Before we look at the miniatures we must stop for a few moments at the case of illuminations on vellum (Gallery X, Case A) for this was the earliest form of miniature art. In the long ago, as far back as the sixth century, and earlier, the monks would be occupied decorating the holy books with minute and curious designs. They would put all their skill into illuminating the initial letters and working out elaborate borders for the pages of the missals and Books of Hours. When you look at some of these illuminations, and see the quaint little figures, the childish conceptions of the old monks, you will recognise in the delicacy of the painting that it is the very beginning of miniature art. In the thirteenth century they began to draw figures that represented human beings instead of wooden dolls. From that time they studied more and more, until they became so perfect they would introduce portraits on the illuminated page ; and gradually portraits came to be painted for themselves alone. In fact, after Henry VIII had abolished the monasteries there was no more of the missal work to be done.
A curious illumination on vellum (54) shows us two angel-mermaids : it is a quaint picture. They are holding up a tablet on which is written ` Jesus.’ In the early days of Christianity the symbol was a fish, and no doubt this illumination had some mystic significance at the time it was painted. Now one is fascinated by the mermaid angels as one would be by some freak.
There are many illuminations here to Boethius’s great work on philosophy ` De Consolatione.’ If I tell you a word or two about the book you will better understand the symbolism of the illustrations. It is written as a dialogue between Boethius and the spirit of philosophy. Boethius keeps asking question after question. He wants to get at the right of things. Philosophy teaches how all things earthly change and decay, but virtue alone remains unchangeable. In the illuminated pages to the ` De Consolatione’ you see Boethius talking to Philosophy (6o), arguing with Philosophy (63) : you have the wheel, the emblem of the endless change of fortune.
In the reign of King Henry VIII Holbein came to England from Germany. He was a great artist, and a fine miniature painter. Holbein often painted his royal master, Henry VIII. His skill as a flattering painter has a tragic-comic side to it. Henry was shown a miniature of Anne of Cleves by Holbein, and he fell in love with the beautiful face. He immediately made arrangements to marry her, but when his bride came to England he was bitterly disappointed, and called her, very ungallantly, a Flemish Mare instead of a Venus.’ Henry, as you know, soon divorced her ; he had set his affections on Catherine Howard.
In spite of the unfortunate accident in the case of Anne of Cleves, miniature painters throughout all time have idealized the people who sat to them. From the portraits we see here we should judge that all men were noble in their bearing, all women beautiful, and that, as a race, we have gone off very much since then. But we must remember the story of Henry’s fourth queen and hope on.
Let us look at Holbein’s miniature (93) in gallery XI. It is a portrait of himself, and was painted in the year he died. He was forty-five years old. It is wonderful to see how in such a minute painting he could give strength and dignity to the face.
We will pass on to look at a miniature of Sir Richard Leveson (105), Vice-Admiral of England in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, by Isaac Oliver, one of the finest miniature painters. If you look into it carefully you will notice how exquisitely he paints the texture of the clothes, every detail is put in with skill, and yet with it all he does not lose sight of the character of his sitter.
Let us now look at a miniature of the gay monarch Charles II (8o), by Samuel Cooper, who has been called the Van Dyck of miniature painting. In Oliver’s miniatures you will see the face is in full light, Cooper represented the effect of light and shade, and he concentrated his attention on painting the face, not troubling himself much with the dress which Oliver studied so carefully. Look at the wig, every hair seems to be painted in it.
We can compare Charles’s gaiety with – the seriousness of the Lord Protector in the next portrait (81) by Christian Richter, a Swedish painter, and we can realise how finely the head stands out, how much character there is in the face when the dress is quite simple. We are not distracted from it by thinking of lace collars and velvet coats.
Another portrait of Charles II (82) is by Thomas Flatman, painter, poet, and man of law. He painted Charles with loving care, for he looked upon him as king by right divine. Through all the troublous times of the Commonwealth he adhered to the cause of the Stuarts.
The ill-starred house of Stuart, so far as the miniatures is concerned, comes to an end with Prince James Stuart (the ` Old Pretender’), son of James II (115), an unsigned portrait probably painted in France.
We must look at the great English admiral of the Commonwealth, Robert Blake (122), who won the victories over the Dutch. He lived on the sea and died at sea whilst praying :
` Only to look once more on the land of the memories of childhood,
Forgetting weary winds and barren foam ; Only to bid farewell to the combe, and the orchard, and the moorland,
And sleep at last among the fields of home.’
Now let us cross over to the fair land of France and study some of her queens and kings. Here is Louis XV in his youth (76), by Moreau le Jeune. It is a selfish face. And here as a pendant to it, by the same artist, is his wife Marie Leczinska (86), that unhappy woman who counted for so little in the life of her husband. Here is the all-powerful Madame de Pompadour (89), the king’s favourite of whom I have told you in the chapter on the French painters. It is by Boucher, who adored her, to whom she was both pupil and patron. It is interesting to look at this miniature and think of the large scale on which Boucher usually worked. It must have been a special effort on his part for the bewitching Marquise.
