Irish Portrait Miniatures

By Dr. Paul Caffrey

Miniatures are private portraits, the opposite of large scale public portraiture. The image contained in a miniature is an expression of an individual’s intimate sentiments usually associated with courtship, marriage, death or commemoration. The personal nature of the image is reflected in the composition, which is usually bust or half-length and in the close focus of the likeness and informal attitude of the sitter.

The portrait is one element in an object which was usually part of a piece of jewellery such as a locket that held locks of braided hair and monograms of the sitter’s initials. Miniatures were given as presents to close friends and family, were exchanged during courtship and were the traditional way of commemorating an important event, such as an engagement, marriage or a long separation during wartime or periods abroad. Portrait miniatures were part of memorial jewellery and mourning dress.

The majority of miniature portraits were designed to be worn as jewellery by someone connected to the sitter. They formed part of fashionable dress and were just as susceptible to changes in taste. The portrait was often set in a gold pendant frame or locket and worn on a chain or as a brooch pinned to the décolletage where it was emblematically close to the heart. Miniatures were also frequently worn hanging from the waist on a chatelaine, or on the wrist in a bracelet or sometimes in a ring. Men wore miniatures also. These were usually worn on a chain around the neck concealed inside the waistcoat or at the waist on a chain with watch and seals.

The gold locket that frequently houses the miniature portrait is decorated with precious stones that had symbolic meaning. Romantic ideas were made permanent in the jewels. Thus rubies signified passionate love, diamonds symbolised constancy in marriage and pearls were sacred to Venus, the goddess of love.

The sitter’s initials were often formed on the reverse in seed pearls and decorated with locks of plaited or interwoven hair. Miniatures that were not worn were kept in leather cases, secreted away in a drawer for private viewing or placed as decoration on the lids of snuff or patch boxes.

The second type of miniature, the cabinet miniature, had a slightly more public role. When miniatures were hung on walls or were painted to be part of interior decoration they were usually larger and rectangular in shape. They were framed in wooden and gilded frames and arranged in decorative groups or placed in display cabinets. Nevertheless, these displays were usually confined to the most private, informal rooms of a house such as a boudoir or cabinet-room. These rooms were used by family or close friends and thus emphasise the intimate nature of the miniature.

Miniaturists in Ireland worked in a range of materials that show the continental European origins of the techniques. The principal media used in the eighteenth century were twofold: First there is enamelling, painting with metal oxides on an enamel base. This is a difficult technique which requires that each colour applied to the enamel surface be fired individually. Firing enamel in a kiln was slow and painstaking and the process caused cracking and blemishes on the surface. The enamellists were associated with jewellers and goldsmiths with whom they shared materials and techniques.

The second but most frequently used is the watercolour on ivory technique. By the mid-eighteenth century it was the most popular technique and miniaturists made full use of its unique qualities. The luminosity of the colours used in the miniature portrait made it attractive and the quality of reflecting light through the pigment on the polished ivory surface.

The first Irish miniature portraits painted by known professionals were those done by enamellists. Of these, the first is Nathanial Hone (1718-84). His background was as a goldsmith. In fact Hone spent most of his career in England. Before the enamellists, there were collections of miniature portraits in Ireland, but these did not survive. Also, before the enamellists, miniaturists were known to have worked in Ireland but no signed or authenticated works have survived from this era.

The technique of painting in metal oxides on enamel was practiced by James Gwim (active 1720-69) who worked as an engraver and maker of snuff boxes. The eccentric character went to manage the Battersea Enamel Works with a fellow Dubliner, John Brooks (active 1730-56) who invented a method of painting in enamel on china. Peter Wingfield (1718-77) was a watch engraver and goldsmith who did enamel portraits and later worked in watercolour on ivory. John Stordy (d.1799) a portrait enamellist trained as a watchmaker making enamel plates for watches. His brother Charles Stordy (active c.1757) was an enamellist and member of the Corporation of Painter Stayners and the Cutlers, the Guild of St. Luke in Dublin. Rupert Barber (1719-72) is one of the most underestimated of the enamellists who spent their career in Ireland. Like so many, Barber paid occasional visits to London and Bath where he did enamel portraits. This virtuoso enamellist was apprenticed in London where he learned the technique. Barber was a skilled draughtsman who painted more naturalistic than Nathanial Hone. He worked on a larger scale and his miniatures are particularly interested in capturing the sitter’s personality and character.

The end of seventeenth century saw the demise of the watercolour on vellum tradition and the popularity of enamelling and plumbago miniatures. Thereafter, came the rise of the introduction of ivory as a surface on which to paint portraits. The Venetian, Rosalba Carreiera (1675-1757) is generally credited with inventing the watercolour on ivory technique. She was an accomplished pastellist but originally worked as a decorator of ivory snuff boxes with watercolour fondelli. Her watercolour on ivory portraits were popular with Grand Tourists. Once the technical difficulties were overcome and the quality of ivory portraits improved in the 1750s, public interest in the miniature portrait revived. Accuracy of portraiture was in demand. The informal, intimate, elegant image of the miniature portrait suited the taste of the age. The miniature with its associations with courtship, marriage and commemoration required a likeness or accurate image. The quest for verisimilitude was an important theme in eighteenth century culture.

