Portrait miniatures at the V&A

In 1857, the year the new South Kensington Museum (now the V&A) opened to the public, the museum acquired its first portrait miniature – an image of Queen Elizabeth I by Nicholas Hilliard. The miniature, housed in an enamelled gold locket with a jewelled cover, is a rare survival as most Elizabethan lockets were later broken up for their precious metals and stones.

Portrait miniature painting of Elizabeth I painted on red background wearing jewelled tiara and necklace and displayed in gold box with heavily jewelled lid.
Elizabeth I, portrait miniature, by Nicholas Hilliard, about 1600, England. Museum no. 4404-1857. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Such miniature portraits were painted in watercolour on vellum (fine animal skin), and protected in lockets or boxes with lids, so they could either be worn or carried in pockets. The portrait of a member of the Barbor family in our collection, also by Nicholas Hilliard, is a rare surviving example of a miniature in its original ivory box, complete with its lid.

Portrait miniature of a man sitting side-on wearing a lace collar and mustard and blue jacket in a white ivory case, shown alongside lid.
Unknown member of the Barbor family, portrait miniature, by Nicholas Hilliard, about 1590, England. Museum number 887:1&2-1894. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Portrait miniatures were first painted in the 1520s at the courts of Henry VIII, in England, and Francis I, in France. What we today call 'miniature painting' developed from the older medieval art of 'illuminating' hand-written books with colourful illustrations and decorative borders. Both arts (portraits and book illustrations) were painted with watercolour, then called 'limning', a word derived from the Latin 'luminare', meaning 'to give light'.

Portrait miniature painting of a man wearing a black cap hat and black robes, holding a pair of spectacles in front of a stand with a page on it.
Simon Bening, self-portrait aged 75, 1558, England. Museum number P.159-1910. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Today we think of watercolour as being thin and transparent. But as Simon Bening's self-portrait of 1558 shows, limning was rich and opaque. The elderly Bening shows himself sitting at his easel upon which is a sketch of the Virgin and Child. The watercolour used by limners, such as Bening, is more accurately called 'bodycolour'. This is made by mixing ground pigment with a tiny amount of binder, usually gum arabic (a natural gum made from the sap of the acacia tree). Mixed with a little water and painted onto vellum with a fine brush, bodycolour is thick and smooth. Transparent watercolour – made by mixing pigment with more binder – was used for details such as a sitter's features.

The English word 'miniature' actually comes from 'miniatura', Italian for limning, as seen for example in Edward Norgate's treatise called Miniatura or The Arte of Limning, written around 1628. But the anglicised word 'miniature' caught on around the same time and was used to refer to something small. This probably happened because of a confusion between the small size of limnings and an association with words starting with the Latin root 'min', expressing smallness, such as in 'minor'. By the 18th century 'limning' was widely called 'miniature painting'.

portrait miniature painting of a woman on a blue background. She has her hair up and a lace veil over it and is wearing jewellery around her neck and a red dress. Intricate ivory lid to the right.
Anne of Cleves, portrait miniature, by Hans Holbein the younger, 1539, England. Museum number P.153-1910. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In England, Henry VIII's portraitist, Hans Holbein, painted some of the earliest and most beautiful miniatures. Two examples depicting two very different women show that in the hands of a skilled artist these little watercolour portraits have an intimacy and power quite unlike a larger oil portrait.

The first is of Anne of Cleves. Holbein travelled to the Continent to paint this miniature and a three-quarter length oil, allowing Henry VIII to judge the face and figure of the woman he planned to marry. The oil, now in the Louvre, focuses attention on Anne's costume and jewels. But the miniature, which can be cradled in the hand and studied closely, draws the eye to Anne's face and the sensitive way Holbein captured her quiet smile and gentle eyes. Watercolour on vellum also has a soft, matt quality, which seems particularly suited to representing a face. Famously, Henry was less pleased with the reality than the portraits, and divorced Anne after six months.

small painted portrait of a woman on a mid-blue background wearing a white cloth hat, white shawl and black dress. Surrounded by gold twisted frame with drop pearls.
Mrs Jane Small, portrait miniature, by Hans Holbein the younger, about 1540, England. Museum number P.40-1935. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The second Holbein miniature shows a plainly dressed woman who is almost certainly Jane, wife of Nicholas Small, a London merchant and neighbour of Holbein. This was probably commissioned to mark their marriage, and Holbein has painted a portrait of great beauty and intimacy for Nicholas to hold and contemplate. Today the miniature is mounted in a later frame, but was probably once in an ivory box with a fitted lid.

