The History of Miniature Portrait Painting

by Pauline Denyer Baker and Linda Orams

PDB officer

A true miniature is not just a small painting, there are rules concerning size and techniques. A miniature painting should not exceed one sixth life-size, the head in a miniature portrait should not exceed 2” (5 cms) in height to include hair and headgear, and the work should be finely executed with stippling and tiny hatching strokes with great attention to detail. The paint is applied in very fine layers to reflect the light.

Convex glass is used to protect miniatures, it is essential that the glass does not touch the surface of the painting. Due to the fact that the paint lies on the surface of ivory and ivorine and is not absorbed, the paint can be lifted off very easily.

The word miniature did not originally refer to size but is derived from the Latin word “minium” which was the red lead used in medieval illuminations. In Elizabethan times miniatures were known as ‘limnings’ and the artists who painted them were called ‘limners’. These words are based on the old English “limn”, derived from the Latin word “lumunare”. It was not until the 17th Century that they were called miniatures. Horace Walpole called miniatures “paintings in little”.

Portrait miniatures developed from the tiny paintings of medieval manuscripts. They were not meant for public display; they were portable and intimate and the first miniatures were kept in tiny wooden or ivory boxes for protection and to prevent fading. These boxes could be kept in a pouch or tied to a woman’s waist. Later they were placed in lockets and worn as jewellery. By the end of Elizabeth I’s reign it was de rigueur to wear her miniature portrait as a sign of loyalty.

The earliest surviving English miniature portraits were done by artists to the Tudor Court and among the very first sitters were Henry VIII and his wives.

Holbein the younger, Hans; Hans of Antwerp (b.c.1497); Paintings Collection;

Hans Holbein was sent by Henry to paint a portrait of Anne of Cleves in 1539.

The portrait was a flattering one and Henry is said to have fallen in love with her image. However, Anne did not last long. Once she arrived and Henry saw her in the flesh he was dissatisfied with her looks saying he thought her ‘nothing so fair as had been reported’, and although he married her, he divorced her within six months. The portrait of Anne can be seen at The Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

16th century miniature artists ground and mixed their own pigments with water and gum Arabic and used mussel shells and mother of pearl as palettes. This allowed the pigments to be seen in their purest colours and they painted on vellum (calf’s skin).

These artists were usually paid a court salary.

Lucas Hornebolte first appears in the Royal Household accounts c.September 1525 receiving the sum of 55s 6d for the month and this wage which equalled a little over £30 a year continued at this amount.

Another painter Levina Teerlinc (1510/1520 – 1576) had an annuity of £40 from the

Crown as ‘paintrix of the Tudor Court’ for the thirty years she worked in England.

Nicholas Hilliard

When Elizabeth I succeeded to the throne, Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619), was appointed Miniature Painter in her Court. He is considered to be one of the greatest masters of the genre and it was he who introduced the oval form for portraits. He wrote a book entitled ‘Treatise Concerning the Art of Limning‘ in which he said that ‘artists should wear only clothes of silk and that they should not speak or even breathe over their work to avoid sparkling a spittle’. He states that miniature painting should be practiced by ‘a gentleman’.

Many of his rules concerning the art still apply today.

Nicholas Hilliard painted his portraits of Elizabeth I in the open air to avoid any shadows falling on her face as this flattered her the most. He painted her fifteen times but was never paid. He was always promised sums of money, but Elizabeth was known for her parsimony and he rarely received all or any of the money. His reward was that of prestige rather than hard cash and he was often in financial difficulties.

However in 1591 Elizabeth paid him £400 but it wasn’t until 1599, four years before her death, that he was put on the official court payroll at £40 per annum.

Hilliard usually charged the sum of £3 for a plain miniature without any elaborate setting.

It is interesting that current members of the Royal Family continue to commission miniature portraits. The Royal Collection contains one of the largest and most comprehensive groups of miniatures in existence.

Two other Tudor miniature portrait painters were Isaac Oliver (?-1617) who was a pupil of Nicholas Hilliard and Samuel Cooper (?1608 -1672). Isaac Oliver introduced more shade into his work achieving a more natural effect; Nicholas Hilliard’s portraits were very pale skinned. Samuel Cooper is hailed by many as the greatest English miniaturist.

The Tudor portraits were painted on vellum pasted onto playing cards. A flesh-coloured wash was used as the base for the facial area and this was called a “carnation”. Then the features were applied, introducing light and shade. The paint was applied in thin layers intended to reflect the light.

Vellum was used as the base for miniature portraits until the early 1700s when an Italian artist called Rosalba Carriera began experimenting with thin sheets of ivory and by the 1720s this became the preferred medium for miniature portrait painters in England. Ivory is not porous and thin layers of colour are floated onto the surface to achieve a transparent luminous affect, especially for skin tones.

Richard Cosway’s (1742-1821) work is among that which best demonstrates this.

Other famous miniature portrait painters of this time were John Smart (1742/3-1811) and George Engleheart (1752-1829) and their work fetches many thousands of pounds today. George Engleheart is credited with painting 4,900 miniatures during his lifetime. By the end of the 1700s miniature portrait painting was at its peak.

During the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, miniature painting was one of the accomplishments to which wealthy young ladies of leisure aspired, along with fine needlework, singing and musical skills. They would paint members of their families and friends. A very large number of these works survive and can be bought for quite reasonable sums. It is unfortunate that it was not generally the custom to sign a miniature portrait so the artist cannot be identified in many of these works.

The demand for miniatures rapidly declined in 1839 with the invention of photography and the introduction of the Daguerreotype (a photograph taken by a photographic process employing an iodine-sensitized silvered plate and mercury vapour). The cost of a photograph was many times less than that of a painted portrait and for the first time ordinary people could own a reproduction of themselves. Nevertheless, it surprised many just how quickly and completely the miniature painted portrait fell out of fashion. Before this time, miniatures had always been on shown in great numbers at The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. This ceased and miniature art continues to be ignored by the RA to this day.

Many miniature painters turned to photography to maintain their livelihood at this time but there was a revival of interest in miniature painting at the end of the nineteenth century culminating in May 1896 when miniature artist, Alyn Williams formed The Society of Miniaturists in England.

Nowadays, of course, ivory cannot be used for painting miniatures. The use of elephant ivory is illegal unless it is certified pre 1947. Present day artists use a variety of artificially produced bases for their work such as ivorine and polymin. However, mammoth ivory can be used legally. This is found in the Siberian permafrost and taken from the buried tusks of mammoths.

Representing and Promoting Miniaturists and Calligraphers