Then, as we still think of the history of France, we look out for Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. He is here as a young man in a fine miniature by Sicardi (84). It was painted in 1782, a dozen years before he was condemned to death and guillotined. It is a curious reflection, as we look at him in his splendour, to think of that royal body being thrown into a lime pit, as if he had been a dead horse. Here is Marie Antoinette (85) sitting at a table. All portraits make her beautiful. Here too is their poor little son the Dauphin, Louis XVII (197), by Dumont. The Dauphin was only eight when his father died. He was then sent to live with a cruel shoe-maker, who, it is believed, had him poisoned.
Another of the royal victims of the Revolution, Madame Elisabeth, sister of Louis XVI, is represented in a miniature by Charlier (132). She met her fate without fear, and this delicate-looking woman did not flinch before the revolutionary tribunal. Charlier has been called the Boucher of miniature art. He sees all the grace, beauty, and unreality in his sitters that Boucher shows us in his pictures.
Let us journey to Russia and look at the portrait of one of the all-powerful monarchs of that time ` Catherine II,’ the Empress of all the Russias (13o). It is by ` Gôstl.’ She was a woman of great contrasts, good and bad. She did not hesitate to arrange for the murder of her husband when she had had enough of him. And yet, though she waded through slaughter to the throne, when she got there she used her power for the good of the people. She founded schools, she encouraged public works, and, what is most curious of allfor she had such a cruel natureshe abolished the awful tortures that used to be inflicted on Russian criminals. She has a strong face, and was a woman of great ability, but with a dark side to her nature.
Now we must cross to England again and have a look at Cosway’s miniatures. He is pre-eminent in this art. He represented the eighteenth century in England as Boucher did in Franceits grace, its distinction, its artificiality. His father was a school-master at Tiverton in Devonshire. From his boyhood his son Richard longed to study art. It seemed impossible, for his father was not well off. But one of his uncles, a wealthy man, recognised the boy’s talent and sent him up to London. Cosway joined Mr. Shipley’s studio in the Strand. We are told of Cosway’s untidiness in dress, of his quaint little figure going in and out among the other students, on whom he waited, bringing them their tea and coffee. This may mean only that, being the youngest, he had to do the fagging for the rest of the studio. Anyway his companions liked him, though they could not quite make him out. When he grew older, instead of going about looking as shabby as he could, he went to the opposite extreme and became a dandy. He was a well-known figure about the town in his plum-coloured silk dress, powdered wig, and three-cornered hat. Fortune and fashion came to him after he had painted ` Mrs. Fitzherbert’ (153). George IV was so delighted with the miniature that he came himself to Cosway’s studio, and when the King leads the way you know what happens. Cosway certainly idealised his sitters. In their fragile loveliness, in their delight-fully fluffy garments, they seem hardly to belong to this earth. We have here ` The Princess de Tarante’ (152), a beautiful woman. You can see how delicately Cosway paints the hairthis was one of the points in which he excelled. The Princess had been lady-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette. She saved herself from the fate of her royal mistress by escaping to England. Cosway painted her during that visit, when her thoughts must have been full of the bloody scenes that were being enacted in France.
Let us cross the Channel again to look at the miniatures of the Napoleonic period and the Restoration. We have just had our thoughts turned to the French Revolution, now it is Bonaparte that claims our notice.
Jean Baptiste Isabey was the painter of many of these miniatures. He was born in 1767, his parents were peasants. His father, however, meant to give him every chance, and in order to do this took a small shop and worked hard, saving every penny. By the time Isabey was old enough, his father had put by enough to send him to the studio of a painter, but the boy’s ambition was to become the pupil of the great French painter David. When he had achieved this, instead of coming every day to the studio he often stopped away. David after a time began to complain of the young man’s frequent holidays. The truth was that Isabey was so dreadfully poor that he had to earn his board and lodging by painting on snuff boxes and buttons, and selling them to the dealers. This took up a great deal of his time. David began to make enquiries about his pupil and found out he was badly off, and was doing his best to keep himself. The master at once generously helped him. Isabey’s first important commission was to copy a portrait for Marie Antoinette.
During the stirring times of the Revolution he remained in France, wandering about the country and painting portraits of men and women destined a short time after to be victims of the guillotine.