Holbein's miniature of Jane Small was purchased by the Museum in 1935 with help from the Art Fund. By this time, the V&A was effectively the home of the nation's collection of miniatures. It's surprising, therefore, that the so-called 'first' miniature to enter the museum – Hilliard's portrait of Elizabeth I purchased in 1857 – was acquired by the Enamels Department for its enamelled locket, and catalogued as a 'miniature case', rather than for the portrait within.

In 1857 the museum had no plan to collect miniatures. In fact, the catalogue of the museum's 'Pictures', published in 1859, included no miniatures. But the catalogue's introduction still boasted: "From the earliest times there was one branch of art in which English artists had a reputation … [and] excelled other nations, namely miniature painting in watercolours". Both curators and the public were increasingly fascinated by these little paintings. In 1862 the museum staged a major exhibition of objects lent by private owners, covering the "Medieval, Renaissance, and more recent periods". The large section of portrait miniatures attracted particular attention, as the public enjoyed the chance to view these exquisite portraits normally hidden in private hands.

Painted portrait of a woman in cream, elaborate, lace clothing and headpiece with jewels with her hand held to her left breast. In a wooden frame decorated with gold leaves.
Unknown woman, by Isaac Oliver, about 1596 – 1600, England. Museum number P.12-1971. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Some miniatures, on loan in 1862, are now in the V&A's permanent collection; such as Isaac Oliver's 'cabinet' miniature, measuring 13 centimetres across, of a woman then believed to be Frances Howard. The 1862 cataloguers were keen to inform the public about both famous artists and sitters, noting with relish that Frances Howard was a notorious poisoner.

The miniatures displayed in 1862 excited such public interest that an exhibition devoted to miniatures was organised in 1865. The exhibition's committee was clearly thinking of displaying watercolour miniatures, "… in which English artists were the first to excel". But admitted that "the question [soon] arose – what constitutes a miniature portrait?" As owners responded enthusiastically to newspaper adverts asking the public to lend their "miniatures" it was thought best "to accept all such works as were drawn to a small scale, and … of a miniature character". This included other small portraits types, such as enamels, oils on copper, and graphite on vellum, then called 'plumbagos'.

Painted portrait of a woman on a mid-blue background, wearing black headdress and gown with gold detail and clutching a book, surrounded by gold frame decorated in blue, white and black.
Lady Guildford, portrait miniature, unknown artist, 17th century, England. Museum number P.12-1941. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In the end over 3000 miniatures were exhibited in 1865 – some of which have since been acquired by the V&A. Further research on these acquisitions revealed that the curators had neither the time or expertise to assess so many objects, and that owner's attributions were inevitably accepted. One miniature, belonging to the collector Hollingworth Magniac, was catalogued as by Hans Holbein of Henry VIII's first wife, Katharine of Aragon. It is still in its 'Magniac frame' of blue, black and white enamel. Bequeathed to the V&A in 1941 as part of a larger collection, it was correctly identified as a copy of Holbein's oil painting of Mary, Lady Guildford, now in the Saint Louis Art Museum, USA. Magniac and the exhibition curators, however, had not been deceived by one of the many 19th century 'fakes' that were appearing on the market as recent examination of its materials and techniques suggest this copy was painted in the early 17th-century.

Hand-coloured photograph in greens and blues of a young girl sat in a mesh backed chair with arm resting on table. In gold, red and black rectangular frame.
Miss Mary Sophia Nevison, hand-tinted collodion positive, unknown photographer, about 1855 – 60. Museum no. PH.310-1982. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In the introduction of the 1865 exhibition catalogue, the Director expressed a growing concern about the fate of miniature painting, warning that while this art had "been practised by many great artists" it had "suddenly collapsed before the cheap mechanical processes of photography". Photography, introduced only 25 years earlier, had effectively replaced the need for miniaturists. Although early photographs were only black and white images, they could be hand-tinted with colour, like the photograph of Mary Sophia Nevinson. The Director hoped that displaying "first rate" miniatures in the exhibition might encourage a revival of miniature painting, or, at least, lead to an "appreciation of the value of the works which remain to us, and tend to their better preservation".

