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Matyas Selmeczi, Silhouette Artist

July 18, 2016
by the gentle author

With his weathered features, grizzled beard, sea captain’s cap and denim bib overalls, Silhouette Artist Matyas Selmeczi looks like he has just stepped off a boat and out of another century. For several years now, Matyas has been a fixture in Spitalfields and is to be found at the entrance to the Backyard Market off Brick Lane each Saturday and Sunday, where Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien & I paid him a visit last weekend.

Such is his gentle, unassuming personality that it is possible you may not have noticed Matyas sitting in his booth, yet I urge you to seek him out because this man is possessed of a talent that verges on the magical. With intense concentration, he can slice through a piece of paper with a pair of scissors to produce a lifelike portrait in silhouette in less than three minutes, and he does this all day.

Once his subject sits in front of him looking straight ahead, Matyas takes a single considered glance at the profile and then begins to cut a line through the paper, looking up just a couple of times without pausing in his work, until – hey presto! – a likeness is produced. The medium is seemingly so simple and the effect so evocative.

Silhouettes were invented in France in the eighteenth century and named after Etienne de Silhouette, a finance minister who was a notorious cheapskate. These inexpensive portraits became commonplace across Europe until they were surpassed by the age of photography and when you meet Matyas, you know that he is the latest in a long line of silhouette artists on the streets of London through the centuries.

In spite of photography, silhouettes retain their currency today as vehicles to capture and convey human personality in ways that are distinctive in their own right. And for less than a tenner, getting your silhouette done is both a souvenir to cherish and an unforgettable piece of theatre.

“I have always been able to draw and I trained as an architect in St Petersburg. When my daughter was eight years old, I tried to teach her to draw but it was too early and she would cry. A pair of scissors were on the table so I picked them up and cut her silhouette to make her smile – that was my very first. When she was twelve, I was able to teach my daughter to draw and now she has become an architect.

In 2009, I was working in Budapest as an architect, but there was a crash in Hungary so I came to London. I found there was also a crash here, so I couldn’t get a job and I decided to do silhouettes instead. The first two years were hard but interesting. I did not know anything, I started in Trafalgar Sq. A friendly policeman explained that I could not charge, instead I had to ask for donations.

Then I was on the South Bank for two years and I used to have a line of people waiting to have their silhouettes done. In winter it was very hard, I had gloves and put my hands in my pockets to keep them warm so I was ready to work, but it was very windy and the wind blew away my easel and folding chair.

So four years ago, I came to Brick Lane where I can charge money but I have to pay rent, and I’ve been here every weekend since, and I am in Camden from Wednesday to Friday. On Monday and Tuesday, I am free to do my own drawing and painting.

To draw a portrait you start from the brow and draw the profile but with a silhouette you begin with the neck. It is like a drawing but you only make one line and you cannot make any mistake in the middle. It is like a shadow or a ghost. It takes me three minutes but it is not hard for me.

I like to do father and son, mother and daughter and it is very interesting to see the similarities and the differences, and how the profile changes over time.

Anybody can take photographs but silhouettes require skill. It is not really an art but a beautiful craft. You must have good eyes and very good hands.

The first time I saw a silhouette being cut was in Milos Forman’s ‘Ragtime.’ In the first few minutes of the film, you are in the Jewish quarter of New York and you see a silhouette artist on the street.

Once on the South Bank, I had a very old lady at the end of the queue watching me and I thought she had no money, so I offered to cut her silhouette for free – but she said, ‘No, I am a silhouette artist.’

She had come to this country as a child with her family from Vienna in the thirties escaping Hitler and cut silhouettes on the streets of London. Her name was Inge Ravilson and she was eighty-eight years old. She invited me to her home, and I visited her and we drank tea.

We became friends. She was wonderful and she taught me her tricks. She could cut a silhouette very fast, in one minute, and she told me I am too slow but my work is more characterful, so I was very proud. I know I am not the best, but she told me I am good and she gave me her scissors. That’s good enough for me.”

Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien

Matyas Selmeczi can be found in Spitalfields every weekend and at Camden Lock each Wednesday to Friday. He is also available for parties, weddings and events.

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Matt Walters, Human Statue

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15 Responses leave one →
  1. July 18, 2016

    Matyas is really good, he has talent, that’s for sure. Valerie

  2. Michelle Yates permalink
    July 18, 2016

    Oh! I love it! I wish I had known about this chap when I was over in London a few weeks ago. I went to Spitalfield as there was so much I wanted to explore there but the weather was so cold and miserable I didn’t do half that I wanted to do.

    I look forward every day to your blog.

    Next time I visit my favourite city, I shall hopefully be able to spend more time exploring the East End. Some of my family originated in Bethnal Green, my Mother was born in Wandsworth, then they moved to Peckham where my Grandfather had a business at 289 Southampton St, Peckham Rd, Peckham, he was a Gold and Silver Mounter. My Mother and 4 siblings came to Australia in 1914, my Grandfather had come the year before.

    I lived in the UK in the 1990’s for awhile, love returning time and time again!

  3. July 18, 2016

    How impressive, you must have a brilliant memory

  4. July 18, 2016

    What variety of people pass through your pages and, as ever, your subject’s story really captures this reader’s imagination.

  5. Ros permalink
    July 18, 2016

    lovely piece, great photos, interesting subject. As always, such a lot to learn!

  6. July 18, 2016

    “Available for parties, weddings and events.” — Goodness, how I would love to hire this wonderful artist to come over to our small town in the Hudson River Valley and do a silhouette of every
    single resident, young and old. I am already envisioning the collective grouping displayed in frames in our town hall. Thank you for letting us know about this gifted and intrepid artist.
    Long live the arts!

  7. Shawdian permalink
    July 18, 2016

    What a Magnificent Skill you have Matyas.
    A Pair of Scissors a piece of paper and a precise mind : wonderful.
    So pleased for you having found your way in Magic Historic London.
    Happy Silhouetting

  8. July 18, 2016

    tga, thank you for nice words and colin’s nice photos… matyas

  9. Jane Roberts permalink
    July 19, 2016

    Matyas did a fabulous silhouette of my son,it’s amazing! Thank you!

  10. Carolyn Badcock - nee Hooper permalink
    July 19, 2016

    Lovely memories! As a child in the north of Queensland, Australia there was a gentleman silhouette artist at the Annual Show in the ’50s and ’60s. Amazingly, I think Matyas looks very like that man! Wonderful talent………….

  11. July 20, 2016

    thank you jane

  12. August 2, 2016

    Nagy vagy Matyi!

  13. Gyurka permalink
    August 6, 2017

    Oszt mijafaszér nem kűttétek a linket tavaly?

  14. Gyurka permalink
    August 6, 2017

    Great stuff! Very impressive indeed!
    Oszt mijafaszér nem kűttétek a linket tavaly?

  15. December 17, 2020

    now im doing silhouettes every day on camden eastyard maarket, exept mondeys and thesdays .everybody welcome

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