Room 3: Miniatures Gallery

The term 'portrait miniature' does not, strictly speaking, refer to small portraits. The word 'miniature' derives from the Latin word 'miniare', meaning to colour with red lead, a technique used by manuscript illuminators. Technically, miniatures are images painted in the same way as were manuscript illuminations, that is, in watercolour and bodycolour (opaque watercolour); in Tudor times they were usually painted on vellum, a smooth, thin support made from calf-skin. 'Miniature' has come to mean 'small' by association with other words beginning with the Latin prefix 'min',like 'minor'.

The first surviving English portrait miniatures which are not part of a book or manuscript, but separate objects, date from the 1520s, fairly early in Henry VIII's reign. Although they may have existed before that time, records show that they were still regarded as novelties. Their popularity grew quickly, as it became evident that they could be extremely useful as diplomatic presents associated with political or royal marriage negotiations, and as a more intimate, personal form of portraiture, to be exchanged by family members or lovers. The setting could be rich and expensive, decorated with jewels, and the portrait could be concealed behind a lid, to be revealed only to a chosen few. Miniature painting came to be regarded as a particularly high-status art form; Nicholas Hilliard, the most famous Elizabethan miniaturist, wrote that it 'excelleth all other painting whatsoever in sundry points'.


The earliest face of an identifiable English ruler shown on a coin represents King Offa of Mercia, produced in the late eighth century. The range of coins shown in this room demonstrates how portraiture on coinage developed over eight hundred years. In the medieval period, monarchs were portrayed with generalised profile portraits, but by the Tudor period the coinage showed far more realistic portraits that could convey a specific message.

Cabinet Pictures

These small-scale paintings often called ‘cabinet pictures’, were produced either as personal portable mementos or for display among a group of portraits of similar scale. They may have been inserted into wall panelling or kept in a cabinet of treasures. Paintings of this size could also be sent to a foreign court to publicise the image of a monarch or to be used in marriage negotiations.

Recent research has shown that artists sometimes used magnification to create these portraits. For example, the collar of the portrait of Mary I has been painted with tiny marks to soften the edge which are only visible by magnification.

Miniatures, Medals and Engravings

Miniature painting, called ‘limming’ at this time was regarded as a high status art form. It was practised by skilled artists, of whom Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver were the most celebrated. The political importance of miniatures, as small portable objects which could be used for diplomatic gifts, was quickly appreciated by Tudor monarchs. Miniatures were often painted directly from life onto vellum (made from calfskin) which was then backed for extra support by a playing card.

The engravings and medals in the case present different aspects of portraiture, signalling how royalty and courtiers could adapt their image for various occasions. Printed portraits produced in multiple versions were an important tool to present a powerful image to the wider populace. Medals were stuck to commemorate specific occasions, such as a royal marriage or a military achievement and could be given as mementos to loyal supporters.

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