Amazing Miniatures: Grand Paintings on a Tiny Scale

written by Sophie | Art History, Exhibitions



It all started as some tiny illustrations in old books.

The images in medieval books such as prayer books developed into the most amazing art we now call miniatures. In the early 16th century the first proper stand-alone portrait miniatures appeared. They became quite popular with monarchs and aristocracy as little precious gifts.

The Fettercairn Jewel, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh. An jewelled and enamelled locket intended to hold a miniature inside. This is the back.

During Elizabeth I’s reign courtiers started using them as a sign of their loyalty to the queen. They could also be used in match making: a family would send a little portrait of one of the parties across. At only 4 or 5cm tall, often oval or round, they were ideally sized for post and travelling. Lovesick couples could take a portrait of his or her other half with them wherever they went. Sometimes the little portraits were worn on the body in lockets or pendants, although many of these early miniatures have now lost their original casing or frame.

Tiny Materials

The 16th and 17th century miniatures were usually painted on vellum (prepared thin animal skin, made suitable for writing or painting on) with a watercolour type paint. These little pictures were subsequently cut out and mounted onto a more rigid surface. A popular surface at the time was, funnily, playing cards. Apparently the hearts and diamonds can still be seen on the back of some of these miniatures.

Nicholas Hilliard, Self Portrait, Watercolour on vellum on playing card, 1577. 41mm diameter. V&A Museum London
Isaac Oliver, Portrait of a Young Gentleman, c. 1605, watercolour on vellum, Denver Art Museum. 5.7cm tall.

Hilliard & Oliver

Famous miniature painters include Nicholas Hilliard (c. 1537–1619) and his pupil Isaac Oliver (c. 1560–1617). Hilliard also produced large scale paintings such as the well known Pelican and Phoenix portraits of Elizabeth. Very recently a new attribution has surfaced: the spectacularly looking Rotchild portrait which I still hope to see at Waddesdon Manor before they put it into their research labs. Hilliard used a similar technique in his large paintings as in his miniatures.

The miniatures are very fragile indeed. Not only because they are over 400 years old but also because of the materials used. Paint has faded, surfaces were damaged by wear and age. Many of the faces portrayed are now anonymous. But many of the late Tudor and Jacobean portrait miniatures look very realistic, giving us a real idea of what these people looked like (something we can’t always say of the large scale portraits from the same time). Hilliard even created a rare self portrait in miniature and he also left a book on how to paint miniatures. A copy of it, hand written by an anonymous scribe a few years after Hilliard’s death is in the Edinburgh University Library, although it is not complete.

Blue Backgrounds

Hilliard’s famous blue background consists of the pigment azurite. He sometimes also used the exremely expensive ‘ultramarine’ pigment made from lapis lazuli. Besides the tiniest of brushes he used a needle to deposit tiny drops of coloured resin onto the pictures, which then resembled precious stones in jewellery. He did not draw his sitters first but dived straight in with watercolour on vellum.[wc_row]

Saumuel Cooper

Samuel Cooper, An Unknown Man, called Sir Robert Henley, Watercolour on vellum, 1659. Height: 71 mm, Width: 57 mm. V&A Museum London
Samuel Cooper, Woman Lady Leigh, Watercolour on vellum, 1648. Height: 73 mm, Width: 60 mm. V&A Museum London

Later on in the 17th century miniatures remained popular no doubt due to the impressive talents of Samual Cooper (1609–1672). He was employed by the Cromwell family and later after the Restoration became the ‘King’s Limner’ in 1663. His work is incredibly refined and subtle.

17th century miniatures at the Portland Collection, Harley Gallery, Worksop, Nottinghamshire. 

18th Century and Later

In the 18th century it became more popular to paint on ivory, although vellum, copper and paper remained popular as well.  Miniatures became even smaller in the 18th century and it was hugely popular as a genteel past time. Most miniaturists of the time had not artists’ training at all.

By the time the Royal Academy was founded in 1768 miniatures were exhibited amongst the much larger works of the academicians.  When photography took hold of the imagination of the masses in the 19th century, miniatures lost their popularity a little, although there was a brief revival in 1896 with the founding of the Royal Society of Miniature Painters.