Isabey had great qualities as a miniature painter, there was character in his faces, though to most of his sitters, especially to women, he gave dreamy eyes. Here is Napoleon (213), and here is his first wife, the unfortunate Josephine (223). Here is his second wife, Marie Louise (215), hanging next to her father, Francis I, Emperor of Austria (216) . This latter portrait has an inscription on the back that gives us Napoleon’s unflattering reference to his father-in-law as ‘ a blockhead.’ I want you to look at one more portrait of Napoleon (232) , in which he is wearing the golden laurels of victory. He was at the height of his power when this was painted. His soaring ambition is symbolised by the Roman eagles in the framethe emblem of the Imperial house. Here, too, is his only child, the little King of Rome with his mother (211). It was painted in 1815, during Napoleon’s exile at Elba. Napoleon on his return from Elba sent for Isabey and asked :
Do you bring me news of my son ? I know you took his portrait at Vienna, I want to see it.
It must be more beautiful than the one you took of him at Fontainebleau.’ Isabey handed him a miniature,
Have it engraved at once,’ said Napoleon, put beneath it ” Le Roi de Rome ” and the arms of the Emperor.’
The boy was only four at the time ; he did not live to fulfil the hopes that were bound up in him, for he died of consumption when he was one and twenty.
If you want to see Napoleon’s brothers and sisters they are here. They were all part of his scheme for having Europe under his control. He bestowed kingdoms on them like a prince in a fairy tale. Here are his two sisters ` Caroline, Queen of Naples,’ by Gérard (220), and ` Pauline, Princess Borghese,’ by Aubry (230) , his brothers, Louis Napoleon, King of Holland, by Daniel Saint (227) ; and Jérôme, King of Westphalia, by Augustin (203), both destined to be exiled from France after Waterloo.
I would like to say something of Augustin who was court painter and enameller to Louis XVIII, and who also tells in his miniatures the moving story of that day, but I have not time to do more than ask you to observe his draperies which are very beautifully finished.
Isabey has a portrait of Louis XVIII (246) painted when he was ruling over France during Napoleon’s exile at Elba. Louis XVIII was nominally King of France during the time of the Revolution. He came into his own again when Napoleon was banished to Elba, and again, after the defeat of Waterloo had sent the Emperor to pine his life away in a lonelier retreat in the Isle of St. Helena.
I wish there were time to tell of the chequered reign of Louis Philippe, King of the French (290), who was known in Revolutionary times as Philippe Egalité, and who ended his days in exile in England. Madame de Staël, too (292), whose salon was the resort of the eminent men of her day I must only refer to. She was an exile from France for many years. With the Empress Eugénie (320), who is still living, we come to our own day. She is the wife of Napoleon III and has had the varied fortunes of those who rule over the destinies of France. She had to fly for her life after the Franco-Prussian war.
There are some beautiful enamels by Henry Bone (1755-1834). An enamel is a painting on copper or gold which has been specially prepared. In looking at it you must remember that only certain colours can be used, as many colours will not stand the extreme heat to which the enamel is subjected. Sometimes it will have to be fired fifteen or twenty times. One of the great difficulties in enamel painting is that there can be no mistakes of any kind, for the colour cannot be painted out or taken off. You should look at `Lady Cockburn and her Children’ (Gallery I, 2), which is after the picture by Sir Joshua Reynolds which used to be in the National Gallery. It is delicately wrought and of brilliant and transparent colour. Notice all the varied tints in the parrot’s wings.
We might look at the enamel by Henry Bone of ` Mary Queen of Scots’ (125), which hangs among the miniatures in gallery XI. It is a copy of a portrait of her in Hatfield House. We can compare it with the picture of her by Clouet (530 Picture Catalogue) in which she wears white mourning for her husband, Francis II of France, who died when he was seventeen.
The snuff boxes and sweetmeat boxes (Gallery XVIII, Case A) are of every sort of beauty, engraved and chased, decorated with enamel, and with jewels. They have designs on them from paintings by Watteau and Lancret, from Teniers and Fragonard. In the eighteenth century it was the fashion to present such dainty offerings as snuff boxes, sweet-meat boxes, patch boxes, as a token of esteem. King Louis XIV would make such a gift to a foreign ambassador, sometimes as an extra token of royal favour it would bear the head of the ` Grand Monarque’ himself. They take us back to the days of the ` School for Scandal.’ We see the fine gentle-men with their delicate white fingers taking a pinch of snuff as they retailed the latest gossip. There was as much art in taking snuff gracefully, as was required for the right manipulation of a fan.
We will look at two or three of these boxes together. Here is a circular sweetmeat box (68) in the lid of which is a painting of a river scene by Van Blarenberghe. He was able to do the minutest work as a miniature painter. His drawing was fine and accurate, his colouring clear. In the tiny space on the top of a snuff box, he could give us a village fair with movement and gaiety shown in the revellers. On this box there is a river scene with buildings and figures. Let us look at an oval snuff box (78) decorated by him. The tiny picture is of the Château de Meudon, with Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and their Court.
A very fine specimen of enamel on a sweetmeat box is on one of gold with a shell-shaped lid (98), it is entirely covered with the gorgeous plumage of the peacock.