Eric Knowles Eric Knowles, Antiquarian

Masterpieces in Miniature

Before the advent of photography, the well-to-do used portrait miniatures to record the images of their loved ones. They are a particular favourite of Eric Knowles.

Portrait miniatures offer a fascinating window of opportunity to connect with our past. Ever since I can remember I have always found it to be a totally mesmerising experience in being able to gaze upon the faces of men, women and children whose world we have inherited. Although the term miniature suggests a small painting, the word is actually derived from the Latin 'minium' which means 'reed lead' or 'vermilion' a popular pigment favoured by the illustrators of books and manuscripts in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Miniature portraits began to gain prominence during the early 16th century, with Hans Holbein mastering the technique and providing likeness to the court of King Henry VIII. There is some speculation that Hans Holbein was inclined to flatter his subjects. The King himself found this tendency to be true after commissioning Holbein to produce a miniature portrait of his prospective bride, Anne of Cleves, and on the strength of Holbein's efforts offered the lady his hand in marriage. Upon meeting her face to face the King was, to put it mildly, less than enthusiastic and to put it into his own words described the unfortunate number four wife as "that Flanders mare"!

The art form advanced throughout the reign of Queen Elizabeth I under the guiding hands of Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver, and continued into the troubled 17th century where the name of Samuel Cooper became pre-eminent during the turbulent years of the English Civil War. However, it is the late 18th century that provides the zenith of captivation for most collectors. The years that extend from about 1750 through to 1820 also span the reigns of Kings George II, III, and IV and this period is often referred to as the 'Golden Age' of portrait miniatures.

Mid 18th century miniatures are usually no more than 1¼" or 1½" in height and their humble size has earned them the collective title of the 'Modest School'. Miniatures of this period were considered to be fashion accessories to be worn as a locket or incorporated into a bracelet, and from about 1780 the popularity of larger images measuring up to 3½" in height began to gain momentum and eventual precedence. Although early miniatures had been painted on vellum, a thin parchment-type material made from stretched animal skin, as well as copper or even gold, it was the introduction of ivory in about 1720 that provided the most advantageous medium. The earliest ivory panels were hand-cut and measured between 3 and 4 millimetres in thickness. The introduction of machine cutting later in the century achieved a much thinner section.

When assessing any portrait miniature the importance of the artist is often the first consideration, followed by subject, condition and finally the frame. It never occurred to the vast majority of portrait miniaturists to either sign or date their works and consequently a detailed understanding of each artist's technique is demanded to identify a particular hand. Trying to determine the date of a miniature also requires a sound knowledge of fashions and hairstyles. Most 18th century subjects are featured wearing powdered wigs. The more fashion-conscious and affluent the subject, the larger and more elaborate the wig. Being a 'Big Wig' required the removal of roofs from carriages and sedan chairs and the heightening of doorframes. The 'Powder Tax' of 1795 introduced by William Pitt the Younger spelt the end of the powdered wig and when looking at portrait miniatures.

Features to look out for:

  • Grey hair suggests the 18th century.
  • Coloured hair indicates the early 19th century and later.
  • Gold frames are the most valued, especially those with a glazed back enclosing decorative hairwork, often embellished with seed pearls that together form elaborate initials or a memoriam design.
  • Similarly, gilt metal frames inset with paste jewels are equally desirable.
  • Black painted and gilt wood frames are popular.
  • Black papier-mâché frames from the mid 18th century through to the late 19th and 20th century are considered the least appealing.
  • Subjects within an oval shape are considered the most appealing, with rectangular images considered less so.
  • Men in uniform alongside pretty ladies are always popular subjects. The colour of jackets can also play a deciding factor, with scarlet preferred, green favoured and brown or black being the least popular.

Collectors are continually debating the merits of those artists whose work belongs to the 'Golden Age', but most agree that the following are unquestionably the premier names:

  • Richard Cosway - Favoured by a social élite that included the Prince of Wales and later George IV. At least one of his biographers describe him as both pompous and eccentric, with monkey-like facial characteristics. To speculate, this may well have contributed to his wife Maria, also a miniaturist and full-scale artist, having an affair with American statesman Thomas Jefferson.
  • Andrew Plimer and his brother Nathaniel - Andrew's work commands higher prices but many consider Nathaniel the better artist. Copies of Andrew's work that incorporate a full signature and date occasionally appear at auction, but they are easily identified as he never signed in full, but usually with his initials A.P.
  • George Engleheart - Also signed his efforts with his initials, although his later work often incorporated a cursive E. Thought to have been the most prolific of his contemporaries, Engleheart's female subjects often feature headbands or bonnets. Copies tend to be signed on the front, but he only ever signed in full on the reverse. Recorded to have produced 4853 miniatures.
  • John Smart - Draws the greatest attention and the highest prices paid. He also signed with his initials above the date and during his stay in India between 1785 and 1795, he adds the letter I. In India he was commissioned by several senior military figures and their wives, as well as local dignitaries.
  • Jeremiah Meyer - The greatest exponent of enamelled portraits on copper, he worked in London during the earliest years of the 18th century. His portraits of the aristocracy of the age also reflects their extravagant hairstyles which necessitated moving from the 'Modest School' to a size sometimes in excess of three inches in height in order to incorporate their high coiffures using long, sweeping brush strokes.
  • William Wood - For many years considered to be low division, but today he commands premier prices and respect. He was quite fastidious about keeping records and his fee books are in the National Art Library in the Victoria & Albert Museum. Not only does he name the sitter but also the date when started and finished, the pigments used, when delivered, who paid and how much!

As with any élite, these artists' prominence equates with expense, but what can make collecting portrait miniatures exciting are the large number of lesser-known and anonymous artists whose works are more readily affordable and who all make their contribution in opening a window to the past. Names to look out for are:

  • Richard Crosse - Known for giving complexions a slight green tinge using linear brush strokes and careful modelling. Prices vary from £200 to £2,000.
  • Frederick Buck - An Irishman whose artistic talents were matched by his business acumen. Buck is known to have followed regiments from garrison to garrison having already painted the sitters' uniforms all he had to add was their heads! His prices vary from £100 to £800.
  • Abraham Daniel and his brother Joseph painted in Bath and are now beginning to be considered desirable. The biggest problem is that their work is hard to tell apart.
  • Charles Shireff - A Scottish artist whose characters have a distinctive realism as opposed to the tendency of the age to present a stylised image.


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