A brief introduction to portrait miniatures

Specialist Jo Langston explains why these tiny treasures are the ideal category for collectors seeking to build an art collection that not only spans centuries, but also encompasses some of the finest artists of their day. Illustrated with lots offered at Christie’s

What is meant by the term ‘portrait miniature’?

The term ‘miniature’ derives from the Italian miniatura, ‘manuscript illumination or small picture’, which in turn comes from the Latin miniare, ‘to paint red’. Portrait miniatures appeared on illuminated manuscripts in the 15th century, and minium — or red lead — was used to colour the capital letters.

A small group of artists including Lucas Horenbout (circa 1490-1544) and Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) adopted the techniques employed in illuminated manuscripts to produce small, independent portraits on vellum laid onto a piece of card.

Throughout the 16th and the 17th centuries in Europe these works of art were referred to as ‘limnings’. The term ‘miniature’ only entered the vernacular in the 18th century.

Where and when were they made?

Portrait miniatures first appeared in European royal courts in the 16th century, and flourished during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. By the 18th century their popularity was widespread, with leading miniature painters establishing themselves among the wealthy elite in London, Bath and Dublin. Miniatures were particularly sought after by soldiers and sailors who wanted to leave their loved ones with a likeness to cherish in their absence.

The growing appetite for larger portrait miniatures painted on ivory during the 19th century is reflected in works by Sir William Charles Ross and his contemporaries Robert Thorburn and Eduardo Moira, court painters to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

What are the key materials and styles?

Vellum: Early miniatures were usually painted in watercolour on vellum — a type of primed, translucent calf skin — laid onto a piece of card, usually a playing card, with a starch paste. This early technique was adopted by painters and artists trained to illustrate hand-written books.

Plumbago: Towards the end of the 17th century a new form of miniature emerged — the plumbago. Introduced to England by David Loggan (1634-1692) in 1658, this monochrome portrait was created using graphite on parchment or vellum. Initially plumbago drawings were prepared as the basis of an engraving. By the turn of the 18th century, however, they were being created as works of art in their own right.

Ivory: The early 18th century, which is widely considered the ‘Golden Age’ of portrait miniature painting, saw vellum replaced by ivory. While decorating the interior of ivory snuff-boxes, the Italian artist Rosalba Carriera observed that because of its luminosity ivory was a better support than vellum for the depiction of flesh tones, which creates a more matt finish. Although artists still needed to prepare ivory before paint could be applied to it, the preparation process was much less complex than that required for vellum.

As ivory became more accessible and affordable, the practice of painting on ivory was adopted outside of Italy, with British artist Bernard Lens becoming the first recorded artist in England to produce ivory portrait miniatures.

Ivory remained the most common medium for portrait miniatures until its decline towards the end of the 19th century.

Enamel: In the 18th century enamel came to be seen as a more robust alternative to ivory. The increasingly popular portrait enamels — painted on metal, usually gold or copper — were fired in a kiln and required a great level of skill and time to execute.

What were portrait miniatures made for?

In the 16th and 17th centuries portrait miniatures primarily served as diplomatic gifts; tokens of love, which were sometimes exchanged during marriage negotiations; or mementoes to commemorate births or deaths. Miniatures dating to this period often bear emblems and impresa (heraldic devices), symbolising courtly love, melancholy or pageantry.

By the 18th century miniatures were often worn as jewellery, on a gold chain around the neck, or set into a ring or bracelet. Sometimes they would contain a lock of hair sealed in the reverse. They were also mounted into objects of vertu.

Why are some portrait miniatures embellished?

Portrait miniatures were often commissioned by wealthy individuals and ornately embellished — indeed, in some instances the settings were considered more important than the portraits themselves. Settings could be made of gold and finely decorated with enamel and embellished with jewels, such as pearls and diamonds.

Who are the miniaturists to know?

Nicholas Hilliard

Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619) was a goldsmith and jeweller and one of the most famous early pioneers of portrait miniature painting. He was patronised by Queen Elizabeth I, who sometimes wore his portraits pinned to her clothing, and high-ranking members of her court.

Hilliard contributed a great deal to today’s understanding of the methods and materials used in making 16th- and 17th-century miniatures with his circa 1600 work, Treatise on the Arte of Limning.

Isaac Oliver

French-born Isaac Oliver (circa 1565-1617) learned the art of miniature painting under Hilliard. Unlike his tutor, however, Oliver experimented with light and shade and tight, effective brushwork to develop a softer style. Although Oliver remained in Hilliard’s shadow for much of his career, his appointment in 1605 as ‘Painter for the Art of Limning’ to the wife of King James I, Anne of Denmark, led to the creation of some of the finest miniatures of the 17th century.

