by Deborah Swift
Limning is a thing apart from all other painting or drawing, and it excelleth all other painting whatsoever in sundry points...
-- Nicholas Hilliard
'Limning' was the contemporary term in Tudor and Stuart times for miniature paintings, portraits which were portable and could be held in the hand. In the days before photography, these likenesses were much prized, and the making of them was considered to be a specialised art, apart from general portrait painting with its own skills and techniques. Many of these special techniques stemmed from those used in medieval manuscript illumination.
Miniatures were designed to be worn as pieces of jewellery too and were kept protected in delicate cases of gold or ivory, or stored in cabinets of rare imported woods. Most limners were also jewellers, as was the case with Nicholas Hilliard, probably England's best known limner.
The painting was done on vellum, the skin of an unborn calf, which is hairless and made the fine surface needed for such small work. It was then backed onto card -- often a playing card to give enough rigidity. Dry colours were bought from the apothecary and mixed with a binder in mussel shells. The brush - then known as a pencil - was made from one or two squirrel hairs.
The elaborate clothing in court portraits as in the one of Elizabeth I, above, was brought separately to the studio so that Hilliard could paint the detail without tiring the sitter. This portrait, somewhat idealized, was painted when Elizabeth was in middle age.
Real gold and silver were applied with gum arabic and burnished using an animal tooth set into a handle. To give the crisp effect of lace a more solid white pigment was dribbled painstakingly into its intricate pattern to leave a slightly raised effect. An even heavier paint was used to make raised droplets of "pearls". The sitters often appear paler than they would have when the painting was new because the Red Lake pigment fades in the light.
In Hilliard's Treatise concerning the Arte of Limning he tells us he is extremely fussy about cleanliness, and will not allow coal fires to burn where he is working, lest soot should fall on his work. Even more he urges those who wish to paint miniatures to wear only silk so that particles of lint and fibre might not fall on the work from their sleeves.
This portrait (above) by Hilliard was identified as Mary, Queen of Scots, in the 18th century, although there is still some dispute.
The inscription 'Virtutis Amore' is an anagram of the name 'Marie Stouart.' The style and costume indicate it was actually made after her death as a memorial portrait following her execution in 1587.
I love the transparency of her veiling and the way Hilliard has treated all the different shades of white. I imagine it must have been very difficult to paint something so detailed after the sitter is dead - not to mention spooky!
Miniatures were often given as love tokens or signs of political loyalty. Some portraits have a hidden symbolic meaning that has been lost to us, such as this young man against a background of flames, holding a portrait of a lady. Perhaps he was indicating a flaming passion, or perhaps survival from a catastrophic event.
The art of limning was passed down from master to apprentice. Hilliard was first apprenticed to Robert Brandon, a Goldsmith in Westcheap at the Sign of the Gilt Lion and Firebrand. (What a great name!)
In his turn Hilliard employed Isaac Oliver as his apprentice, and he also became very fashionable in Court circles, almost ousting his master. Isaac Oliver's family were Huguenots and fled France to escape religious persecution. He became known for his realistic treatment of children and his slightly less formal portraiture. Below you can see delightful portraits of two Elizabethan girls.
In The Lady's Slipper, Alice's father encourages her to take up miniature painting. Alice finds the techniques and scale of the work too exacting and decides instead to study botanical painting. However, I loved looking into the art of the miniature and really came to appreciate the skill involved in these small jewel-like portraits. Pictures are all courtesy of the V&A museum.
This post was first published on my blog in 2011 but it didn't get many viewers so I hope you will forgive me if I give it a second airing. And here are my books which I think have beautiful covers, designed by the team at Macmillan. These days books have to look good in miniature too, as icons we can view online, so the art of the miniature is not dead after all!