David Haycock and Richard Johns reveal the art of the miniature

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David Haycock and Richard Johns reveal the art of the miniature

Re-discover a forgotten art form – the miniature – with curators David Haycock and Richard Johns, as they discuss the techniques and story behind the miniature of the Third Earl of Cumberland.

The NMM has over 200 miniature portraits in its collection. Richard Johns, curator of prints and drawings, and David Haycock, curator of 17th century imperial and maritime history, are currently preparing to put them online. We’re sitting here in front of Nicholas Hilliard’s picture of the Third Earl of Cumberland. So Richard, what is a miniature?

Well, the word miniature really can be used to describe any painting, usually small in size, that depicts its subjects in a much reduced scale. Today we most often think of miniatures as being portraits. But really a miniature could also be a landscape or even an ambitious subject from history or classical mythology.
However, curiously, the word ‘miniature’ originally referred not to the size or the scale of a painted image but to the materials and techniques that were used, and which originated in the making of medieval illuminated manuscripts.

Although we now use the word ‘miniature’ very freely to describe just about anything on a smaller scale, whether it’s a miniature railway or a miniature poodle, the term itself has a quite specific and rather different origin within the history of art.

As an art form, miniature painting was introduced into England during the 16th century by artists from Northern Europe, most famously perhaps including Hans Holbein. And it enjoys a particular prominence within the history of English art to this day, primarily because it was the first form of picture making of any kind for which English artists, including Nicholas Hilliard gained an international reputation.

As a result, later writers who were hoping to establish a strong history of English art placed a great emphasis on the likes of Hilliard. Also on artists like Isaac Oliver and Samuel Cowper, other miniaturists who also are well represented in the collection here at the museum.

It’s partly because of its early importance within the history of English art that miniature painting continued to thrive in this country throughout the 18th and well into the 19th century.

Was it difficult making them, since they’re so small?

It certainly was. Miniature painting requires a very meticulous approach as well as a great deal of patience, and perhaps a near obsessive love of detail on the part of the artist.
Fortunately we can learn quite a lot about techniques and materials involved in early miniature painting from a number of written sources that describe the various processes involved.

The process of preparing the various pigments was a very time-consuming and highly skilled business, often involving some rather unsavory techniques. For example take ultramarine, which is a very bright blue we can see in Hilliard’s portrait of the Earl of Cumberland. The pigment itself is derived from lapis lazuli, a very rare and expensive blue stone.

Now in order to extract the color in anything usable, the artist had to first bake the stone on the fire for an hour before cooling it down with his own urine, and then grinding it into a very fine powder. The same author that gave us that recipe in the early 17th century also suggested that an artist could use his own earwax to improve the consistency of his colours.

Once the colors had been prepared using various other natural materials, the painting could begin. It had to be done in a meticulously clean, well-lit studio where even the artist’s choice of clothes was of paramount importance. Because the smallest speck of dirt or even a single stray hair could ruin hours of work within an instant, miniaturists typically wore outer garments made of pure silk in order to reduce any risk of contamination.

For all of these reasons, making a miniature is a very different proposition to any other kind of picture making. Because of that, artists who worked in miniature tended to specialise in that one kind of painting.

David, can you tell us a bit more about Nicholas Hilliard and the subject of the miniature?

Yeah, as Richard said, Nicholas Hilliard was the most famous of the 17th century English miniature painters. He was the son of a Devonshire goldsmith. He spent some time as a boy in France and Geneva where he probably picked up an awareness of continental painting. He returned to London, where he became an apprentice to a London goldsmith who produced jewels for Queen Elizabeth, and he quickly entered Elizabeth’s court. They saw early on how talented and skillful he was. He spent the rest of his life basically as a court painter to Queen Elizabeth. This involved him painting lots of miniatures of Queen Elizabeth, but also of other members of the Queen’s court.

The chap who’s painted in this miniature is a man named George Clifford who’s the Third Earl of Cumberland. He’d had an interesting career in the 1580s as a privateer fighting the Spanish and the Portuguese, trying to make money for himself and for the Queen by capturing wealthy ships carrying cargoes from the New World to Spain and Portugal. He also fought on board ships during the Spanish Armada in 1588. I think that’s particularly why this painting is in the National Maritime Museum’s collection.

This painting was painted in about 1590 when Cumberland had become the Queen’s champion. As Queen’s champion his role was organising the tilts which would celebrate the accession day of the Queen, held in places like Greenwich. They were tournaments on horseback. It’s in this role with his lance and his Greenwich armor that Cumberland is presented to us here.

Who would have owned a miniature like this?

When miniatures were first introduced into the British Isles, they were really confined to the highest echelons of society. That really meant to the King or Queen and their immediate circle of courtiers. But as more and more artists learned the necessary skills, miniatures gradually became a more commercial but still exclusive and highly valued form of art.
They’re also distinctive because they’re a much more intimate form of art than other kinds of painting. A miniature encouraged a particular kind of viewing. Because of its size, one that’s closer and more intimate than a larger image. Because of this they were very well suited as personal gifts or as love tokens to be exchanged between two people.

And the ultimate portability of miniatures only adds to that intimate quality. A miniature of a loved one, for example, is a token that can be carried close to the heart at all times, often in the form of a broach or locket, and sometimes even including a lock of the subjects hair. And in a similar way many people still carry miniature portraits with them today, albeit in the form of photographs.

Hilliard’s portrait of Cumberland however is somewhat different. Not only because it’s slightly larger than some – it’s 25 centimeters high. Still relatively small, but considerably larger than most miniature portraits. But also because it shows the sitter in a relatively public guise as a champion of the joust as David was explaining.

Unusually for a miniature, this one was also reproduced as an engraving later in the 1600s, as a result of which it became known to a much larger audience. That remains true to this day. Hilliard’s portrait of the Earl of Cumberland is still one of the most widely known examples of early miniature painting. And it remains one of the great treasures of the Museum’s collection.

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