“All I want is a photo in my wallet
A small remembrance of something more solid
All I want is a picture of you”
Blondie, Picture This, 1978
With the Portrait Miniature exhibition ‘Personal Relations’ beginning soon, the following words and images attempt to outline a compact history of the portrait miniature, it’s contexts and forms, both historic and contemporary.
Portrait miniatures, originating in the courts of English and French monarchy in the early sixteenth century, were an expensive and coveted symbol. They were given as gifts to be worn by the receiver in a locket or brooch; a public show of loyalty, literally wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve. Miniatures were typically painted on vellum (parchment made from calf skin), and later ivory, lending a bright incandescent quality to the medium.
One aspect of this practice I find particularly brilliant are the eye miniatures produced in the eighteenth century, these allowed the receiver to wear their secret love upon their person while keeping his or her identity secret. The notion here was that only the person receiving the gift of the painted eye miniature would be able to recognise it as their lover’s. This short-lived trend is said to have been ignited by the Prince Reagent of England for whom his love was forbidden, there are however reports of this phenomenon before this.
With the advent of photography, the painted miniature fell from favour, and portraits became more readily available and less expensive. However it was the Victorian penchant for mourning that took the portrait miniature to a new level, with locks of hair of deceased loved ones being incorporated into lockets and other jewellery. The hair would typically accompany a photographic portrait and would be artfully arranged into decorative swirls or even pastoral scenes. This gnarly art seems to be making a modest comeback with a renewed interest in the craft of hair work. (find out more here: http://www.victoriangothic.org/the-lost-art-of-sentimental-hairwork )
For most people however, photographs sufficed as mementoes of loved ones or the dead, as we see lockets and other jewellery containing photographs remaining popular throughout the twentieth century. One can imagine the wives and girlfriends of soldiers and sailors during the Second World War finding comfort in the image of their man on their chest. Still we find it common practice to carry a passport-sized photo of a lover in one’s wallet, with photo booths now proving to be a nostalgic must have addition to parties and weddings. I’d like to offer though that this might be equated with a new media; the digital photographic thumbnail.
New media allows us to carry a plethora of images with us, with loved ones being available not only in the images we store on devices – or that serve as wallpapers on our smart phones – indeed their presence can literally be felt, only a video call away at the touch of a button. Dating apps such as tinder allow the user to scroll through masses of thumbnails, each representing prospective lovers.
One could say that our personal relations have historically been, and continue to be, mediated through portraits. These portraits are miniature by necessity – whether a lock of a loved one’s hair worn on the breast, a photograph in a wallet, or a digitally rendered image on the lock-screen of an iPhone – the relation between the two people demands that they are portable.
In my next post I’ll be exploring the ways in which portraiture is being used by young London based artists in 2016; and how the human figure more generally might be presented in new ways.
All images screen grabs via Google images.