Elizabethan Treasures at the National Portrait Gallery
Why are we fascinated with the miniature? From dolls’ houses to micro pets, we love the idea of things that are small but impeccably formed. This is perfectly exemplified by the new show at the National Portrait Gallery, which features tiny treasure after tiny treasure.
This exhibition of Elizabethan miniatures follows the careers of Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619) and his pupil Isaac Oliver (c.1565-1617). It becomes immediately obvious that both were masters of their craft: the art of painting tiny portraits. The show opens with a set of self-portraits and images of the artists’ family members. They prove that barely a couple of inches is enough to contain as much precision, beauty and pathos as a life-sized portrait. Oliver’s depiction of his wife shows a woman with a touchingly open countenance, while Hilliard’s self-portrait shows every individual hair in his beard, and almost every thread in his expensive, black clothes.
Using the tiniest of brushes, the two artists pick out individual eyelashes, jewels, strands of lace, even crows’ feet. Often made to be carried around, loved and kept as tokens of personal devotion, these miniatures seem to contain a pageant of real life as it was (at least for the upper-classes) under Elizabeth I.
There are some famous faces here: Sir Walter Raleigh, Francis Bacon, John Donne, Robert Dudley, Elizabeth herself, and even a previously unexhibited miniature of King Henri III of France. They are all beautiful, but it’s the unknown sitters who are really exciting. In one painting, an unknown man stands against a background of flames, his shirt unbuttoned, clearly in the grips of love’s passion. In another, a middle-class citizen gazes out with a quizzical and characterful stare. A pair of matching miniatures show two little girls, aged four and five, one smiling, one serious.
The show is cleverly curated, although visitors at peak times may be frustrated that some works are set a little too closely together. It’s likely that viewers will have to queue to see some of these paintings, especially because they benefit from extended looking. Overall, however, Elizabethan Treasures is true to its title: this is a gem of an exhibition.
Featured Image: Isaac Oliver, Uknown Girl Aged Four, Unknown Girl Aged Five, 1590
Elizabethan Treasures is at the National Portrait Gallery from 21st February until 19th May 2019. For further information visit the exhibition’s website here.