Precursors of the photographic family album, these
charming paintings were produced in great numbers
in the 18th and 19th centuries
Miniature painting began in the 16th century and ever since then these
small, delightful portraits have been collected and cherished.
The practice of both painting and collecting miniatures reached its peak in the late 18th century when people commissioned miniatures in order to form a kind of family portrait album; collections were usually of generations of family members.
TECHNIQUES AND MATERIALS
Miniatures were originally painted on vellum (thin layers of soft, smooth animal skin) stuck on to card.
The pigments were mixed with gum arabic and hot water to produce clear, opaque gouache which provided an exceptional brilliance of colour.
And to add extra richness, early miniatures were often decorated with gold leaf.
Oil paints were sometimes used on wood, metal or slate.
Other miniatures were produced by enamelling, while some were even painted on porcelain.
In the late 18th century, ivory took over as the very best base for a miniature portrait, despite the difficulty of obtaining it and indeed working with it (not only did it split easily but it also reacted to temperature changes and warped badly).
Ivory's popularity owed much to the work of the great Georgian miniaturist, Richard Cosway (c1742-1821).
In order to get the glowing almost luminous colours he wanted, he used very thin sheets of ivory which he
rubbed to a virtual mart finish, to take the paint properly.
His work was much imitated and ivory remained the preferred material for miniatures throughout the 19th century.
As photography became popular from the
mid 19th century, so the art of miniature painting declined; the photograph produced, after all, a cheaper, simpler and more accurate portrait.
In its heyday, however, thousands of exquisite miniature portraits were painted and a great many of these often undervalued pieces remain today for the collector.
A small collection of exquisitely painted
miniatures can cost less than a run-of-the mill Victorian or modern oil painting.
Upright oval shaped miniatures were the most popular, although the earliest ones were often round.
Later, rectangular portraits were sometimes done to fit inside small boxes.
Early miniatures such as those dating from the 16th to the mid-18th century are not only scarce
but extremely costly and are therefore beyond the reach of the average collector.
However in the last decade of the 18th
century and up to the Victorian era, miniatures were in great demand and literally thousands of them were painted.
Many examples from the miniature's
heyday are surprisingly undervalued, largely because they are un signed and the artist is
unknown or because they were painted in the style of a better known artist.
But this doesn't mean they are of
poor quality; in fact, many are charming and exquisitely painted.
Portraits by known artists, even minor ones, are among the most sought after in the cheaper range of miniatures. Those of well-known personalities, pretty women and officers in colourful uniforms also command good prices, as do children.
Portraits of elderly men, even though they may be well painted, are not as appealing and can be bought quite cheaply.
Don't consider buying cracked or damaged miniatures unless they're of particular interest or rarity; damage cannot be well repaired.
The best place to look for miniatures is in the auction rooms, where sales of miniatures are held fairly regularly. You can also go to specialist dealers where prices will be higher but not always unreasonable for 19th-century examples by unknown artists.
Today, it is still possible for the collector to build up an interesting and imaginative miniatures collection for less than the cost of a good, but modest, oil painting - but interest has grown and prices
have gone up over the last couple of years.