Our arts contributor, Miriam al Jamil, marvels at the mastery and beauty of Elizabethan miniatures at the National Portrait Gallery.
A large exhibition of miniatures would somehow be unthinkable, so in keeping with its subject and in harmony with the scale of its exhibits, the National Portrait Gallery offers a concentrated and extraordinarily compact display of some of the most exquisite art ever produced in Britain. In three interlinked room spaces, visitors can examine miniatures, drawings, prints and medals which represent the careers of Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619) and Isaac Oliver (1565-1617). The provided magnifying glasses encourage personal engagement with the work, intimate gazing into the eyes of portrait subjects to capture a sense of their presence, and contemplation of the skill and technical mastery of the artists manifested in the meticulous rendering of lace ruffs and tendrils of hair. Through the lens we also connect with the artists themselves, who surely spent many hours bent and focused on these small portraits. As a genre of art, miniatures were always highly dependent on the materiality of their form and presentation for their emotional charge and meaning. The jewelled case that enclosed the image of the beloved; the hand that revealed and cradled it in its palm and moved the precious object in the light to catch the glimmer of encrusted ‘gems’ around the sitter’s neck were all intrinsic elements of the purpose and narrative of the miniature. Paradoxically, the access to them which we now enjoy and the necessary conditions of display in museum cases are inconsistent with their original safekeeping in small drawers of cabinets in closet rooms and the rituals of their uncovering for a privileged few. They now compete with other examples, arranged by artist, sitter or type. As familiarity, love or regret form no basis for our reactions, our close looking is unavoidably at a distance.
Hilliard and Oliver represent the finest of Elizabethan and early Jacobean miniature craftsmanship, but they worked within an established tradition of northern European production. The acknowledged masters of early Tudor court miniatures were Hans Holbein the younger, Lucas and his sister Susanna Horenbout, and Levina Teerlinc. The professional contributions of women to family workshop practice are clearly documented and this form of portraiture remained important for women artists into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but a frustrating number of anonymous painters inhabit the hinterland of miniature painting. Through the exhibition we are encouraged to discern the subtle points of style that pinpoint the hand of the artist, an exercise to train the eye which can only add value to our understanding.
Hilliard was anxious to establish miniature painting or ‘limning’ as a gentleman’s art. His comprehensive publication A Treatise concerning the Arte of limning was first published in the twentieth century, but the NPG includes the only known copy of his manuscript by an unknown scribe from 1624, after Hilliard’s original of 1600. As the wall panel notes, he emphasised the ‘cleanliness and refinement of the process’. He wrote ‘It is sweet and cleanly to use, and it is a thing apart from all other painting and drawing, and tendeth not to common men’s use.’ Limning drew on the techniques of manuscript illumination, a secular counterpart to the crackling pages of missals and prayer books with a different purpose, but a similar emphasis on private contemplation. Indeed, the word ‘miniature’ derives from ‘miniare’ or ‘minium’, the red lead used in the small illustrations decorating early manuscript codices and its meaning only later became associated primarily with small-scale images. The splendour of some surviving manuscript book bindings and the goldsmith and lapidary skills demonstrated on miniature cases have many parallels. In both, we contemplate the combined workmanship of a variety of artisanal and artistic specialities.
A preparatory display case and short video clips give us the tools to appreciate the work. The pigments, apparatus and terminology are carefully demonstrated. We find a ‘dog’s tooth burnisher’ bound to a small stick, used to rub and smooth the back of the pasteboard card (usually a playing-card) which was stuck to the vellum painting surface, and a much smaller ‘stoat’s-tooth burnisher’ for the delicate drops of gold and silver applied to give texture and three-dimensional verisimilitude to the painted gems. The name ‘carnation’ describes the foundation wash of opaque cream or pale brown on which the facial details were built. Thus the pinned carnation flower on the bodice of Alice Hilliard’s dress (Hilliard, 1578,V&A, P.2-1942), while traditionally symbolising marriage could also play on the specific terminology of her husband’s occupation. The ear of wheat on the right side of her bodice, a sign of fertility, probably suggests her own contribution to the Hilliard family. Exhibitions often incorporate a section of practical information, (most often in those at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford), but these rarely find their way into the accompanying catalogues. It is therefore useful to dwell on this introductory section which proves invaluable when moving on to view the other rooms.
