Terracotta dog

A view of the terracotta model of a seated dog, thought to be by François Willème, £3000 at Chiswick Auctions.

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Building on the work of fellow sculptor, Antoine Samuel Adam-Salomon, the process he patented is considered the forerunner of today’s 3D printing.

Willème’s ‘photosculpture’ involved placing his ‘sitter’ in the centre of a glass-enclosed rotunda fitted with 24 cameras set 15 degrees apart. The images they captured observed the subject from every angle. After conversion into lantern slides and projected together onto a screen, these ‘profiles’ could be traced with a pantograph to create a model in wood veneers.

Terracotta dog

A view of the terracotta model of a seated dog, thought to be by François Willème, £3000 at Chiswick Auctions.

Willème obtained a patent in France in 1860 and one in the US in 1864. His application read: “By this improved process I am enabled to produce sculpture exactly similar to the model, whether living or otherwise, with much greater rapidity, at a less cost, and by the aid of persons having no previous knowledge of the art. I may further lessen the time necessary for the sitting and produce sculpture of larger or smaller dimensions than the original, or in any other proportions desired.”

Clients at Willème’s studio near the Arc de Triomphe were offered a range of sizes of photosculpture in materials ranging from plaster and terracotta to bronze and alabaster. Prices ranged from Fr270-500 with a turnaround of just three or four days at a time when a professional sculptor might charge Fr3000 and take three or four months to complete a portrait.


The model of a dog is inscribed to the base Photosculpture, thought to be by François Willème.

For a brief moment at least, it did attract the interest of the great and the good of Second Empire France. However, faced with burdensome set-up costs and a labour-intensive process, the studio closed shortly after Willème left in 1868.

Today most of Willème’s photosculptures reside in institutional collections. However, it is very probable one was offered for sale at Chiswick Auctions as part of a sale of 19th and 20th Century Photographs on November 30. The 12in (33cm) high terracotta model of seated dog by the name of Carlo was inscribed to the base Photosculpture.

Estimated at £200-300, it did rather better, selling at £3000 in west London (plus 25% buyer’s premium).