Beautiful Objects: Portrait Miniatures

The lock screen of my iPhone is a photo of my best friends. My mother carries in her purse a passport picture of me as a baby. My grandmother has a leather-bound family album, a tremendous tombstone of a book locked in her desk drawer, a labelled catalogue of the faces lost and loved through decades of living.

The way in which we remember and connect with those we’re close to seems to evolve with every generation, but the need for it remains the same.

Portrait miniatures were once the only portable keepsake a person could carry. Much overlooked in the realm of portraiture, usually so dominated by oil paintings, Emma Rutherford, expert in miniatures and consultant for Philip Mould Gallery lets us have a sneak into the secret life of these very private objects.

What exactly is a Portrait Miniature?

What we now know as a portrait miniature is a little watercolour of someone’s face. They’re traditionally European, and we Brits fight with France over who invented the weeny treasure. The common trajectory of the portrait miniature was to be worn, for women as part of jewellery, for men in watches or key fobs, then kept in curiosity cabinets. It was a sentimental item, something mothers would have of their children, or wives of husbands leaving to War. They were both memories and memorial.

A portrait miniature had to be an instant likeness, a snapshot of the sitter. Oil paintings were commissioned for posterity – families would, plan, pose and prepare for the Great Work of Art which would hang for generations in the exalted halls of the Family Estate. Whereas with an oil painting artists and family members would hold lengthy debate on how to represent themselves; which of the finest ancestral jewels to flaunt and the like, a portrait miniature was meant to show you as you were that day.

A fun side effect of this is how much we can learn about fashion from miniatures. For instance in the 18th century, when it was common practice for the wealthy to powder their hair white or grey, there were also fads of pink, purple and yellow powders. “I’ve seen 18th century adverts for these colours, and seen them in miniatures, but you’d never have someone in an oil painting with pink hair!” Emma laughs. Having your portrait painted with pink powdered hair would have been just too trendy and potentially embarrassing for your descendants, just the same as that photo of your mum on her wedding day with shoulder pads and the 80s perm you fervently wish she’d remove off the mantelpiece.


So they’re called miniatures because they’re mini-sized, right? Wrong. It’s the materials used that defines a miniature, not the size. A miniature must be painted in watercolour either on vellum (calf skin), or later on, ivory. Originally they were known as ‘limnings’, painted by ‘limners’. The word ‘miniatures’ actually derives from minium, a red lead used to paint the first letter in an illuminated manuscript. Royal illuminated manuscripts usually had a tiny effigy of the reigning monarch, it is said by some that if you cut the little regal portraits away from the text, you’d have the first ever portrait miniature. In any case, portrait miniatures became so prominent that in fact today’s meaning of the word ‘miniature’ as something small in size, derives from them!

Because of this very particular legacy, the training for miniaturists and oil painters was vastly different. As an oil portraitist you might experiment or follow the latest trends in art. As a miniaturist you were very much confined by tradition and stuck in that groove. (Though that ‘groove’ as I’ve just outlined it had some very gruesome aspects. For instance, in sourcing vellum, the calf skin they used to paint on, they found the younger the calf the finer the skin, and many 16th and 17th century treaties discuss the obtaining of an unborn calf, who’s skin would be the softest and most hairless! How they went about sourcing their unborn calves I do not want to know…)

With miniaturists, their skill lay in rendering a person’s likeness with speed, accuracy and nothing more. In fact, many miniaturists were deaf and dumb, individuals artistically gifted, but who would not have been able, like oil painters, to entertain a customer for hours on end. Painting miniatures was also one of the only avenues of income available to women, if her husband died and she had children to feed, a woman could make a respectable living painting miniatures.

By the 18th century the market for miniaturists was becoming very competitive and they had to try to reinvent, despite their rigid rules. Voila, let’s try ivory! Watercolour on ivory is a near-impossible feat, ivory being smooth and watercolour being slippery, it slides on the surface. It seems like a ridiculous challenge to set oneself on behalf of the miniaturists, but there’s a definite naturalism and warmth to skin tones in an ivory miniature. And there’s a kind of exciting spontaneity in this method also, something thrilling for the client that with just one brushstroke – you’ve been captured!

Reveal / Conceal

Emma tells me with a wry smile that there’s a heavy helping of secrecy and even sensuality surrounding the sphere of portrait miniatures. Aside from wearing a miniature of your curlybob baby boy, you may also be stashing a miniature of your mistress in your pocket watch. There’s one story of a miniature of a naked woman wearing a mask found cleverly hidden inside a book. Obviously the man of the house had wished to travel about with something particularly spicy between the pages!

In another instance Emma was attempting to trace a piece, and found noted in a fee book ‘Hand delivered at midnight’. After some research she discovered the lady in the miniature was having an affair with a very high-ranking military individual during the Regency period. Though he finally set her up in a cottage and they lived the end of their lives together, it’s fascinating to have this clue to their early, illicit exchanges.

Aside from it’s undoubted suitability for amorous pursuits, it was also a political aid. There are lots of brilliant miniatures of Bonnie Prince Charlie and Charles I worn secretly by supporters. [column size=”1-1″ appear=”true”]

Miniatures in Private Hands

Who is the modern buyer of miniatures? “Surprisingly, for such a delicate art form, the majority of my collectors are men.” Emma says. There are also couple collectors she tells me, partners who have a shared passion. “That’s rather nice because that relates back to the reason a lot of them were painted in the first place, as a sort of connecting portrait.” She also notes that since it’s very much a European art form, most of the buyers are British.

It’s unusual for a customer to buy one. A miniature alone seems adrift, a lonely and anonymous face. One thing she does make a point of – that the way people buy miniatures is incredibly emotive. She might pull out a portrait of someone painted in the 18th century, and they’ll say, “she looks like someone who bullied me at school, there’s no way I’m buying that!” In many ways this is fascinating, it harks back to our constant human battle to never judge people on first impressions. It seems we just can’t help it.

Miniatures in Museums

The appeal of a portrait miniature is utterly lost in a Museum. Wandering around galleries garnished with floor-to-ceiling oil paintings and artists of world calibre, the charm of this mini player is significantly diluted. The best you can do, Emma and I agree, is see them in a country house, or in a personal context, somewhere like the Wallace Collection or Apsley House where the surroundings are more intimate.

After all, to look at a portrait miniature properly it needs to be in the palm of your hand. It’s a one-on-one experience. Yet despite our intentions to keep something behind of a person we love, there are difficulties. Practical ones in miniatures play a big part; watercolour is in no way a medium known for its longevity, nor is there space on many of them to make a note of the sitter’s name. Miniatures can be lost, stolen and forgotten. The advent of photography in the Victorian ages totally murdered the marketplace for miniatures.

It is ironic that in humanity’s bid to immortalise their beloved, they created an item so ephemeral itself.

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