|An Unknown Woman in Masque Costume |
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
With no click of the button, the answer might have been a Grande Tour to the courts of Europe. But this was unthinkable in the 16th and 17th century for someone of importance, when travel was still unsafe. Even Prince Regents had stooges of approximately the same age who would stand in like stunt artists and travel in place of them and bring back detailed reports, so they would know how affairs were conducted in the Spanish or French courts.
The answer to the lack of Social Media in the 16th and 17th century was in the miniature –painted and placed in the hands of a clever ambassador to be taken around the foreign courts.
In England the art was called limning coming from the Latin word luminare to illuminate or give light. The word miniature was later adopted from the Latin word miniare to colour with red lead, which became the Italian noun miniatura and then anglicised. As early as 1524 Henry VIII saw the advantage of having himself painted and Holbein became his favourite painter. Catherine Parr and Elizabeth I were both early adopters and by the time James I came to the throne, the miniature was in its heyday as a lover’s token in Court intended to kindle the flames of passion, or be given as a gift to show favour or loyalty.
What was its uniqueness?
- It had true intimacy. It had to be picked up and held close to see it, unlike a painting viewed from further away.
- It could be hidden in a pouch or worn either in a locket or on a cord around the waist or neck and kept close to the heart.
- It was often round or oval and so fitted comfortably in the hand, which made it tactile and again gave intimacy.
- Sometimes it was inscribed with tiny, almost indecipherable lettering that seemed to make the message more secretive
- The background often showed curtains, which suggested playful furtiveness.
- It was often enclosed by a lid that made it all the more enticing.
But the true art of the miniature was in the fineness of its brushstrokes and techniques. These were no ordinary paintings. They were not painted in oils but coloured pigment mixed with gum Arabic or egg white (glair). The technique was more spontaneous as the pigments dried quickly. Colour was laid down in layers. Often to illuminate the colours, silver was painted beneath the resins especially to enhance jewels. Backgrounds were often celestial blue or black to show steadfastness and to make the face stand out. I notice an absence of the colour green.
Some painters such as Nicholas Hilliard, but not Holbein, painted with the sitter in front of them. Hilliard recommended trying to catch a fleeting moment, such as a smile. Elizabeth I sat for him and engaged in long conversations about the art of painting. The two most important miniaturists of the Jacobean court were Isaac Oliver and Hilliard. Hilliard was the son of a goldsmith and was made King’s Limner. But James I hated having his portrait painted, so unlike the miniatures of Elizabeth I with her varying expressions even showing her in one by Hilliard, as the moon goddess, we get endless copies of his unchanging face.
For a fascinating insight into the technique click this video from the V&A exhibition Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars which is on until the 14th July.
One of the most fascinating of miniatures at the exhibition must be the Drake Jewel. It is depicted in a large painting with Sir Francis Drake wearing it tied around his waist and then the actual Drake Jewel itself is shown in a case alongside this painting. On the front it has a dark African face carved in onyx in profile with a pale lady in profile immediately behind... apparently quite common as onyx has layers of light and dark. It opens downwards to reveal a painted miniature of Elizabeth I and her phoenix symbol on the inside of the lid.
Magnifying glasses are provided in the exhibition for a closer view but I still wanted to hold one of the miniatures in my hand right up close and examine the minute and lovely details of curl and pearl and innocent eyes!