London Fashion Umbrella: Portrait Miniatures at the V&A

Installation view of Room 90a at the Victoria and Albert Museum, vam.ac.uk

My visit to the V&A Museum last week was earmarked for viewing the recently opened Hollywood Costume exhibition. However, large crowds and a lovely lunch with a new friend conspired to prevent my entry into the show. Instead, it was an afternoon for hidden gems. After a dazzling hour spent in the Jewellery Galleries, my friend, a writer and illustrator who was on the hunt for various reference images, steered us through a dark but inviting little room. Room 90a: Portrait Miniatures.

Miniature: An Unknown Woman; Dixon, Nicholas; ca. 1675 (painted); P.4-1942

Portrait miniatures are a delightful and rich source of fashion information. And because they are so small – they require you to look closely.  This is obvious perhaps, but it is this very fact that makes them so alluring for fashion historians with an eye for detail. (The miniatures in this post will likely appear on your screen larger than they are in actuality.)

This one caught my eye because of her very adult silhouette and her high fashion doll.
Miniature: Portrait of Katherine Whitmore; Lens, Bernard (III, the younger); 1724 (painted); P.14-1971

Popular in Europe as love tokens and special gifts among friends and family, from the 16th century, they  trace trends in hairstyles, jewellery, and clothing among the upper classes. The V&A’s extensive collection of miniatures, displayed chronologically gives the effect of viewing a yearbook – or of Facebook.

Have you ever seen a more perfect ruff?
Miniature: An Unknown Woman; Nicholas Hilliard; 1590-1593 (painted); P.9-1947

These faces and their fashions give a sense of the style of the era, and closer inspection shows they hold a multitude of information in their small frames.

Yes! This is a portrait of a boy.
Miniature: Portrait of a boy, the Right Honourable J. A. Plantaganet Stewart; Hazelhurst, Thomas; ca. 1800 (painted); EVANS.133

The V&A’s website features a grid of all of the miniatures on display in room 90a, so you can have a very satisfying virtual visit from wherever you are in the world. In fact, with high-resolution images of each portrait, you can use digital technology to zoom in closer than the human eye in order to discover minute details. The Portrait Miniatures page also features  links to information about the history, creation, dissemination and conservation of miniatures.

Would you like to receive a little painted portrait of your partner as a love token?
This one is a self-portrait of the artist, and I think he’s mighty handsome.
Miniature: Self-portrait, aged 30; Nicholas Hilliard; 1577 (painted); P.155-1910

Perhaps what captivates me the most about portrait miniatures is their near total obsoletion.   Who paints miniatures today? We can take “portrait miniatures” on our phones, or even send loved ones our face on a sticker made in seconds in a photo booth.

A portrait of sisters – was this an early sort of personal ad?
Miniature: Misses Annabella and Mary Craufurd (mistakenly Crawford), afterwards Countess Lockhart and Mrs Palmer; Shelley, Samuel; 1782

My impromptu foray into room 90a was a truly happy accident. I may have to wait until the excitement over Hollywood Costume quiets down a little before returning to view and review the show – but when I do, I’ll make sure to pass again through  for another look at the mystifying and terribly chic portrait miniatures in the V&A’s collection.

No, it’s not a 1930s Schiaparelli brooch!
Eye miniature; Unknown; early 19th century (painted); P.56-1977

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