.  Image source: Handbill in the John Johnson Collection, Bodleian Library, reproduced in Sue McKechnie, British Silhouette Artists and Their Work, 1761-1860 (London: Sotheby Parke Bernet, 1978), 336.

2.  Quotation from Liverpool Mercury, May 18, 1832; but note also: Prosopographus “receives all his Visitors with speechless Admiration, nor chides the refractory but with the tacit Reproof of a shake of the Head, denoting that, unless they sit perfectly still, he cannot take a correct Likeness” (Leeds Intelligencer and Yorkshire General Advertiser, June 26, 1823); “We were very much amused with seeing the little fellow shake its head on being offended, by one of the party present having moved while s[i]tting” (Cheltenham Chronicle and Gloucestershire Advertiser, June 18, 1835).

3.  Leamington Spa Courier, May 10, 1834.

4.  Liverpool Mercury, May 18, 1832.

5.  “Open from Ten till Eight; Day-light not being necessary for the taking of the Likenesses” (Leamington Spa Courier, August 31, 1833); “Open from TEN in the Morning till EIGHT at Night—Daylight not being necessary for the operation” (Sheffield Independent and Yorkshire and Derbyshire Advertiser, February 12, 1831).

6.  London Examiner, April 30, 1826.

7.  Birmingham Gazette, March 29, 1830.

8.  This is the top end of the price range cited in the Leamington Spa Courier, May 10, 1834.  The cutting out isn’t mentioned as a premium option, but since the simplest examples (including my own) seem to be painted while others are said to be cut out, I’m inferring that cutting was at least not something that was done by default.

9.  Desmond Coke, The Art of Silhouette (London: Martin Secker, 1913), 88-89, online here.

10.  London Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser, Jan. 21, 1832, online here.

11.  Sue McKechnie, British Silhouette Artists and Their Work, 1761-1860 (London: Sotheby Parke Bernet, 1978), 232, transcription of entry also available online here.

12.  Daphne Foskett, A Dictionary of British Miniature Painters (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), 1:323; J. J. Foster, A Dictionary of Painters of Miniatures (1525-1850) (London: Philip Allan & Co., 1926), 146.

13.  See in particular the “Herve Family Genealogy,” online here; I’ve independently confirmed much of the information, but any genealogical information cited here without an explicit source can be found there.  The educated hypotheses about family members and their relationships in Sue McKechnie, British Silhouette Artists and Their Work, 1761-1860 (London: Sotheby Parke Bernet, 1978), 769-770, appear to have been mostly incorrect.

14.  London Metropolitan Archives, All Hallows London Wall, Composite register: baptisms 1729/30 – 1812, marriages 1730 – 1754, burials 1729/30 – 1812, P69/ALH5/A/005/MS05088

15.  He cites the year 1808 himself in his autobiographical pieces in The Practical Photographer, but the record of his christening in 1830 as “Charles Standley Herve,” son of “Charles” and “Eliza,” lists a birth year of 1809 ( England, Select Births and Christenings, 1538-1975 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2014).

16.  Daphne Foskett, A Dictionary of British Miniature Painters (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), 1:324; Algernon Graves, The Royal Academy of Arts: A Complete Dictionary of Contributors and Their Work from its Foundation in 1769 to 1904 (London: Henry Graves & Co., 1904), 4:87, online here.

17.  New Monthly Magazine, January 1, 1820, p. 124, online here.

18. U.S., Atlantic Ports Passenger Lists, 1820-1873 and 1893-1959 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc., 2010.

19.  “A Veteran Photographer,” The Practical Photographer 3:32 (August 1892), pp. 214-5, at 214, emphasis added.

20.  The term turns up in several advertisements, but for one example, see the London Morning Post, May 17, 1827.

21.  “The Age of Epidemics,” Liverpool Mercury, June 15, 1832.

22.  Newcastle Courant, March 19, 1825.

23.  London Morning Post, August 14, 1826.

24.  Norfolk Chronicle and Norwich Gazette, October 12, 1833.

25.  Charles Stanley Hervé, “A Half Century in Photography,” part one, The Practical Photographer 4:37 (January 1893), pp. 1-3.

26.  Der bayerische Volksfreund, December 31, 1843, online here; and Die Mode, No. 10 (1843), online here; emphasis added.

27.  Teyssèdre, Guide-Conducteur de l’étranger dans Paris (Paris: Chez l’éditeur, 1847), 306-7, online here.

28.  “A Veteran Photographer,” The Practical Photographer 3:32 (August 1892), pp. 214-5, at 214.

29.  “Queries,” Magazine of Science 157 (April 2, 1842), p. 8, online here.

30.  Harry Houdini, The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin (New York: Publishers Printing Co., 1908), 110-111, online here.  Based on the Western Exchange address, the playbill reproduced in facsimile on page 111 must date from 1821 or 1822.

31.  Charles Babbage, An Essay on General Principles Which Regulate the Application of Machinery to Manufactures and the Mechanical Arts (London: W. Clowes, 1827), pp. 31-32, online here.

32.  E. Leaton Blenkinsopp, in Notes and Queries, June 10, 1882, p. 458, online here.  The second half of the passage (which I haven’t quoted) appears to describe a different operation involving a physiognotrace, and not Prosopographus.

33.  Text of handbill reproduced in Sue McKechnie, British Silhouette Artists and Their Work, 1761-1860 (London: Sotheby Parke Bernet, 1978), 336.  The handbill notes the recent move from No. 161 to No. 128, Strand, which dates it to the latter part of 1827.

34.  H. J. , “Camera Lucida,” Mechanics’ Magazine, January 16, 1830, pp. 353-356, at p. 356, online here.

35.  “The Profile Machine,” Saturday Magazine 12 (November 17, 1838), p. 192, online here.

36.  See sources quoted in William T. Jeans, Lives of the Electricians (London: Whittaker & Co., 1887), p. 111ff, online here.

One thought on “Prosopographus, the Automaton Artist

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