Portrait miniatures

Room 90a

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A unique art form with its own demanding techniques, highly skilled painters and intriguing social history, the portrait miniature flourished in Britain and across Europe for nearly 400 years. These small, portable portraits were often invested with great symbolism or significance, both politically and personally – painted to be held and viewed closely, and to be presented as tokens of loyalty, friendship or love. The V&A holds the national collection of British portrait miniatures and foreign examples have been acquired to provide a wider context.

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The art of painting tiny portraits to wear as a jewel or carry in a pocket first developed in the 1520s. This exquisite medium developed from the art of painting illuminated manuscripts, and artists similarly worked in watercolour on vellum. In England, Hans Holbein's miniatures for Henry VIII and Nicholas Hilliard's of Elizabeth I and her courtiers established a taste for these portable portraits. The fashion continued through the 17th century encouraged by artists such as the internationally renowned Samuel Cooper. In the early 18th century miniaturists began to paint on ivory, developing new skills to work in watercolour on this difficult water-resistant support. Not until the advent of photography in 1839 was another portrait art to be so intimately bound up with people's lives.

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Background image: Anne of Cleves, portrait miniature in ivory box, by Hans Holbein, 1539. Museum no. P.153-1910. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London