Portrait miniatures: personal mementos

Pair of American School folk art miniature portraits of a mother and daughter, circa 1830, 2⅛in, sold at Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates for $55,000 in November 2017. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK – Long before we carried around photos of family and friends on our phones, there were portrait miniatures. First used to decorate handwritten books in the 1500s, miniatures were then framed and, owing to their size, well suited to be carried around by people whether as tokens of worship, loyalty to a king or queen or as a cherished reminder of a loved one. Portrait miniatures were immediately popular and still are today.

Emma Rutherford, portrait miniature consultant at Philip Mould & Company in London, said miniatures are so collectible for several reasons. “Portrait miniatures are often less expensive, more variable and, because they were often painted for personal reasons, more exciting than oil portraits,” she said. “They are collectible also because they are smaller—many buyers are attracted to portrait miniatures once they have established other collections—simply because they are not so restricted by space … ironically, the word ‘miniature’ in the context of ‘portrait miniature’ does not refer to the size, but instead to the red paint called ‘minium’ used in manuscript illumination (where the portrait miniature originated).”

Samuel Cooper, ‘A Gentleman, Probably a Parliamentarian, Aged 23, Wearing Armor,’ circa 1658, watercolor on vellum with later papier-maché frame, oval, 2 5/8 inches. Photo courtesy of Philip Mould & Company

Portrait miniatures have been collected since they were first commissioned; in England, Henry VIII in the mid-1520s was an early collector, Rutherford said. Before the invention of photography in the middle of the 19th century, miniatures were the equivalent of this portable, highly personal and vividly accurate form of portrait. “During the 17th and 18th centuries they grew in popularity with more artists making their living from painting miniatures—they were commissioned to celebrate birth, marriage and death and anything in between,” she said. One of the earliest collectors of portrait miniatures was Horace Walpole (d. 1797), whose collection, including examples by Isaac and Peter Oliver, will go on exhibit at his house, Strawberry Hill, in late 2018-early 2019.

Nicholas Hilliard, ‘A Lady of the Tudor Court,’ watercolor on vellum, oval, late 16th century, 2 1/16in. Photo courtesy of Philip Mould & Company

“Like any type of collecting, collecting portrait miniatures can become addictive, with such a range of periods and types to choose from. There is also the added interest in the story behind the portrait—often simply working out who the sitter is is enough, but then it is additionally fascinating to discover the circumstances behind the commission—had the sitter just inherited a title, gained a rank in the army—or was the commission the subject of a love affair?” Rutherford said.

Charles Smith, ‘Indian Official,’ wearing fabric turban, watercolor on ivory, signed with initials ‘C.S.’ and dated 1806, oval, 4⅜in tall. Photo courtesy of Philip Mould & Company

The rarest portrait miniatures are arguably the earliest examples. “As they were often worn and exchanged, they were very active objects, and many have been lost over time—quite unlike a large oil hanging on the wall,” she said. “For these early examples, condition is of paramount importance (Victorian restorers, in particular, enjoyed adding rosy cheeks to pale Elizabethan subjects). The frame is also of importance; a period frame is often a thing of beauty and great craftsmanship. Obviously, the sitter is also a big factor in terms of desirability.”

A portrait miniature of Welby Sherman by George Richmond, circa 1827, 4¾in, fetched $41,677 in November 2015 at Matthew Barton Ltd. Photo courtesy of Matthew Barton Ltd. and LiveAuctioneers

One of the most expensive miniatures ever sold was a locket with a 2 1/8-inch portrait of George Washington by John Ramage that sold at Christie’s for $1.2 million in July 2015, more than double the previous record. This also made it the most valuable painting in the world of any kind, on a per-square-inch basis.

Portrait miniaturists were often considered somewhere between an artist and craftsman and did not always sign their works in the same way an oil painter might. “The work of individual artists can sometimes be recognized by their style of painting—a signature in itself,” Rutherford said. “Often portrait miniatures were signed on the reverse and this is not always visible—so, when Richard Cosway, an 18th-century miniaturist, signed the reverse of his miniatures, knowing they would be covered, he occasionally wrote scathing comments about the person he had painted.”

A 20-piece familial portrait miniature collection, 19th century, of members of an Italian royal family, brought $23,000 at Butterscotch Auction in November 2016. Photo courtesy of Butterscotch Auction and LiveAuctioneers

As with any field, new collectors would do well to look at as many portrait miniatures as they can in public collections, Rutherford said. The national collection of British portrait miniatures is at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum but elsewhere in the United Kingdom:  the Wallace Collection, Ashmolean Museum, Fitzwilliam Museum and the Holburne in Bath all have fine collections. In America, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection in New York City spans two centuries with nearly 600 examples by more than 150 artists.

Along with a wealth of good books on this subject, new collectors could also turn to auctions and specialist dealers to source good examples but should rely on expertise to avoid reproductions, which are often painted over transfer prints. Condition and whether a portrait is still in its original frame are important issues to consider when buying. “All new collectors make mistakes, but it is a relatively small field—no pun intended—and the outlay not so considerable that these are disastrous,” Rutherford said.

Our thanks to Emma Rutherford for sharing her expertise on portrait miniatures.