As with enamel miniatures, ivory portraits formed an integral part of jewellery. They were worn in gold pendants, lockets, bracelets or rings. These miniatures were susceptible to damp, and to changes in temperature. Hence they were commonly encased in glass. Cyphers of the sitters initials, mottoes, a blazen of arms or monogram were included. These portraits were given as presents to close friends, family members, exchanged during courtship and engagement. Miniature portraits became the traditional way of marking an event such as a marriage. They could be encased in a jewelled locket or otherwise adorned with jewels and precious stones. Often these possessed some symbolic meaning, so that romantic ideas could be made permanent. As part of the whole, the sitter’s initials were often arranged in seed pearls. These settings became increasingly decorative and complex.

The commemorative or memorial miniature also became common. As forms of mourning became increasingly elaborate, and the cult of widowhood arose, the miniature became part of mourning dress. The widow wear the image of the deceased, and the locket would contain a lock of his braided hair.

Some miniature portraits were worn on a chain. This formed part of the dress of either men or women. Women often wore miniatures pinned to the breast, obviously either consciously or unconsciously signifying that the sitter was close to their heart. Ivory miniatures encased in glass decorated snuff, powder and patch boxes in the same way as the enamel portraits.

With the revival of interest in the miniature in about 1750, their quality and quantity improved. Graham Reynolds has characterised the portraits of this era as those of the Modest School. This epithet refers both to the small scale of the miniatures and the modest presentation of the sitter.

At this time, practitioners experimented with the technique and developed their own individual styles of painting which was partly the result of changes in taste, and also a response to the technical difficulties of manipulating watercolour on ivory.

The first to achieve success with this new technique was Nathanial Hone. Hone contributed to the improvement of the technique by using linear brush strokes of watercolour mixed with gum Arabic which helped the watercolour to adhere to the ivory surface.

A remarkable number of this group of miniaturists were of Irish birth. Luke Sullivan (1705-71) was trained as an engraver. Sullivan painted miniatures in delicate short linear brushstrokes building up the lines of watercolour like the lines in an engraving. Sullivan was greatly influenced by French rococo engraving, and his miniature portraits have the prettiness associated with this period of French painting. Sullivan achieved his effect by the se of powdery colour harmonies of greys and blues, indefinite outlines and the far away distant gazes of the sitter.

Thomas Frye (c.1710-62) also of Irish birth, trained both as engraver and oil painter. He captured the textures of cloth and gave his miniatures a silvery look by applying short linear brush strokes which have the quality of engraving. During the 1750s, Dublin became a centre of ‘Modest School’ miniature painting. The most important event that influenced the work of miniaturists was the establishment of West’s Academy (c. 1746) which was to become the Drawing Schools of the Dublin Society. There students were taught drawing, and on graduation, were usually apprenticed to a miniaturist. In all, at least 41 miniaturists who worked in Ireland are known to have been educated at the Dublin Society’s Drawing School. Gustavus Hamilton (c.1739-1775), James Reily (c.1740-1780/8) and Danel O’Keeffe (1740-87) attended the schools and established Dublin as a centre of miniature painting.

Samuel Collins (1735-68) worked first at Bath and then in Ireland, worked in watercolour on ivory in quite a different way. Collins was one of the first miniaturists to fully exploit the ivory surface of the miniature. Collins did not cover the ivory completely with paint, but allowed the surface to show through, creating a characteristic effect.

Horace Hone (1754/6-1825/7) began painting miniature portraits in the ‘Modest School’ mode taught to him by his father. The size of his ivories increased, and he adopted linear brush strokes of curving parallel lines. Horace Hone was a close friend of the Irish miniaturist Sampson Roch (1759-1847) and he may have taught Roch to paint miniatures. Hone’s influence may be seen on Roch’s later, larger miniature portraits. Roch combined his own innate neatness of technique with an elegance and freeness of painting he derived from Hone’s style.

Adam Buck (1759-1833) was exceptional by virtue of his serious interest in classical Greek and Roman art. Buck’s interest in the antique pervades his portraits. Buck worked in a fully-fledged interpretation of neo-classicism in his portraits. Miniature painting on ivory was particularly appropriate for exposition of neo-classical taste, since the whiteness of the ivory could replicate the effect of marble. Buck was able to achieve the desired neo-classical effect by the use of muted colours, linear brush strokes and classical drapery, allowing much of the unpainted or thinly painted ivory to show through.

A change may be observed in miniatures painted during the 1790s. Adam Buck and John Comerford (c. 1770-1852) exercised particular influence on the development of the miniature portrait. Again, Chinnery’s works were larger than those of his immediate predecessors. His works aspire towards oil portrait in composition and in the use of freer brush strokes than those characteristically employed by the previous generation of miniaturists.

Cabinet miniatures were popular throughout the eighteenth century. These were miniatures that were hung on walls or were painted to be part of interior decoration. These were usually larger in size than the general run of portrait miniatures and were rectangular in shape. They were usually framed in wooden frames and often arranged in decorative groups on a wall or in a cabinet.

In the eighteenth century these arrangements were confined to the most private, informal rooms of a house such as a boudoir or cabinet-room, rooms used for informal entertainment by family and close friends. Often, the sites were painted either in undress, or in informal pose.

Although miniature painting remained popular throughout the first half of the nineteenth century the vogue for photography rapidly spread. The raison d’etre for the miniature portrait disappeared. The photograph became the acceptable form of intimate, small, portable and esoteric portrait. The photographer could provide such a portrait much more cheaply than the miniaturist. The likeness was indubitably greater. The rise in photography marked the virtual decline and death of the miniature.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Antique Dealers’ Yearbook 2003-2004