A History of the Portrait Miniature

Portrait miniature of Charles V, Lucas Horenbout, about 1525-30, watercolour on vellum, remounted onto modern card. Museum no. P.22-1942, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Portrait miniature of Charles V, Lucas Horenbout, about 1525-30, watercolour on vellum, remounted onto modern card. Museum no. P.22-1942, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Miniatures were first painted to decorate and illustrate hand-written books. Indeed, the word 'miniature' comes from the Latin word 'miniare'. This means 'to colour with red lead', a practice that was used for the capital letters.

From the 1460s hand-written books had to compete with printed books. At the same time, however, wealthy patrons demanded a wider range of luxury goods. Miniaturists such as Simon Bening continued to illustrate expensive books, but also offered patrons independent miniatures. Some were for private worship, others simply desirable objects.

Portrait miniatures first appeared in the 1520s, at the French and English courts. Like medals, they were portable, but they also had realistic colour. The earliest examples were painted by two Netherlandish miniaturists, Jean Clouet working in France and Lucas Horenbout in England.

Royal portraiture 1580-1625

Miniatures were particularly useful to the monarchy. They were small enough to be given personally, sometimes in a public ceremony, as a sign of the monarch's favour. But since a miniature could be presented unframed, the person receiving it often had the expense of providing a suitable locket.

Elizabeth I's wealthier subjects started to wear her image as a sign of loyalty in the 1580s, when Protestant England was threatened by Catholic Spain. James I, who inherited the throne in 1603, learned from Elizabeth the propaganda power of miniatures and during his reign Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver produced many miniatures of the king and his family.

Post-Restoration period

Samuel Cooper set up business in 1642, and after the execution of Charles I in 1649 continued to work successfully in London, his clientele including Oliver Cromwell  and his family. At the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Cooper's reputation quickly earned him the patronage of Charles II and his family. His position as the leading miniaturist was confirmed when in 1663 he was appointed the king's limner.

Competition came from Richard Gibson, who became the king's miniaturist after Cooper's death in 1672. Younger rivals included Nicholas Dixon and Peter Cross. Dixon blended his brushstrokes for a glossy finish, while Peter Cross created a soft-focus effect with delicate touches and dots.

Painting on ivory

The first British artist to paint on ivory was Bernard Lens, in about 1707. At the same time that ivory replaced vellum, miniatures tended to become smaller. This was probably because of the difficulty of using watercolour on ivory. Another reason might have been the fashion for enamel portraits, which were small.

Miniature painting was now an established genteel pastime. Until the 1760s most miniaturists had no professional training. Penelope Carwardine was an amateur turned professional, while Gervase Spencer, originally a footman, and Samuel Cotes, an apothecary (pharmacist), were both self-taught. Many were not even full-time miniaturists. Luke Sullivan was an engraver and Thomas Frye ran the Bow porcelain factory.

The 18th Century

In the early 18th century miniaturists had experimented with ways to make it easier to paint on ivory with watercolour. These included roughening the ivory, degreasing it and making the paint stickier.

Jeremiah Meyer then exploited the advances made by his predecessors and showed other artists the possibilities of working on ivory.

In the late 1760s a number of young artists became miniaturists, including Richard Cosway, John Smart and Richard Crosse, all born around 1742. From the age of 14, these boys took lessons at William Shipley 's new drawing school, the first such school in London.

Portrait miniatures and the Royal Academy

In 1768 a group of London-based artists established the Royal Academy of Arts. At the Academy's annual exhibitions miniaturists displayed their tiny works in a room crowded with large oil paintings. Many painted larger pieces and celebrity sitters to catch people's eye. Others emulated the full-length poses and rich colour of oils.

Growing national wealth encouraged the market for portraiture. Numerous young artists took up miniature painting, offering clients keepsakes of their loved ones. Many, like the Scotsman John Bogle, came to London to find work, but Thomas Hazlehurst found a lucrative market in his booming hometown, Liverpool.

Portrait miniatures and India

In 1785 the miniaturists John Smart, Ozias Humphry and Diana Hill independently made the six-month voyage by boat to India. To set up a business in either Madras or Calcutta they needed the permission of the East India Company, the trading company that effectively ran these areas at this date.

Although some of their sitters were local dignitaries, most were British. They included employees of the Company and their families. With miniaturists based in India, the exchange of portraits between Britain and India became cheap and easy. They could be posted or carried home by a friend or relative.

Richard Cosway and Andrew Robertson

Around 1801 the young artist Andrew Robertson developed a new style of miniature painting that became the dominant style of the mid 19th century. Robertson deliberately set himself against Richard Cosway, the fashionable miniaturist of the previous generation. He called Cosway's miniatures 'pretty things but not pictures', and despised his followers.

Robertson's new style brought together elements that had been explored by previous miniaturists. These included a larger ivory, a rectangular format and the addition of more gum to imitate the richness of oil paint. But his large, densely painted miniatures were labour intensive so Robertson mostly painted smaller miniatures for a living.

The impact of photography

Queen Victoria's miniaturist, Sir William Charles Ross, was the last great miniature painter. His fashionably large miniatures looked like oil paintings. But this effect took painstaking work and few could afford Ross. Other top-class miniaturists were equally expensive, even Alfred Edward Chalon with his elegant, light style.

Photography, introduced in 1839, provided a wider public with affordable, accurate likenesses. Many miniaturists at the cheaper end of the market took up photography, while younger artists rarely pursued careers as miniaturists.

At the end of the century, however, there was a brief revival of interest in miniature painting with the establishment in 1896 of the Royal Society of Miniature Painters.

A gift in your will

You may not have thought of including a gift to a museum in your will, but the V&A is a charity and legacies form an important source of funding for our work. It is not just the great collectors and the wealthy who leave legacies to the V&A. Legacies of all sizes, large and small, make a real difference to what we can do and your support can help ensure that future generations enjoy the V&A as much as you have.

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