In bringing together a vast collection of Tudor and Stuart portrait miniatures, the gallery explores how these diminutive art pieces were both emblems of power and microscopic windows into individuality, both ostentatiously public and intensely private. The immersive thrill of the exhibition is immediately heightened as visitors are given magnifying glasses upon arrival, allowing us to appreciate the sheer detail on such a small scale. The effect is utterly beguiling. Hilliard and Oliver’s imitative precision captures the sartorial excess of the period; you can see the translucency of the Flemish lace, the iridescent quality of the jewels, the fine hairs of moustaches which curl over aloof expressions.
Almost every piece conforms to the tradition in early modern portraiture of evoking overworked surfaces and tactile sensuousness to reflect status. But amidst the richly-decked figures, one stands out. An amorous young courtier poses bare-chested with a sultry ‘come hither’ look against a background of flames – a symbol for burning passion.
(Detail) Unknown man against a background of flames by Nicholas Hilliard, c.1600. Purchased with the assistance of the Murray Bequest © Victoria & Albert Museum.
Of course, the portable nature of miniatures meant that they were popular as love tokens. By far the most interesting theme explored in the exhibition is that of clandestine love – and not necessarily between a man and a woman. In a more cryptic image, a man reaches up to grasp a disembodied hand that extends down from a cloud. Written in the background are the words ‘Athenian because of love’ – Athenian love being a euphemism for homoerotic relations. Shrouded in mystery, it is a piece that wonderfully shows off the period's attraction to symbolism, coded meanings and virtuosic wordplay.
As two painters at the centre of court life, Hilliard and Oliver’s tiny portraits depict some of the era’s biggest personalities: swashbuckling explorers; Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake; and, of course, the Tudor and Stuart monarchs, Elizabeth I, James I and Anne of Denmark. Additionally, a trump card of a recently discovered portrait of King Henry III of France will be on show for the first time. The miniatures' capaciousness as vessels of meaning is perhaps why the sitters seem so alive in their downsized likenesses, even 400 years later. Eternally damned in the throes of love, distilled at the height of their power, they are ever penetrating, ever preserved in these precious ovals.
|What||Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver, National Portrait Gallery|
|Where||National Portrait Gallery, St Martin's Place, London, WC2H 0HE | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Leicester Square (underground)|
21 Feb 19 – 19 May 19, 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM
|Website||Click here to book now|