Many of the mysterious symbolic mottos or ‘impresa’ which once gave meaning and force to the miniature images are now puzzling and a source of scholarly speculation. The background flames in Unknown Man (c.1600, V&A, P.5-1917) refer to burning love in an exaggerated and unmistakable if somewhat alarming symbolic reference. Powdered gold scattered over the surface glints in the light and the young man in an open shirt presents the viewer with a jewelled miniature on a chain round his neck, which we assume shows his lover. His disordered appearance declares the force of the love that consumes him and heightens the effect on the viewer. The sitter has not been identified and the artist has variously been named as Hilliard or Oliver. Other miniatures assembled alongside in the exhibition have more complex stories to tell. It has been suggested that the Unknown man Clasping a Hand from a Cloud (Hilliard, 1588, V&A, P.21-1942) clasps the hand of a male lover, a love punishable by death in the sixteenth century which meant the sitter was dependent on ambiguity, guarded codes and the discretion of the recipient of his gift. Indeed, if this interpretation has merit, the giving of this miniature was a statement of faith by the donor which literally placed his life in the hands of his lover. Privacy could also signify treason in the sixteenth century. Back-room plots and schemes marked political intrigue and a life lived privately could mark a life suspected of subverting the norms and rejecting convention. The miniature, in its portability and easy concealment, had the capacity to speak of loyalty but also of repudiation.
Hilliard and Oliver depended largely on Court patrons for their livelihood. It is therefore unsurprising to find much of the second room devoted to Elizabeth I’s iconography. In 1584 Hilliard achieved a monopoly over the Queen’s portraits in miniature through the granting of a draft though unregistered patent. The familiar face of the queen casts her haughty gaze at us from miniatures, drawings and medals. She also features on the spectacular and colourful Founding Charter of Emmanuel College, Cambridge (‘The Mildmay Charter’, c.1683-4) where she is surrounded by decorative grotesque strapwork and emblems of sovereignty. She may also appear on the attached seal. The document combines text and image, the work of the scribe and artist, the materials of parchment and wax, pigment and gold to encapsulate the materiality and collaborative nature of miniature painting which the exhibition proposes.
Hilliard dominates the first rooms, but Oliver’s work becomes more visible as we progress. Ultimately, Oliver proves to be more intriguing. His portraits are more distinctive and less predictable. The exhibition devotes space to several portraits for clients of more modest means than those at court, clients who were more likely to pay promptly, to suggest a broader context for the artists’ work. Two of the most touching examples are Oliver’s Unknown Girl Aged 4 and Unknown Girl Aged 5 (See above for image; Oliver, 1590, V&A P.145-1910 and P.146-1910). At first sight, there are few differences. The poses, direct frontal view and costumes seem the same. Yet again the discerning eye is invited to really look and compare. The hands of each child are different. One grasps a carnation, the other an apple; the eyes are distinct; the older of the two has a more intelligent and confident gaze, conscious of her pose and the reason for her sitting. The one year difference between the two girls discreetly marks a growing awareness of status and the expectations of family and society which cut short the untroubled period of childhood.
The final room space of the exhibition, differentiated by brilliant red walls, concentrates on the Stuart court and particularly on Oliver. We confront far more knowing smiles, daring décolleté and fantastic swathes of lace, embroidery and tumbling hair in his portraits of Court beauties. Lucy Harington, Countess of Bedford features in two portraits. Three years ago, Oxford University hosted a conference on her extraordinary cultural influence which included a performance of The Masque of Queens in which she had taken part on 2nd February, 1609. She was Lady of Bedchamber to Anne of Denmark throughout her life, and an art collector who competed with Thomas Howard, 14th Earl of Arundel, to secure work by famous artists. Oliver was uncompromising in his depiction of large noses, pert mouths and receding chins. His louche young melancholics and provocative courtiers in masque costumes have an appealing vulnerability, the bared breasts and headdress confections strangely out of step with the unremarkable faces resulting from Oliver’s scrutiny (See Unknown Woman in Masque Costume, 1609, V&A P.3-1942 or Unknown Woman in Masque Costume perhaps as Flora, c.1605, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, SK-A-4347). Anne of Denmark was not spared his direct observation and the unusual profile composition, probably modelled on antique medal patterns, exaggerates her nose and forehead (Anne of Denmark in Masque Costume, c.1610, The Royal Collection, RCIN 420025).
He was, however, more sympathetic to the royal Princes. Henry Prince of Wales who tragically died of typhoid fever at the age of eighteen, is shown in a large format miniature (1610-12, The Royal Collection, RCIN 420058). The youthful traces of a moustache, slightly cleft chin and hint of a ‘monobrow’ are revealed in the face of the nation’s hope, the chivalrous knight in black and gold armour. The painting includes a partially obscured military camp behind a curtain, as if the prince poses within his own tent on the battlefield, pausing only long enough for the painter to record his commanding presence. The exhibition catalogue notes that the prince chose Oliver for this commission, as ‘an artist who was set apart from his English contemporaries by his exceptional command of tonal modelling and spatial illusionism’ (p.189).
The exhibition effectively samples the range of skills and expertise at the command of two of the best known miniaturists of the Elizabethan and Jacobean period. It pays to take time over the paintings, to circle the free-standing displays which are skilfully lit to allow the gems of the miniature cases to sparkle and entice our admiration. Contributions from a range of lenders make this a compelling array of objects and encourage further exploration of the genre, using our new understanding of exactly how such intricate works were made.
Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver is at the National Portrait Gallery until 19th May. Click here to purchase tickets and for more information.