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‘Your Painted Counterfeit’ ; The framing of Portrait Miniatures in the Elizabethan and Jacobean Court

Thu Jun 15, 2017

By William Aslet

This miniature [fig1.], currently on sale at Philip Mould & Co., shows an English gentlewoman around the year 1615. Probably painted by a pupil or close associate of the foremost miniaturist of the Elizabethan and Jacobean age, Nicholas Hilliard (c.1547-1619) – it was once attributed to his son, one of the artist’s only three known pupils – it represents an important transitional moment in the history of the English miniature.

One of the most notable aspects of this miniature, or limning in seventeenth-century parlance, is the fact that it survives in its original turned ivory frame. This frame betrays much about its intended purpose. As images that were so small that they could be held in the palm of one’s hand, miniatures provided intimate likenesses of the sitters that they represented. As such, they could serve many functions: as courting devices; in royal circles as diplomatic gifts and tokens of loyalty; or simply as mementoes of loved-ones who were absent either through travel or death.

Fig.1. Portrait miniature of a Lady, wearing black bodice over white-sleeved gown, a diaphanous fichu decorated with black and white rosettes, white ruff and cap decorated with lace and flowers and trimmed with gold lace over her dark hair; blue background with gold border, c.1615, English School

This variety of purpose was reflected in the multiplicity of framing types. Not intended for display but rather for personal contemplation, an ivory roundel such as this, whilst of significant material value, was deliberately un-ostentatious in keeping the intense privacy of its intended function. Frames of this type were enclosed by a delicately-turned ivory lid; this would serve both to protect the precious watercolour image inside from damage caused by exposure, and, crucially, to fulfil a ritual function by allowing the portrait’s owner carefully to limit the viewership of the likeness.

This was true of images that were commissioned by private and royal patrons alike. In an age at which the privacy of the monarch was a very public affair, the genre could be used as a pointed means of displaying royal favour. An account of a visit that was made by Sir James Melville, ambassador to Mary, Queen of Scots, to Queen Elizabeth I in 1564 vividly exemplifies this. In a letter, Melville recounts being taken through the rooms of the palace, each door leading to a chamber more intimate than the last, until he arrived in the most private room of all: the royal bedchamber. Here, Elizabeth ceremonially displayed her miniatures to the ambassador. Significantly, they were not ornately framed, but were instead ‘wrapt within paper’, the names of the sitters labelled in Elizabeth’s own hand. By describing the portrait that she chose to show the ambassador as that of her ‘Lord’, Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester – despite the fact that she famously never married - Elizabeth impressed on her visitor the close emotional proximity with which she kept her favourites.

The most spectacular surviving case of this kind is that of Holbein’s miniature of Anne of Cleves now in the V&A [P.153:1, 2-1910]. Its lid a minutely-detail Tudor Rose, it was almost certainly executed by German craftsmen at the end of the sixteenth century as the level of craftsmanship required was simply beyond that of contemporary English artisans. This duality of purpose between intimacy and display is best demonstrated in another category of frame: that of the jewel type. These astonishing examples of the goldsmith’s craft could sometimes be as impressive as the delicate image that they contained. Images such as the so-called Drake Jewel, given to Sir Francis Drake, one of England’s greatest seamen, in 1586-7 in reward for his daring explorations of the New World, could be bestowed by the monarch as a show of favour akin to that of the chivalric token. Their elaborate covers often worked along with the image inside to provide an allegorical commentary, such as is the case with the Heneage Jewel of 1595 (also in the V&A [ M.81-1935]), in which a portrait of Elizabeth is covered by a jewel-encrusted image of Noah’s Ark, a comment on her good stewardship of the nation through the troubles of the Spanish Armada. The Gresley Jewel (Private Collection) [fig.2], which was displayed at the Philip Mould gallery at the Secret Faces exhibition of 2008, is also arguably more impressive than the portraits contained within. Nicholas Hilliard may well have deployed his training as a goldsmith to design covers of this kind himself.

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Fig.2. The Gresley Jewel, featuring portraits of Sir Thomas Gresley and his wife Katherine Walsingham, c.1574, Private Collection ©Philip Mould & Co.

An essential feature of these jewels was the fact that they could be worn, allowing the wearer to display loyalty or, in the case of likenesses of the monarch, royal preference. As tokens of those who were absent, miniatures of this kind appear frequently in portraiture. The earliest known instance of this (and of a miniature worn as jewellery) is in a portrait miniature of Lady Catherine Grey, sister of Lady Jane Grey now in the collection of the Duke of Rutland at Belvoir Castle and attributed to Levina Teerlinc (c.1510-76). Here Lady Jane is shown wearing a miniature of her husband, the father of her son, Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, whom she holds in her arms. The miniature epitomises the delicate balance between intimacy and display. Seymour’s clandestine marriage to Lady Catherine, who was of royal blood, had enraged Elizabeth who imprisoned both husband and wife in the Tower of London. Although contact between the two was not cut off entirely during their imprisonment – the couple’s son, also named Edward, was conceived in the Tower – it was upon their release, with a permanent separation between husband and wife being enforced by Elizabeth after the birth of their second child. Thus, for Lady Catherine to be shown wearing a miniature of her husband in this way served, first, to incorporate the absent husband into the picture and, secondly, as a bold proclamation of loyalty in the face of royal constraints.

To view early portrait miniatures currently for sale at Philip Mould & Co., click here.