TINY PORTRAIT MINIATURE GOES ON DISPLAY IN NEW EXHIBITION
A tiny, exquisite portrait of 18th-century British actor, playwright and impresario David Garrick – set in one of the actor’s favourite rings – has gone on display at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham, this weekend, as part of a new exhibition of portrait miniatures.
Believed never to have been displayed in public before, the oval portrait – barely 1cm tall and painted in the traditional sepia favoured for posthumous portraits – was commissioned following Garrick’s death in 1779 by his wife, the German singer Eva Marie Viegel, and then set in one of his rings, fashioned in a pink alloy.
The item remained in Garrick’s family, passing from Mrs Garrick to the actor’s grandniece initially – until it was given, in 1897, to the unnamed private family collection in which it remains today.
The miniature is one of 50 masterpieces of British portraiture from two outstanding private art collections go on exhibition at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts from today (1 February), in the show Close to the Heart: 17th– to 19th-century British Portraits from UK Private Collections. The long-term loan of the two collections – the Daphne Foskett collection and an unnamed private cache well known to experts – to the Barber Institute forms one of the finest, and largest, displays of miniatures in the UK outside of London.
Close to the Heart features miniatures ranging in date from around 1600 to 1850, include exquisite examples by leading names in the field such as Peter Oliver, George Engleheart, Richard Cosway, Sir William Ross and Richard Crosse. The exhibition, supported by auction house Bonhams, forms part of the year-long celebratory programme marking the 80th anniversary of the foundation of the Barber, the art gallery and original concert hall for the University of Birmingham.
Another gem is Richard Crosse’s tender and unusual watercolour on ivory, Portrait of Two Boys – thought to be a self-portrait with a brother – of 1759. Crosse was born a deaf-mute, and for many years relied on his older brother, James, to communicate with clients. It is believed that either James or a younger brother, Edward, is depicted here with Crosse.
Portrait miniatures were given as presents to close friends and family, exchanged during courtship and used to commemorate important events, such as an engagement, marriage or a long separation. They were often set in a gold pendant locket or frame, and worn on a chain or as a brooch pinned to the chest – symbolically close to the heart – or hanging from the waist. The reverse might feature the sitter’s initials in seed pearls or a lock of their hair arranged in a fancy design. If not worn, miniatures were kept in leather cases and stored in drawers. Larger ‘cabinet’ miniatures, sometimes with biblical or other ‘history’ subjects, were hung on walls like small-scale paintings.
Close to the Heart includes works ranging from the first few decades of the 17th century, by which time the form was well established, through its golden age from around 1760, when exhibiting societies were established, to later examples from t he 1840s – just before the emergence of photography, which all but killed off the form. The display also includes a handful of beautiful and fascinating foreign examples.
Exhibition curator Robert Wenley, the Barber’s Head of Collections and Learning, said: ‘The lenders have most generously placed their collections on long-term loan here, so, in future, we shall also be able to have differently themed annual displays of this fascinating form of painting, combining them with examples from the Barber’s own small collection of miniatures and other related paintings. We are also hoping to show these historical miniatures alongside a contemporary artist’s response to this traditional format, which should make for a very exciting intervention.’
Close to the Heart is accompanied by a fascinating programme of connected events. In a special Fine Art Valuation Day on Monday 22 April, experts from Bonhams will be on hand to provide valuations of gallery visitors’ own works of art – including miniatures. For a suggested £3 donation per item, with proceeds going to St Mary’s Hospice, specialists in paintings, portrait miniatures, sculpture, ceramics, and general art and antiques will be available to advise visitors on the current auction market. The Fine Art Valuation Day runs from 10am to 4pm.
The exhibition is also complemented by a lecture on British portrait miniatures by Robert Wenley as well as three gallery talks looking at miniatures in the Stuart and Regency periods. For more information, visit the Barber website at www.barber.org.uk/category/learning.