Tudor and Jacobean miniatures at the NPG

May 23 2018

Image of Tudor and Jacobean miniatures at the NPG

Picture: NPG

Excellent news - the National Portrait Gallery in London is mounting the first major exhibition in decades on Tudor and Jacobean miniatures. The portrait miniature is one of the few areas in which Britain can genuinely claim to have contributed to the evolution of art history. And it all started in the Tudor and Jacobean era. Says the NPG press release:

Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver, 21 February - 19 May 2019, is the first major exhibition on Tudor and Jacobean portrait miniatures in the UK for over 35 years. The exhibition will bring together key works from the National Portrait Gallery and major loans from public and private collections, including miniatures that haven’t been seen in public in the UK since the early 1980s, to showcase the careers of the most skilled artists of the period, Nicholas Hilliard (1547? – 1619) and French born Isaac Oliver (c.1565 – 1617).

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, miniature painting was regarded as an art form at which the English excelled above all others, and Hilliard and Oliver gained international fame and admiration. The exhibition will explore what these exquisite images reveal about identity, society and visual culture in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Termed ‘limnings’ at the time, with their roots in manuscript illumination, miniatures were prized by monarchs, courtiers and the rising middle classes as a means of demonstrating favour, showing loyalty and expressing close relationships. They could be set into ornate jewelled cases and worn around the neck, pinned to clothing or secretly concealed as part of elaborate processes of friendship, love, patronage and diplomacy.

Described by Hilliard as ‘a thing apart from all other painting or drawing’, miniature painting was regarded as a particularly refined and expressive art form, capturing, in the words of Hilliard, ‘these lovely graces, witty smilings, and these stolen glances which suddenly like lightning pass’, as well as the rich and elaborate costumes and jewellery of the time. These tiny portraits, many in exceptional condition, bring their sitters before us, four hundred years after they were painted, with astonishing freshness and vivacity. In the words of a later commentator, ‘The art of the master and the imitation of nature are so great ... that the largest magnifying glass only calls out new beauties.’

Catharine MacLeod, Senior Curator of Seventeenth-Century Portraits and Curator of Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver says: “I am thrilled to be able to bring together the miniature masterpieces of Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver in this major new exhibition. In addition to exploring the exquisite technique of the artists, portrait miniatures from this period express in a unique way many of the most distinctive and fascinating aspects of court life in this period: ostentatious secrecy, games of courtly love, arcane symbolism, a love of intricacy and decoration.”

If you can't wait till next February to see these early miniatures, then there's always the excellent galleries of portrait miniatures at the V&A, one of the wonders of British museums.

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