The art of painting portrait miniatures has its origin with the illuminators of medieval times, whose tiny depictions of scenes from the Bible were incorporated into manuscripts. This art form developed and expanded in sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe when a demand grew for small mementos of wives and children or deceased relatives that could be carried when travellingmmuch as we carry a photogaph of our wife or family in our wallets today. Miniature portraits played an important role in the personal relations of the upper middle-class and the nobility of the time; they were tokens of affection or love. In that respect they were similar to mourning brooches containing plaited locks of the hair of the “dearly departed” that also became common in Victorian times.

Indeed, miniature portraits came to be used by the royal courts of Europe as things approaching a currency. They were given to royal favourites by the monarch, exchanged with other Kings, Princes or Ambassadors, or created to commemorate a royal engagement or marriage. As the American periodical Scribner’s Magazine commented in 1897:

the miniature, the little picture that could be covered by a kiss or hidden in the palm of the hand had an intimate and personal quality, it was a pledge of affection, often a gauge of stolen joys; it could be carried by the exiled in never so hurried a flight, could be concealed in the lid of a comfit case

Prior to the eighteenth century, miniatures were painted in an assortment of media: oil, watercolour or sometimes enamel — but watercolour nevertheless predominated. They were also painted variously on vellum, chicken-skin or cardboard, and even on copper. During the eighteenth century, however, watercolour on ivory became the standard medium, and this continued until the miniature was gradually replaced by daguerreotypes and photography about the end of the nineteenth century. The zenith of the popularity of miniature portraits, both in Europe and North America was in mid-Victorian times.

Miniatures were usually small and oval or round. Some were as tiny as 40 mm by 30 mm. They were often enclosed in a locket or a covered “portrait box”. Indeed, the housing for the portraits was sometimes decorated with elements of death or romance such as carved initials or flowers or braided locks of hair. When used for mourning, appropriate imagery was sometimes incorporated on the reverse of the locket or frame, such as mourners at a tomb. As the genre moved into Victorian times some miniatures grew larger (up to 150 mm by 200mm) and were painted in square or rectangular form, to be displayed on walls or in cabinets. The innovative use of ivory as a “canvas” was introduced by the Italian painter Rosalba Carriera in about 1700 as it provided a luminous surface for transparent pigments such as watercolour. The ivory was cut from the elephant’s tusk in thin sheets lengthways, sometimes so thin as to be almost translucent. Ivory is, however, difficult to paint on with watercolour, being greasy and non-absorbent. Miniaturists consequently roughened the surface with fine sandpaper or powdered pumice. They also bleached it in sunlight to make it more white. Another technique was to degrease it with vinegar and garlic, or by pressing it with a hot iron between sheets of paper. Some artists used a brush with a single hair, and added gum arabic to the paint to make it stickier. Some added liquid from the gall bladder of cows or bulls to make it flow more easily. Victorian society particularly appreciated the technical difficulties of painting such small fine portraits, and that led to a finer appreciation of the particular aesthetics of the genre. Generally-speaking Victorian miniatures encompassed a lighter palette of colour, monochromatic backgrounds and brushwork that exploited the translucency of the ivory on which it was painted.

Among the best-known English miniature painters of the early nineteenth century were John Engleheart (1784 to 1862) and his uncle George Engleheart (1750 to 1829) (who kept his colours in small, specially-made round ivory boxes with screw lids. He used only ivory palettes, ivory mixing-bowls, small ivory basins in sets, and ivory brush rests), Richard Cosway (1742 to 1821), and Sir William Charles Ross (1794 to 1860). Those best known in the latter half of the nineteenth century include: Alyn Williams (1865 to 1955), Maria Eliza Burt (1841 to 1931) (she married the well-known war artist, William Simpson) and the Australian Bess Norris (1878 to 1939).

Alyn Williams founded the Society of Miniature Painters in 1896, but its name soon changed to the Royal Miniature Society (on the granting of the Royal prerogative), and later still to the Royal Society of Miniature Painters, Sculptors and Gravers.


Last modified 2 May 2010