Man standing up in a room with background of blue curtain and wall. Wearing elaborate, decorative outfit with puffed blue breeches, blue tights and silver shoes. There is a suit of armour on the floor and table.
Richard Sackville, 3rd Earl of Dorset, by Isaac Oliver, 1616, England. Museum no. 721-1882. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The museum's own contribution to preserving portrait miniatures slowly gained pace as gifts, bequests and purchases were added to the collection. The portrait of Richard Sackville by Isaac Oliver was bequeathed in 1882 by John Jones. In this ambitious full-length miniature, Oliver meticulously captured Sackville's clothes. A contemporary inventory lists "the rich wearing Apparrell of the right honourable Richard Earle of Dorset". These included "one paire of … hose [short breeches] of blew [blue] velvet embroidered all over with sonnes Moones and stars of gold". In the 1970s V&A conservator Jim Murrell, working closely with curators, began his innovative research into the materials and techniques of miniature painting. Studying the miniature with a microscope, Murrell identified the three different blue pigments Oliver used, reserving the most expensive, lapis lazuli, for the "paire of hose". Murrell's observations have recently been confirmed by using up-to-date raman microscopy which additionally identified a fourth blue pigment.

The museum published its first catalogue of portrait miniatures in 1908. In the same year, a major new building project to extend the galleries at South Kensington was nearing completion, prompting the government to set up a 'Committee of Re-Arrangement' to decide how to display the new galleries. The Committee also reassessed the existing collections and advised on what to collect in the future. Unexpectedly, the committee recommended that miniatures should not be at the V&A. It is likely that the museum's 1908 catalogue of miniatures had been planned for some time. Nonetheless, it served as a timely rebuttal of the Committee's recommendation.

Red leather envelope style pocket sketch book with metal clasp. Leather has been tooled in an intricate pattern.
Samuel Cooper's Pocket Book, 17th – early 18th century, probably England. Museum no. 460-1892. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This first catalogue of miniatures shows that the process of forming and understanding the collection was ongoing. For example, in 1892 the museum purchased the so-called Cooper Pocket book for £525, which contained fourteen 17th-century portraits on vellum. The catalogue noted that while these had "… been attributed to Samuel Cooper, some … were evidently executed after his death".

Four pale portrait miniatures on pale pink or yellowing backgrounds. All unfinished. Three women and one man wearing a long, curly, brown wig.
Four portrait miniatures, watercolour on vellum, by Samuel Cooper, 1660s, England. Museum nos. (left to right) 446-1892/448-1892/449-1892/454-1892. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The curators, along with outside scholars such as G.C. Williamson and J.J. Foster, were at the forefront of research into British miniatures, but none could solve this mystery. Only in 1975, when the group was broken up for framing, were two different hands identified: four works by Cooper, and nine by little known artist Susannah Penelope Rosse, daughter of Cooper's fellow miniaturist, Richard Gibson. Rosse's miniatures were a personal study of her family and neighbours in London's Covent Garden.

Grid of nine portrait miniatures depicting men and women in oval frames in hues of blue, yellow, cream, yellow and pink.
Left to right, top to bottom: Mrs Priestman; Self-portrait; Mrs Pru Philips; My father Rosse; Mrs Marinus van Vrybergen; Mr Wignall, Painter; An unknown woman; Self-portrait; Perhaps Anne Palmer, Countess of Sussex, portrait miniatures, watercolour on vellum, by Susannah-Penelope Rosse, 1680 – 5, England. Museum nos. 445-1892/447-1892/450-1892/451-1892/452-1892/453-1892/455-1892/456-1892/457-1892. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The importance of the publication of the 1908 miniatures catalogue became clear, when in 1909 an impressive collection of miniatures was left to the nation by George Salting. The V&A was in pole position to be its home, but commentators argued in the newspapers about whether miniatures were 'paintings' or 'drawings', a fact that could influence which institution should house them. Behind the scenes the directors of the V&A and another institution fired off letters to each other, arguing their case for acquisition. The matter was finally resolved by government officials and in 1910 the collection of around 125 miniatures came to the V&A.

