Little Britain

Miniature paintings suit the modern world — we live in a miniaturised world

Counterpoints

“Anne of Denmark” by Isaac Oliver, c.1612  ©NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY, LONDON

An exhibition of Tudor and Jacobean portrait miniatures opens at the National Portrait Gallery this month, featuring paintings of Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Drake and Anne of Denmark by two of the greatest artists of the genre, Nicholas Hilliard and his pupil Isaac Oliver.

As Hilliard said, these pictures should be “viewed of necessity in hand near unto the eye”. Look closely enough and you will see petals nestled in the curls of Elizabeth’s hair and the delicacy of the lacework in Raleigh’s ruff. Today, apps such as Instagram make miniatures of our own pictures — but seldom can we see such detail at a single glance. Tudor miniatures were kept in lockets or displayed in houses. Ours live in electronic devices or vanish soon after received. If only we printed them at screen size then we might find they sat rather well in our diminutive homes. 

Ours is the real age of the miniature. Henry VIII established the art form in England in the 1520s but he had space for colossal canvases besides. Never did he have to contend with rooms the size of shoeboxes.

Houses built this decade are on average smaller than they have been at any point in the past century. While a family home might extend to 730 square feet — 18 per cent smaller the average in 1970 — flats have shrunk to Lilliputian dimensions. We must make do with sinks so small that we cannot fit our hands in them, cupboards which transform into beds, and staircases which double as drawers.

Postage-stamp properties require postcards and 1:4 scale prints to adorn their walls. Indeed, the RHS recently reported a spike in the sale of house plants — without gardens we must cultivate indoors. Miniature terraria are all the rage. Over the years the walls will close in on our doll’s houses, like in Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist

All of which would be very depressing, were it not for the fact that small things are extremely appealing in a world that is overwhelmingly large. As Simon Garfield writes in his recent book, In Miniature, “the miniature world embraces control”. A first-time buyer might dream of bigger rooms but, when space is so tight, she cannot help but look more closely at what she has. There is a world to be found in miniature when you take it in hand as Hilliard prescribed.