Portrait miniatures, Little England

Three books demonstrate the revival of interest in portrait miniatures and the leading role of the Victoria and Albert Museum in this field


Appreciation of miniatures has progressed through the centuries in an almost haphazard way, just as actual study of them is a subject that has advanced at its own pace.

The current spate of publications and exhibitions suggests that there is a resurgence of interest and the three books under review provide a fascinating cross-section of the expanding literature on miniatures.

Significantly, each of the authors either had, or continues to have, a connection with the Victoria and Albert Museum, which is the home of the national collection. It is reassuring to know that those responsible for the national collection are able to set such high standards and that their scholarship is soundly based on the foremost collection in the country. Together these books stand as testimony to what John Murdoch aptly refers to as “the living tradition of departmental scholarship.”

Graham Reynolds, who is the doyen of scholars of the miniature and was a curator at the V&A from 1937 until 1974, has made a selection from the collection in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge where he is now Honorary Keeper of Miniatures. Sixty-four examples extending in date from Lucas Horenbout’s vitally important image of Henry VIII, which is “the first independent portrait miniature produced in England”, to the entertaining reprise by Charles Ricketts of a locket by Nicholas Hilliard have been chosen. The short text summarises the technical and stylistic evolution of the miniature. It is written with considerable panache and draws upon a vast knowledge of the subject.

In The portrait miniature in England Katherine Coombs has used the holdings of the national collection to write an extensive introductory history of the miniature. Clearly presented and abundantly illustrated in colour with numerous specially taken photographs (including several enlargements), Ms Coombs has skilfully succeeded in combining the familiar with the new. Even those well versed in the subject will not only find a judicious appraisal of recent scholarship, but also several fresh insights and emphases. Ms Coombs, for example, is very much alert to the physical properties of all aspects of miniatures, acknowledging in this respect the lead of the late Jim Murrell.

Furthermore, observations are made on the uncertain status of miniature painters; geographical and familial connections are traced; the changing patterns of patronage and market forces are assessed; the gender of practitioners is considered in the context of the debate concerning amateur versus professional; finally, numerous links with literature are cited. If anything, Ms Coombs herself seems to succumb too easily to the inferiority complex of miniaturists, particularly those struggling to make a living at the end of the eighteenth century under the shadow cast by Sir Joshua Reynolds. The role of copyist, the sense of “providing a service rather than aspiring to paint great art”, and the advent of photography should not detract from the contribution that miniaturists made to portraiture per se. As in all good introductions, however, Ms Coombs both informs and provokes. Her book is a most stimulating starting point and also a signpost to future research.

Seventeenth-century English miniatures in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum by John Murdoch is a milestone. It is the first detailed catalogue of any section of the national collection and is based on extensive research undertaken mainly between 1974 and 1982, well before the compiler left the museum to become director of the Courtauld Institute Galleries. Mr Murdoch warmly acknowledges the tradition in which he works extending from Basil Long (1881-1937), who was the founder of the modern study of miniatures, through Carl Winter to Graham Reynolds and Jim Murrell.

Mr Murdoch’s catalogue includes major groups of miniatures by Peter Oliver, John Hoskins, David des Granges, Samuel Cooper (a supreme exponent with the European reputation), Richard Gibson, Thomas Flatman (also a lawyer and poet), Susannah-Penelope Rosse, Nicholas Dixon and Peter Cross. The text and layout are of the highest standards. The emphasis is very much on “the physical nature of the work of art” so that there are close descriptions of the constituent elements, including the frame, and the condition of each miniature, as well as the usual critical apparatus of a scholarly catalogue.

Two other aspects of Mr Murdoch’s approach should be mentioned: first, his conviction that it is difficult “to understand the origins and development of painting in England without studying miniatures”, and, second, the significance of the images as portraits both in an official as well as private sense. It is axiomatic, therefore, that the biographies of the artists and the sitters are the subject of just as much careful deliberation as issues of attribution and provenance.

In short, Mr Murdoch does as much for the study of miniatures as Sir Martin Davies did for the study of Old Master paintings when he revolutionised the art of cataloguing at the National Gallery during the late 1940s, 50s and 60s. It is to be hoped that further volumes in the series planned by the V&A will soon follow and that at the same time every attempt will be made to improve the existing installation of miniatures at South Kensington.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Little England'