Small portraits, often originally encased in intricate bejewelled frames or snugly stowed in lockets, were both a unique art form and a form of jewellery popular across Europe for over 350 years, from about 1510 to 1860. These portrait miniatures were intended to be viewed up close, cradled in the hand, worn on the body or kept locked away in private drawers for personal contemplation. They were cherished in lieu of the absent loved one or the admired figure that they depicted.
Their size and shape, fitting easily in the palm of a hand, invited touch, making them highly portable objects that were often given and received as gifts. As tender tokens of loyalty, friendship or love, they had both commercial and sentimental value.
This display considers portrait miniatures as pieces of jewellery, made to be worn publicly or privately by both men and women. It focuses on their materiality and how they were made, including their cases and decorative backs.
In considering portrait miniatures as pieces of jewellery, this display also focuses on the use and depiction of pearls. As well as signifying wealth and status, pearls are steeped in symbolic associations, ranging from seductiveness to purity, tokens of good luck in marriage to messengers of mourning. Natural pearls are the oldest ‘gems’ used in jewellery, objects of desire due to their rarity and beauty.
Most of the portrait miniatures are on long-term loan to the Barber from private collections. Some of them used to belong to Daphne Foskett (1911-1998), who was a leading authority on the subject.
Display curated by Helen Cobby, Assistant Curator