Grayson Perry or Nicholas Hilliard? Could this be the start of a new trend in contemporary Portrait Miniatures? By Ellie Smith

January 31, 2020

‘Our sense of ourselves feels constant but our identity is an ongoing performance that is changed and adapted by our experiences and circumstances.’ – Grayson Perry, 2014

 The recent opening of British icon, Grayson Perry’s latest exhibition at the Holburne Museum, Grayson Perry: The Pre-Therapy Years, offers an emotive insight into the transition and development of his style. Notions of identity and self-reflection are examined in depth in a remarkably intimate manner which has prompted us to explore the trajectory of Perry’s oeuvre and examine the artist’s relationship with ‘identity’ in our current socio-political climate.

 A wonderful example of Perry’s commentary on contemporary popular culture is his portrayal of former X Factor contestant, Rylan Clarke. Clarke is now a British television personality, voice-over narrator, singer and model and his extensive social media following and fan-base is a testament to his far-reaching media presence.

 Interestingly, Perry has chosen to portray Clarke in one of the most intimate forms of portraiture, the portrait miniature. Perry’s modern miniature is painted in the manner of miniaturist / limner, Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619), court painter to Elizabeth I and later James I / VI. The status of the portrait miniature in Elizabethan England was ostensibly that of a private image. As part of a complex world ruled by courtly conventions they were used as a form of communication; their use controlled by their owner. To this end, portrait miniatures, or limnings as they were then known, were imbued with a sense of personal significance unique to both owner and recipient.

 Perry’s portrait of Clarke initiates a conversation regarding an individual’s private concept of their own identity and how that may be affected or changed within the public domain. The privacy and intimacy epitomised by the portrait miniature offers an opposition to the public consumption of widely disseminated celebrity culture. Perry succinctly states; ‘The miniature implies a lost intimacy…’. And yet miniatures can also be thought of as a pre-photography form of self-promotion; akin, perhaps, to the modern-day ‘selfie’.

 Scholar Mary Edmond postulates that, ‘Elizabethan miniatures, and above all those of Hilliard, were often pregnant with hidden meaning – colours, pose, inscriptions, jewels and other accessories probably spoke their full message only to artist and sitter, or sitter and beloved, and they have provoked lively and continuing debate.’ Whilst Hilliard implemented certain iconography to offer intimate communication between his sitter and the intended viewer, Perry employs similar techniques as a catalyst to provoke public debate. Perry himself highlights the size of the miniature as a significant artistic tool, alongside the glazed surface which ‘echoes the smart phone screen [the] natural home of the 21st century celebrity portrait.’ Perry here acts as a mediator between art historical tradition and a contemporary audience, demonstrating a vast change in the public consumption of portraiture and the essential role of identity in our society, over the last 500 years.

 ‘For most of us, most of the time our identity works for us, so we do not question it. But when it does not feel right, or is under threat, then we are suddenly made very aware of how central and vital our identity is.’ – Grayson Perry, 2014




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500 Years of British Art