Delightful Miniature Treasures Go On Display At National Portrait Gallery

Elizabethan Treasures, National Portrait Gallery ★★★★☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 50 months ago

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Delightful Miniature Treasures Go On Display At National Portrait Gallery Elizabethan Treasures, National Portrait Gallery 4
The rather ornate frame on a miniature of Henri III of France.

It's not every day we're handed a magnifying glass as we enter an exhibition... in fact it's never happened before, and we've been to a lot of exhibitions. But it's necessary for picking out the tiny details in the works of two Elizabethan miniature painters, now on display at the National Portrait Gallery.

Nicholas Hilliard and his pupil Isaac Oliver created impressively detailed miniature portraits of high society and royalty, works which are showcased in this suitably small but perfectly formed exhibition.

Even the cases the miniatures came in were exquisite.

An insight into the creation of these works comes in the form of a film. They were created on the backs of playing cards with watercolours applied very delicately, usually taking three sittings to complete one piece.

The works are very much a who's who of society with plenty of noblemen and women, plus Sirs Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake.  Then-monarch Elizabeth I is well represented with a whole section of the show dedicated to her, including a miniature gold coin impressively featuring her likeness. Another piece shows her surrounded by three goddesses — monarchs were seldom humble in this age.

Elizabeth I with three goddesses.

The drawback of a miniature — for their subjects, at least — is that it's tricky to assert the same regal status that would easily be achieved by a massive portrait painting. However, Henri III of France manages to do it by housing his likeness within a chunky frame complete with heraldic crest — there's that regal modesty again.

Alongside royalty, there are some very cherubic miniatures of children and the blinging ornate cases that miniature paintings were kept it.

Our favourite piece in the show depicts a young man with his shirt open, flames in the background representing his passionate love. Have we just stumbled across the predecessor of sexting? Once gifted, we imagine it made the object of his attention's heart flutter.

Time to get pulses racing. Copyright National Portrait Gallery.

It's not all miniatures though; Hilliard and Oliver also produced full length portraits, illustrated documents and drawings which are on display too. But ultimately we're here for the miniatures, and they are delightful.

Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver is on at National Portrait Gallery until 19 May 2019. Tickets are £10 for adults. The works are very small so we'd recommend visiting at the quietest time possible to be able to see all the works clearly.

Last Updated 21 February 2019