Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Silhouette Man

A little while back I mentioned the chap who used to be at Centrepoint in Sydney who used to cut silhouettes of people. He was truly amazing: whilst he looked at you and talked, his hands deftly cut out a remarkable silhouette portrait. My comment inspired Byter Maureen to add her recollections and I said then that he would be the subject of a future Bytes. Do others remember him?

The man’s name was Sebastian John Ross and he lived from 24 April 1919 to 24 August 2008. He was commonly known as S John Ross, but even more commonly as “The Silhouette Man”, the man who for over 60 years entertained with his silhouettes at the Brisbane Ekka, the Sydney Royal Easter Show and at Centrepoint. 

The Man:

The following is from Wikipedia:

He first visited Australia in 1942 as a U.S. Serviceman, and in 1945 married an Australian WAAF, Phyllis Counsell. After returning to America in the late 1940s in 1950 he moved permanently to Australia and lived in NSW at Springwood. In 1950 with some assistance from Jimmy Sharman Snr. He was introduced to the life of the Australian Outdoor Showmen and worked the shows up until 2008. In that time he worked capital shows in Sydney, Melbourne Adelaide and Brisbane. John also toured regional Queensland & NSW shows. John Ross worked at Sydney's Luna Park from 1950 until 1979. From then until his death in 2008 aged 89 when not on tour he worked at on the observation deck at Sydney's Centrepoint Tower. During this time he created thousands of portraits, including of many celebrities. Over the years he appeared on television and radio on many occasions and hundreds of articles were written about him in newspapers and magazines. John was held in high regard by all the Australian Show Societies, being given many Show legend awards. When receiving one of these awards John always said jokingly that he would "rather be a live legend than a dead one. John also claimed that only the Taxation Office knew what the "S" in his name stood for. He was sometimes referred to as "Scissors John". 
Ross Eastgate, a military historian and journalist, said of Ross that "He was not tall in stature, but he was giant in Australian entertainment."

This item is a Sydney Morning Herald article:

The Silhouette Man of Luna Park Cuts a Fine Figure 
January 5 2006 
For three decades, S. John Ross was "the Silhouette Man" of Luna Park, an American-born showman who became one of the best-known human faces at Sydney's favourite fun fair. 
From 1950 until the tragic fire in 1979, Ross - "I've never revealed what the S stands for. It's my trademark, only the tax office knows" - worked until midnight in his stall. Generations of courting couples sat in his chair while he carved out their portraits - an artist whose medium was a pair of scissors and a black card. 
Now, for the first time in 25 years, the 85-year-old is setting up his stall again at Luna Park. Every weekend in January he'll be open for business, just as he was in his heyday when visiting celebrities like Ernest Borgnine, Johnny Ray and John Mills would pose for him. 
"Silhouettes were a big thing for 2000 years, until the advent of photography," Ross explains. "It goes back to the ancient Greeks." 
He was 12 when he saw his first silhouette artist, at the Michigan State Fair in Detroit. "Right then I knew what I wanted to be." Through the Depression, he helped his mother raise seven children after charming his way into an apprenticeship with Bud-Jack, a master of the art. 
In 1942 Ross came to Australia as a US soldier. 
"My job was to look after celebrity VIPs like Bob Hope and Jack Benny. We needed good drivers so I requested some WAAF's. They sent 10, and one became my wife, Phyllis." 
They married in 1945 and he began working shows as far north as Rockhampton, in central Queensland. 
"My first Easter Show was in 1948. This year will be my 57th." In 1950 he was invited to try his luck at Luna Park. "I said I'd do it for a week. I stayed 30 years." 
He was at work on June 9, 1979, when six children and one adult were killed in the Ghost Train fire. The park was closed and he thought that would be the end of his association. But in 2004 his contribution was recognised in a mural, painted by Ashley Taylor, artist in residence at the reopened park. 
Not everyone has the kind of profile that suits a silhouette, Ross confides. "I'm very selective who I pick. I won't do anyone with a receding chin." 
However one thing has changed. In 1950 he charged five shillings. This weekend he'll be charging $10.

Some pics:

S John Ross in younger days


Cutting a silhouette, 1944


How it’s done, 1945

Cairns Show, 1948

Luna Park 1958



Brisbane Ekka, 2007

In 1795 France’s Finance Minister imposed severe economic restrictions because of France’s lack of money as a result of involvement in the Seven Years’ War. As a result, his name became synonymous with austerity and things done on the cheap, including portraits. This was the days before cameras and very few could afford a portrait from an artist. Outline portraits, however, were another matter, affording a cheap and convenient means of recording a person’s appearance. The name of the Finance Minister has long been forgotten in the realm of politics, economics and finance. It does, however, remain in use in another contest: his name was Etienne de Silhouette and he has given his name to that cheap portraiture, the silhouette.

Creating a silhouette in the past

In 1775, Mrs. Samuel Harrington invented the pantograph. This mechanical device could be used to enlarging or reduce the size of a drawing. A silhouette, normally made life size, could be reduced to a smaller size using the pantograph. These miniature silhouettes were extremely popular because they could be used in jewellery such as lockets and cameos. 

. . . and a modern day silhouette:


  1. Hi, my father just gve me a pair of silhouettes of him and my mother done by S John Ross. I had never heard of him, and it has been interesting to read your blog entry. I guess they were done in the early fifties.

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