The Complex World of Small Things: Part One

Conservation Department
April 4, 2016

 Musings on the materials and techniques of portrait miniatures

Contrary to popular belief, small does not equal easy: not in the world of the conservation of portrait miniatures, nor anywhere else, I imagine. The V&A, where I am a senior paper conservator, is the home to the National Collection of portrait miniatures, numbering over 2000, and what a collection it is.

A selection of European portrait miniatures from the V&A, © Victoria & Albert Museum, London
A selection of European portrait miniatures from the V&A, © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

However, the V&A is not the only museum that houses miniatures. This first posting comes to you from New York where I have just started a four-week stint at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as the successful candidate for the V&A-Metropolitan Museum of Art Exchange programme. Each year, one curator or conservator from the V&A spends one month at the Metropolitan and reciprocally a curator or conservator from the MMA spends one month at the V&A. The aim of the exchange is to:

  • provide curators and conservators with an opportunity to further develop their expertise and undertake research in their field
  • give V&A staff an opportunity to build relationships with colleagues at the MMA and to gain experience of working with another major international museum; and
  • increase communication between two internationally important museums, the MMA and the V&A

Previous exchange fellows have benefited enormously from this programme as has the V&A, and this year for the first time the exchange has been opened up to V&A and MMA conservators. Since 2002, the Friends of the V&A have generously covered the expenses of the V&A exchange participants.

What is a paper conservator doing working on miniatures, you may ask? Well, they are curious objects that can cross conservation disciplines in terms of materials (water-based pigments on vellum or ivory) but, for historical reasons, have ended up under our care. Such complex objects require particular specialist knowledge – something that takes years to build up. Resourcing issues at national museums have made succession planning for such specialist conservation skills much more problematic to ensure and maintain. But thanks to the generous funding for training in the arts and humanities field by the Clothworkers’ Foundation, I began a training programme in the conservation of portrait miniatures under the watchful eye and skillful hand of leading expert, Alan Derbyshire (Head of Paper, Book and Painting Conservation the V&A). This training, one day a week over a period of three years, is now over half way and has only just touched the surface of what is a huge subject and skill to acquire.

My proposed study whilst at the Met will involve the examination of just 19 European portrait miniatures in their collection, with a date range of c.1535 to c.1700. It’s always good to have a research question in mind as it concentrates the thought process, especially when time is limited. I’ve lost count of how many times both Alan and I said: ‘How DID they do that?!” when examining the miniatures under magnification as well as with the naked eye. The debate got even more heated once I actually attempted to paint one myself – impossible! The skills of the miniaturist are immense.

The question we have been mulling over for some time and the one I will bear in mind during their examination is whether the painting technique of miniatures in the 16th and 17th centuries reflect the use of magnification in their making as well as an awareness by an artist that the viewer themselves would need magnification to fully appreciate the artist’s skill. Asking the question is one thing, answering it is another…

About the author

Conservation Department
April 4, 2016

Victoria Button is a Senior Paper Conservator at the V&A, with an interest in Old Master prints and drawings, portrait miniatures and technical art history. Her doctorate was on the...

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Vive la clothworkers foundation for assistinng in project.

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