Friday 26 April 2013

THE LURE OF THE MINIATURE – curl and pearl and innocent eyes – Dianne Hofmeyr

An Unknown Woman in Masque Costume 
Isaac Oliver 
England, 1609 
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

How was a girl to get her face out there and find a suitor and kindle the flame of passion without Facebook or Social Media? Or a King for that matter… how was he to show his face to the world and be known for his greatness?

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!


Penny Dolan said...

So enjoy your visits to the London exhibitions - a vicarious but a welcome pleasure for those many miles away from the V&A and more.

michelle lovric said...

lovely post. The thing that always delights me about miniatures is the enamelly perfection of the painted skin. But you are so right about the tactile opportunities too. It seems to be human nature that we like to handle things. And that we can derive intimacy from representations of things, rendered agreeably.

adele said...

What a beautiful post! I love miniatures and LIMNING is word I'm fond of too. Used it myself in odd poems etc. Super! And thanks for the link, too.

Katherine Langrish said...

What a lovely post, Diane! I too love miniatures - one of my great-aunts was a miniaturist and we have her pieces in the family. I've tried my hand at some, too - painted miniatures of my daughters when they were small. If I had world enough and time, I should love to do more and learn to improve. They are like jewels!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Yes you're right Michelle... the skin always looks like perfection. I was sorry not to include more images... a copyright problem... some of them are truly marvellous. A gallant, with garnet crosses as ear-rings, in unbuttoned shirt holding a miniature of his beloved against his bare chest on a gold chain with flames of gold painted in the background – more informal than most! My unknown lady I'm sure was from Anne of Denmark's coterie and was probably wearing something designed by Inigo Jones (my presumption not from V&A fact).

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

If you can paint miniatures Kath you must have the eyes of a 16 yr old! Thanks for all the comments. This exhibition was part of my History Girls Anthology research! Just made the deadline!

Sue Purkiss said...

Lovely - the V&A has such good exhibitions, doesn't it?