Samuel Cooper

Samuel Cooper (1609-1672), who has been described as ‘the Van Dyck of portrait miniature painting’, favoured realism over emblems and symbols. He was commissioned by royals and high-ranking members of the court, as well as by wealthy merchants and key protagonists in the English Civil War, including Oliver Cromwell. Contemporary artists such as Thomas Flatman, Nicholas Dixon, Peter Cross and Richard Gibson adopted Cooper’s style, with the latter succeeding him as court painter to King Charles II.

Richard Cosway

In the 18th century, Richard Cosway, R.A. (1742-1821) was a key British exponent of miniature painting. He was appointed Painter to the Prince of Wales in 1775 and was commissioned to paint miniatures of many members of the royal family.

John Smart

Cosway’s great contemporary John Smart (1742-1811) capitalised on the emergence of the East India Company and from 1788 spent around 10 years in India, painting members of the Company and their families, as well as Indian princes, their families and entourages.

George Engleheart

British artist George Engleheart (1750-1829) frequently exhibited at the Royal Academy and his mature works are often characterised by large, deep eyes, cool flesh tones and flashes of opaque white.

Enamel painters

One of the earliest and most renowned enamel painters, Jean Petitot (1607-1691), trained as a goldsmith in Geneva before coming to England, where he received instruction from Van Dyck. He, in turn, taught his son Jean Petitot the Younger (1727-1801) the art of enamelling, and both were employed by King Charles I and King Louis XIV.

Henry Pierce Bone (1779-1855), John Charles Spencer, Viscount Althorp, 3rd Earl Spencer (1782-1845), as Chancellor of the Exchequer, full length in Chancellor’s robes. Sold for £51,650 on 8 July 2010 at Christie’s in London

Until the emergence of Cornish-born artist Henry Bone, R.A., Anglo-German enamel painter Christian Friedrich Zincke (1683-1767) was arguably the most prolific enamel painter of the 18th century. Bone later experimented with larger enamel portraits that were intended to be hung on the wall rather than worn about one’s person.

What happened to the practice of portrait miniature painting?

The invention of photography led to a decline in demand for the traditional portrait miniature. That said, there was a brief period during which the two disciplines co-existed in the form of overpainted photographs. These had the appearance of a miniature, but could be created more quickly and economically, and did not require the skill of a portrait painter.

How important are signatures and condition?

It’s important to note that not all portrait miniatures are signed, but those that aren’t are still considered autograph works. This means that a collector should not be put off by the absence of a signature. A signature, date and inscription, however, can help us to know more about the artist, sitter and date of execution. If a portrait miniature is undated, the hairstyle and dress worn by the sitter are useful clues in the identification process.

When it comes to condition, collectors should look out for mould. This often occurs when a miniature has been stored in a damp or humid environment. The mould appears and starts to eat away at the gum arabic (the sugary substance that is mixed with watercolour). If left untreated, the mould can spread and the condition of the miniature can deteriorate. It’s therefore important to store miniatures in a stable environment, avoiding fluctuating temperatures and conditions.

What is the market like for portrait miniatures?

The market for portrait miniatures remains strong. Collectors have always paid a premium for the very best portrait miniatures by the leading artists from the 16th to the 19th centuries.

Multiple factors will have an influence on the price of the work: whether it's by a leading artist of the day; whether the sitter is identified (historical sitters, especially royal, tend to sell better than unknown sitters); the condition of the piece; and its provenance. This trend is in keeping with other categories of collecting, where the rarest and most important pieces of top quality, by leading artists, offered fresh to the market, command the highest prices.

It’s worth noting that the prices for portrait miniatures can start as low as £100. For £5,000, for example, it’s possible to buy a signed portrait miniature by Richard Cosway of a known sitter, in good condition and nicely framed. In short, your money can go a bit farther in the field of portrait miniatures than in some other categories.

The most important thing, however, for someone starting out as a collector, is to buy what speaks to them. A portrait miniature might appeal to someone for aesthetic reasons, or it may connect to a particular period of history that is of interest to them. Whatever the reason, it's important to have a connection with the work of art itself.

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Where can I see more?

The Victoria and Albert Museum is a good starting point. The National Portrait Gallery in London also holds a considerable collection and staged Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver in 2019, which explored what these intimate images reveal about identity, society and visual culture in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

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