Portrait miniatures

Though they may be small in stature, miniatures from the Gilbert Collection tell stories on a grand scale.

Portrait miniatures in painted enamel

The term portrait miniature comes from the Italian for illumination, 'miniatura'. These small-scale portraits emerged from the intricate art of illuminating manuscripts in the early 1500s. From about 1600, the term 'miniature' was increasingly used to describe anything very small. They were available across elite Europe in the 17th century and reached the height of their popularity in 18th-century London. In the 19th century miniaturists pushed the boundaries of their craft, experimenting with larger scale works.

The Gilbert Collection includes examples of the highest quality miniatures made in each of these centuries. A gold box set with a portrait miniature inspired Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert to start collecting these pocket-sized works of art. Arthur was often known to encourage visitors to examine the objects in his collection through a magnifying glass, so that they could appreciate the tiny details of each object and the incredible skill that it took to create them. Fascinated by the virtuoso ability of the craftspeople who made miniatures, the Gilberts bought carefully in order to form a collection of the most intricate and beautiful work in this medium.

Painting faces with fire

There are two main types of portrait miniatures; watercolour painted onto an ivory support, or enamel applied and fired onto porcelain or a thin sheet of metal. Most of the miniatures in the Gilbert Collection are enamel painted onto gold or copper.

To create enamel miniatures, powdered glass and metal oxides are mixed with oil to make a paste, which is then painted colour by colour onto a metal or porcelain base. After the application of each layer of colour the miniature is fired in a kiln. The first layer would cover the entire support, including its reverse, to stop it from warping in the intense heat of the kiln. The colour which had the highest firing temperature, determined by the chemical makeup of the paint, would be applied first, and the remaining colours then applied in successive order. Before the invention of temperature controlled kilns, the different firing heats would be achieved by time: around 15 minutes for the highest temperature down to 2 for the lowest.

This means that the creation of a painted enamel had to be meticulously planned, as each colour only had one chance to be fired. Miniatures were also often copied from engravings or paintings, reproducing famous or favourite likenesses. Some experienced artists prided themselves on being able to paint directly from their subject, demonstrating their technical mastery. Some works signed ‘ad vivum’, meaning from life, announced this classification, but others such as one by Jean Baptiste Weyler have since been classified as made from life by art historians impressed with their lively style.

Oval miniature portrait of Jean Baptiste Weyler, 1785 – 90, Paris, France. Museum no. Loan:Gilbert.248-2008. © The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Metal supports can be fired at a higher temperature than porcelain which makes the final product more resilient and scratch-proof. Curved gold supports are common among early works, as many of the first miniaturists had trained as clockmakers and had used gold when making watchcases. As the technique developed, copper became used more frequently as it was cheaper and could be fired at a higher temperature.

The larger the metal base, the greater the risk of the enamel warping and cracking. Henry Bone pioneered the large format miniature in the early 19th century. His 1825 image of George Washington bears the scars of this process: a large crack runs horizontal across the president’s chest. However Bone’s patron still admired the piece and allowed Bone to finish it. The reverse is inscribed with "Cracked in the 5th fire & finished by the permission of Mr. Williams from the Original picture".

Enamel miniature on copper of George Washington, Henry Bone after Gilbert Stuart, 1825, England. Museum no. Loan:Gilbert.230-2008. © The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Large-scale to small-scale

Portraits often formed part of an interior’s decoration, hung on the walls of country houses, they were incorporated into a room’s architecture. Portrait miniatures, by contrast, were small and portable and could even be worn as part of a bracelet or tied to clothing with ribbon.

Some miniatures took inspiration from large-scale paintings. The miniature of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, dated 1779, took her likeness from a family portrait which hung in her childhood home. The family portrait was painted in 1774, the same year that Georgiana married the 5th Duke of Devonshire. The artist Angelica Kauffman painted the three figures into a classical landscape, representing them as fashionable elites.

Enamel miniature on copper of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, Johann Heinrich Hurter, 1779, England. Museum no. Loan:Gilbert.263-2008. © The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Five years later the classical background was removed from the miniature – only Georgiana’s elegant head and shoulders are presented, making the image more timeless and personal. A large-scale painting fixed on a wall becomes a tiny miniature, and the visual experience of looking at a formal painting of a group becomes an intimate and physical encounter between the beholder and the depicted sitter.

