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The Portrait as a Gift

Thu Dec 10, 2015

By Emma Rutherford

Virtually all portrait miniatures were originally conceived as gifts, their size reflecting the often personal nature of such an exchange. It is fascinating to note that some of the earliest documented miniatures were presented to Elizabeth I as New Year’s gifts by her ‘gentlewoman’, a female artist called Levina Teerlinc (c.1510/20-1576), listed between 1559 and 1576 [fig.1]. At this time, gifts were not exchanged on Christmas day but rather on the 1st January, even though the legal New Year began in March. Elizabeth I was not the first monarch to receive a miniature as a gift – her father, Henry VIII sent miniatures of himself to the French court to be received by his sister Mary, Queen Consort of France.

Attributed to Levina Teerlinc, Portrait of a Lady, c.1556

Fig.1 Attributed to Levina Teerlinc (ca.1510-1576), Portrait of a Lady, possibly Lady Dacre, c.1556, Private Collection ©Philip Mould Ltd

During the early development of the portrait miniature, they were often set into exquisite jewelled settings with the portrait itself, painted in watercolour on vellum, forming the centrepiece. The artist Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619), who himself trained as a goldsmith, understood the relationship between miniatures and their settings and set the standard for miniatures worn as jewels. In 2008, for the exhibition ‘Secret Faces’, the Philip Mould gallery borrowed the ‘Gresley Jewel’ [fig.2]. It contained two portrait miniatures of Sir Thomas Gresley and his bride Catherine Walsingham painted by Hilliard, positioned so that when the locket closed, they would face each other in perpetuity.

Nicholas Hilliard, The Gresley Jewel, c.1574

Fig.2 Nicholas Hilliard (c.1547-1619), The Gresley Jewel, featuring portraits of Sir Thomas Gresley and his wife Katherine Walsingham, c.1574, Private Collection © Philip Mould & Co.

Fig.3 George Engleheart (1750-1829), Portrait of a Lady, c.1780, Private Collection © Philip Mould & Co.

In the eighteenth century, most miniatures were worn on the body – at the wrist, waist or neck. Men often concealed portraits of wives (or, more often, mistresses) in cases that resembled pocket watches [fig.3]. Queen Charlotte wore a bracelet of her husband to be, George III, on their wedding day in 1761, a practice emulated by Archduchess Maria Amalia of Austria (1746-1804), in a portrait [fig.4] by Johann Zoffany with her husband, Ferdinand I, Duke of Parma (1751-1802), despite the fact that the couple were famously estranged.

Fig.4 Johan Zoffany (1733-1810), Archduchess Maria Amalia of Austria, Duchess of Parma (1746-1804), previously with Philip Mould & Co. ©Philip Mould & Co.

The most popular time to gift a miniature was at the point of betrothment. During this exchange, the miniature becomes a gift of promise – but such portraits also played a practical function. Royal brides and grooms were often not even in the same country when a betrothal was arranged and images of both parties could be speedily obtained from a miniaturist. Watercolour, the established medium of the portrait miniature, took far less time to dry than oil paint. In addition, a small miniature was easily transportable compared to a bulky panel portrait. This trusted method of procuring a likeness was not without its pitfalls. Henry VIII dispatched Holbein, his trusted miniaturist, to capture the likeness of Anne of Cleves prior to making a decision on the possibility of a match between them. Anecdotally, it is said, Holbein’s portrait persuaded Henry to go ahead with the betrothal, only to find that in person Anne did not match up to her painted image.

The setting of miniatures also occupied a practical function when exchanged during an engagement. When natural hair was covered with fashionable wigs and powder during the second half of the eighteenth century, the reverse of a miniature would often contain a lock of the sitter’s hair, revealing the true colour.

Lost Art of Hairwork ©Philip Mould & Co.

Given that portrait miniatures were often commissioned and given to mark the most momentous moments in a person’s life – marriage, birth and death – they frequently hold a significant emotional resonance that goes far beyond a simple likeness. It is not often possible to discover for whom a portrait miniature was originally intended, but this mystery only adds allure to this most secretive of portrait types.

To view portrait miniatures currently available at Philip Mould & Co., click here.