Royal Society of Miniature Painters

The society was founded by Alyn Williams (1866-1941), a welsh miniature painter who studied at the Slade School of Art and lived in London and New York. Besides the British miniature society he also helped to establish the Miniature Painters, Sculptors and Graver’s Society of Washington in 1931. The London society became ‘Royal’ in 1904. The society is having its 121st annual exhibition right now at the Mall galleries in London (until 1 October 2017).

Royal Society of Miniature Painters, Sculptors and Gravers, Annual Exhibition 2017, Mall Galleries, London


Raoof Haghighi, Linda, Acrylic on paper, 9x7cm. Gold Memorial Bowl winner


Tom Mulliner, Up and Away, 5cm x 7cm Oils on polymin

The winner of the highest accolade this year is Raoof Haghighi, a name familiar to us as his portrait was one of my favourites in this year’s BP Portrait Award. I am very pleased for him.

Royal Society of Miniature PaintersMall GalleriesThe Mall, London SW120 September – 1 October 201710am – 5pm (1 October 10am-1pm)

Further Reading:

* My Pinterest Board of Miniature Paintings – will keep adding to it!!

* A history of miniature painting on the V&A Museum website

Information on the materials miniature painters use

Article on Samuel Cooper

Royal Society of Miniature Painters, Sculptors and Gravers

Amazing jewel case intended for a miniature: the Fettercairn Jewel

Published September 29, 2017

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  1. In this lovely feature it says that the miniature was painted on vellum, then mounted onto a pasteboard playing card. In the 16th century the vellum (which was incredibly thin) was always glued to the card first using a starch-based paste then burnished to ensure good adhesion. Only then, once the paste was dry, was it painted with a combination of transparent watercolour and more opaque bodycolour. If you painted on the vellum prior to mounting it on the card with water-based paint the vellum would cockle up and could not then be flattened out. Playing cards were used because at that time they were the right thickness and size and the backs(onto which the vellum was pasted) were plain card, unlike now.

    In the 17th century Samuel Cooper dispensed with playing cards as his backing and instead pasted his vellum each time onto "a leaf from a table-book". Tablebook leaves were made, probably for merchants, as a convenient portable writing support for use with a metalpoint, a non-messy and easily-carried writing and drawing implement. A tablebook leaf consists of a core piece of vellum, about the size of a small notebook, on either side of which has been applied a smooth coating of gesso (a paint-like mixture of calcium carbonate combined with a binder such as rabbit skin glue). The special coating of gesso was necessary to make the surface receptive to the metalpoint, otherwise it would not leave a clear mark, and coating the vellum on both sides made it more stable.

    Tablebook leaves were white, fairly rigid, and larger than playing cards and therefore provided an attractive alternative to playing cards or pasteboard for artists when making a support for miniatures, particularly larger ones. A leaf from a table-book can be seen at the V&A in room 90A with an unfinished Samuel Cooper miniature painted on it (c1662-5).The technique caught on immediately and playing cards were no longer used for backing the vellum from then on. Miniatures produced using enamel paints on metal became popular for the mid-16th century onwards, and ivory began to be popular in the early 17th century, replacing vellum entirely within a few decades even though it was very difficult to paint on. Its appeal may have been that it simply was a more prestigious material than vellum.

    I hope this is of interest! I am an art historian and I teach a course on portrait miniatures for City Lit in London.

  2. I need a picture painted about half a inch high of a lady sitting on a bomb Just Jane I am making in Silver a model of the Lancaster plane and just Jane is painted on the side ,is it possible for someone to paint on Silver

  3. I remember seeing some of Hilliard’s miniatures at the V&A and being in awe of their beauty when we visited the UK many years ago . Well worth seeing in person and much better, like all paintings, than seeing them in books or on websites. Thanks for the blog, Sophie

    1. Hi Jauncey, thanks so much! Indeed, miniatures are best seen in real life (with a magnifying glass). They are sooo intricate and beautiful.

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