Close connections

Painted enamel likenesses of loved ones were treasured possessions that celebrated personal connections. For the elite they also became an eloquent way to express their all-important status. This miniature of Anne Churchill has the names of her closest family engraved on the back. This family roll-call establishes her as a good wife who had fulfilled her role as an aristocratic female: to ensure the longevity of the family by providing heirs. It also places her within the web of aristocratic connections that formed her identity, pairing her image with her role as the wife of a duke, the daughter of another duke and mother to yet another duke.

Enamel miniature on copper of Anne Churchill (front and back view), Charles Boit, about 1710, England. Museum no. Loan:Gilbert.293-2008. © The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Miniatures were also used to remember lost family members. The 1806 enamel portrait of Captain John Whitby, graces the cover of a locket, which holds a memorial poem and a lock of his hair.

Enamel miniature on copper of Captain John Whitby, Henry Pierce Bone, 1806, England. Museum no. Loan:Gilbert.261-2008. © The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Portraits as presents

It was possible to hold a miniature close and gaze at it privately, control who could see it and hide it from view. This potential for secrecy made miniatures the perfect gift for a lover, allowing them to keep their beloved physically close, or contemplate their beauty in private.

They were also given to celebrate more legitimate unions and were very popular as wedding gifts, particularly in the 18th century when wives often wore their husband’s image as part of a bracelet or necklace. This pair were probably given to the newlyweds without frames so they could have been worn. Later frames were added making them more appropriate for display in a cabinet, or on a wall.

Enamel miniatures on copper of William, 7th Baron Brooke and Lady Mary Brooke, Christian Friedrich Zincke, about 1716, England. Museum no. Loan:Gilbert.280 & 281-2008. © The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In some courts around Europe miniatures were given by rulers to their subjects, or by nobles to those in their service. As with marriage portraits, they made a statement of connection and allegiance. One miniature made around 1690 depicts an 'elector', a prince entitled to take part in the election of the Holy Roman Emperor. It would have made its owner’s connections and loyalty visible to all who saw it.

BoÎte à portrait (portrait box) containing the miniature of an Elector with red bow, J.M. Khaetscher, 1690 – 5, Düsseldorf, Germany. Museum no. Loan:Gilbert.294-2008. © The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Famous faces

Many people also collected miniatures that depicted faces of famous (or even infamous) individuals. Horace Walpole, a renowned 18th-century collector, had a special cabinet made to house his miniatures. In it, alongside antique cameos and relics, he kept a collection of just under 100 miniatures, selected not only for their beauty but also for the fame of their subject. Walpole’s collection of famous faces acted as illustrious company for the portraits of himself and his family, including his father, prime minister Robert Walpole. They were also a means by which he could meet his heroes and spend time with them whenever he chose to.

Enamel miniature on copper of Robert Walpole, Christian Frederick Zincke, about 1743, England. Museum no. Loan:Gilbert.294-2008. © The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Portraits of famous sitters could be made by artists who lived at the same time as them. This portrait of Louis XV was made around 1745 by John Adam Mathieu, head of painting for the Vincennes porcelain factory, which later became Sèvres. Mathieu may not have met Louis XV, although he may have encountered him through his work at the state-run factory.

Enamel miniature on copper of Louis XV, John Adam Mathieu, 1740-50, Paris, France. Museum no. Loan:Gilbert.268-2008. © The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In contrast this portrait of Oliver Cromwell was made almost 100 years after his death. Cromwell won the English Civil war and deposed the monarch Charles I in the 1640s. By the 1720s when this miniature was painted, the monarchy had been restored and the house of Hanover had taken to the throne. Cromwell’s likeness, after the famous 'warts and all' portrait by Samuel Cooper, held an appeal for a wide audience compelled by his role in the history of England.

Enamel miniature on copper of Oliver Cromwell, probably by Christian Richter, about 1720, England. Museum no. Loan:Gilbert.246-2008. © The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In the Gilbert Collection

Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert were fascinated by the famous faces of history. They amassed miniatures in the same way and for the same reasons that generations of collectors had before them. As a visitor’s eye swept over the miniatures, first in their Beverly Hills Villa and then in a museum context, they would appreciate not only the history of the art form and the famous faces captured by it, but also Rosalinde and Arthur’s grasp on the subject. Bringing together characters from history, rendered by the best artists, their collection made their knowledge and good taste visible.