Small is Beautiful – Object of the Month

Our Assistant House Steward Tracey is away this week researching at other National Trust Properties but before she went she write the following Object of the Month blog about the miniatures in our collection at Polesden Lacey.

The library at Polesden Lacey is a beautiful relaxed room in which Mrs Greville’s guests could retire and enjoy reading a vast array of interesting books from the shelves to suit all tastes.  Visitors today often ask the questions how many books are there? and Were they bought by the yard? But how many people actually notice or take a good look at the two beautiful giltwood display cases on the table housing a fine collection of miniatures.

Mrs Greville collected miniatures between 1891 and 1910.  Most were acquired from the London dealer Tessiers of Bond Street.  Before the advent of photography miniatures were the most personal form of portraiture.  Designed to be held in the hand or worn they were tokens of love, friendship or loyalty.  Love and romance of the 18th century saw the miniature become extremely popular with the middle and upper classes.

 

The miniatures case in the Library

The miniatures case in the Library

The word “miniature” comes from the latin word “miniare” which simply means to colour with red lead”.  They were first painted in medieval times to decorate and illuminate manuscripts.  The portrait miniature was developed from this idea and became an extremely popular art form from the sixteenth to the mid nineteenth century.  Ranging in size from an inch to six inches in height, the portrait would originally have been painted in watercolour on vellum and then either housed in a metal case/locket decorated with jewels and carried in the pocket of the person, or placed in a frame and displayed in the home.  By the 1700s ivory became a more popular surface to work on and could soon be cut so thin that it was nearly translucent.

Most of Mrs Greville’s miniatures are watercolour on ivory but there are also examples of vellum, enamel and printed miniatures including fine examples of English and Continental miniaturists dating from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. Among the most prominent 18th century miniaturists were Jeremiah Meyer, John Smart, George Engleheart and Richard Cosway.  They all had their own individual style but all shared a light palette of colours and brushwork that worked well on the translucency of the ivory support.  Here at Polesden we have some miniatures by John Smart and Jeremiah Meyer.

Unknown lady in a blue dress by John Smart, 1776.  Watercolour on ivory

Unknown lady in a blue dress by John Smart, 1776. Watercolour on ivory

Man in purple by George Engleheart (c.1800)  Watercolour on ivory.

Man in purple by George Engleheart (c.1800) Watercolour on ivory.

Unknown man in a purple coat by Jeremiah Meyer (c.1780)

Unknown man in a purple coat by Jeremiah Meyer (c.1780)

Casting an eye over the collection and seeing all the faces staring back at me of unknown men and women makes me feel saddened that at one time these people meant the world to someone and now their stories are lost forever.  A few of the earlier dated miniatures do have names however and  one is of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough by Christian Richter (c.1702)

John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough by Christian Richter (c.1702) Watercolour on ivory

John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough by Christian Richter (c.1702) Watercolour on ivory

Christian Richter was born in Stockholm in 1678 and initially trained as a goldsmith.  By 1700 he was studying under Elias Brenner, the leading Swedish miniaturist of the age.  He moved to London in 1700 and by 1715 he dominated the market there.  A picture means so much if it has a name and so much can then be found out about that person and their moment in history.  The collection here at Polesden Lacey is fascinating and well worth a moment of your time when visiting the Library.

Miniatures were also often used to commemorate a lost loved one and on the desk in the study here at Polesden Lacey you can see three treasured possessions of Mrs Greville – her mother, father and husband depicted in miniature.  These three miniatures below were painted by Eustace Pattison.

 

These miniatures are a fitting tribute to the most important people in Mrs Greville’s life  – Margaret Anderson (mother), William McEwan (father) and Ronald Greville (husband) and show a much softer, more personal look not often seen on a more formal painting.  These three miniatures can be seen on the desk in the Study here at Polesden Lacey and are housed in a beautiful wooden display.  So why not come along and visit us and admire this wonderful collection of miniatures for yourself.  Take a moment to reflect and think about the lives of some of these unknown faces and wonder at the stories they once told.

Tracey Parker

Assistant House Steward

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