Three portrait miniatures in oval gold frames featuring two women and a man against pale blue backgrounds
Left to right: Unknown Woman, portrait miniature, by Richard Cosway, about 1795 – 1800, England. Museum no. P.63-1910. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; James Daniell, portrait miniature, by Andrew Plimer, about 1795 – 1800, England. Museum no. P.90-1910. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Unknown Woman, portrait miniature, by George Engleheart, dated 1804, England. Museum no. P.58-1910. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Salting's collection contains many 16th-century masterpieces, such as Holbein's Anne of Cleves, along with significant 17th-century miniatures. Typical of his generation of collectors, Salting also liked the elegance and cool colouring of late 18th-century miniatures by artists such as Richard Cosway, Andrew Plimer, and George Engleheart. These were painted on ivory, which from around 1700 began to replace vellum as the support for miniature painting.

With the acquisition of the Salting Bequest, the V&A was established as the home of portrait miniatures. The V&A's first miniatures specialist was Basil Long, who had joined the museum in 1906, aged 25. Long's great contribution to the study of miniatures was A History of British Miniaturists 1520-1860, published in 1929. This was effectively a dictionary, but with critical notes of all the miniatures Long had examined during his career. After Long's death in 1938 the work of collecting and researching miniatures continued, led by successive specialist curators. Since the 1970s V&A conservators have also advanced our understanding of the materials and techniques of miniature painting, as well as developing innovative techniques to preserve and conserve these fragile objects.

Three white ivory slivers with a faint face painted on  each of them. All unfinished portraits.
Three slivers of ivory with unfinished portraits, by Samuel Finney, about 1748, England. Museum nos. E.6-2008/E.7-2008/E.1-2008. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The V&A is fortunate to still receive gifts, sometimes from an artist's family, bringing to light unknown works. In 2008 a descendent of the fashionable 18th-century miniaturist Samuel Finney brought into the museum for examination some ivory slivers, each painted with a portrait. Anxious to safeguard these vulnerable objects, the family donated them to the museum. Dating from the 1740s, these tiny paintings bring to life a passage in Finney's memoirs (now in Cheshire Archives); in which he describes how, as a disillusioned attorney, he taught himself miniature painting "[falling] greedily to Work in practising upon Ivory with Water colours in which he soon acquired skill enough to entitle him to three guineas a head". Finney's tentative works show him painting with tiny dots to control the watercolour on the slippery ivory surface.

Portrait of a man in a round frame with blue background. Man wears a fur collar and gold brocade waistcoat with black and gold hat.
Unknown man, possibly Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, portrait miniature, by Lucas Horenbout, about 1532, England. Museum number E.401-2013

Collectors also generously contribute important works to the national collection of miniatures. In 2013 The Old Possum's Practical Trust, on behalf of Valerie Eliot, widow of T.S. Eliot, offered the V&A the choice of two miniatures from her collection. The museum selected one of the earliest portraits in watercolour on vellum. Painted around 1530 it is attributed to Lucas Horenbout who worked for Henry VIII. The second miniature is by Rosalba Carriera – probably the first artist to paint portrait miniatures in watercolour on ivory. Her supreme skill in working on this difficult support can be seen in her portrait of the artist Marco Ricci.

Oval portrait miniature of man with long grey wig, blue sash on right shoulder and gold coat.
Marco Ricci, portrait miniature, by Rosalba Carriera, about 1724. Museum no. E.402-2013. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Writing in the catalogue of the 1865 exhibition of miniatures, the museum's Director hoped the display might lead to an "appreciation of the value of the works which remain to us, and tend to their better preservation", adding, "for it is truly painful to see how many fine miniatures have suffered from the absence of the most ordinary protection required for works of such minute delicacy". Although the Director couldn't know it, this landmark exhibition was the first step in establishing the museum as the champion of these often overlooked paintings. For over 150 years the museum has collected, studied and shared with the public some of the most beautiful examples of this delicate art.

Background image: Elizabeth 1, by Nicholas Hilliard, about 1600. Museum no. 4404-1857. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London