The Big Wide World of Miniatures by second year art historian Sarah Theobald

I was asked to do a Gallery Talk to members of the public on Tuesday 4th Feb on a collection of miniature paintings that are currently on show in the Barber’s Print Bay in The Beige Gallery. This exhibition, based on the theme of ‘Family Circles’, contains a wonderful range of miniature portraits mainly on loan from the Daphne Foskett Collection.  It’s a great display, including works by some well-known names such as George Engleheart and Sir William Charles Ross and featuring much-loved miniatures such as Isaac Oliver’s Henry, Prince of Wales of 1612 which became the face of the National Portrait Gallery’s 2012-13 exhibition The Lost Prince (and where the miniature took on much larger proportions on the banners).

From miniature to massive: Isaac Oliver's portrait of Henry on the National Portrait Gallery's front door

From miniature to massive: Isaac Oliver’s portrait of Henry on the National Portrait Gallery’s front door

I teamed up with the Collections Assistant at the Barber, Sarah Beattie, who introduced the collection. I then discussed the technique used for traditional miniature painting, which I know a fair bit about because I still use the same technique today for my miniature paintings.

The beautifully diverse collection of miniatures on display allowed me to effectively describe the stages of traditional miniature painting. Contrary to what might be thought, the technique itself is a lot more complicated and time consuming than just painting something in small scale. The word miniature in this case does not even derive from its size. It comes from the Latin word Minium, the name for the red lead paint used in medieval manuscripts, which is where miniature painting started. The display shows a progression of style from the miniatures on vellum through to ivory. Today ivorine or polymin is used as a substitute for ivory. Apart from the support, the technique for painting miniatures today is the same traditional method and it is not what you would expect when using watercolours. Even though it is called watercolour, the paint is not applied as a wash. The paint is actually applied using a process called ‘stippling’ and what is amazing about miniatures is that every part is made up of individual dots.

Sarah delivering her talk

Sarah delivering her talk

Miniatures are so delicate that paint cannot be applied thickly and neither can the dots be overlapped, because this would cause the paint to flake off. Colour has to be built up by filling in the gaps between the dots. The watercolour as a medium is not used as is. The paint is watered down and left to dry to thin out the pigment. Miniatures are based on colour density, not colour intensity. A great example of this can be seen in the background of Peter Oliver’s, Frederick V, Elector Palatine and King of Bohemia, 1623. Peter Oliver has used lines instead of dots, however the top of the background is lighter and where more lines have been applied, the background gets darker.

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Peter Oliver, Frederick V, Elector Palatine and King of Bohemia, 1623

Another fascinating point about miniatures is that the white seen in paintings is not paint, it is the support. Whether on vellum or ivory, miniatures are very delicate. Antique works have to be conserved carefully or they will be lost forever. You have to paint with your hand resting on a bridge over the painting because even the touch of a hand can smudge the work. This is used as an advantage to painters because anything that is applied can be taken away. Look at the image of Portrait of a Lady, called Mary Queen of Scots (1720) on display to fully appreciate this.

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Bernard Lens, Portrait of a Lady, called Mary, Queen of Scots (1720)

It is almost like Bernard Lens was painting backwards. Using this technique of lifting off the paint, to achieve a white colour, paint is taken off leaving the ivory to shine through. Only the highlights on the white are painted on using gouache (or Bodycolour). The difference can be seen in the collars of James Scouler’s two juxtaposed paintings Self Portrait and Alexander Scouler, the Artist’s Brother.

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James Scouler (1741-1812), Self Portrait Painting a Miniature, 1763

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James Scouler (1741-1812), Alexander Scouler, the Artist’s Brother, 1771

At the end of the talk some antique miniatures from my own collection were passed around and my paintings were on show with step by step pictures to illustrate the process.

This is only a dot on the surface of the process for miniature painting, there is a big wide world of miniatures out there that is not thought about in much detail. Hopefully this will help people to look closer at miniatures in the future.

Stages of miniature painting

Stages of miniature painting

The exhibition Family Circles is on at the Barber until 26th May 2014. Find out more here: http://barber.org.uk/family-circles/

If you would like to know more feel free to email Sarah at miniaturesbysarahtheobald@hotmail.com or visit www.facebook.com/miniaturesbysarahtheobald

The miniature paintings and merchandise can also be found in the Barber gift shop or commissioned via Sarah.

If you’re quick, you can catch Sarah doing a talk about another miniature at the Art History Speed Workshop on Weds 19th March at 2pm in the Barber

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