Exquisite little masterpieces of British portraiture from two outstanding private art collections are now on exhibition at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, forming one of the finest – and largest – displays of miniatures in the UK outside of London.
Close to the Heart features some 50 dazzling miniatures, ranging in date from around 1600 to 1850, from the Daphne Foskett Collection and a second, anonymous collection well known to experts. It includes stunning examples by leading names in the field such as Peter Oliver, George Engleheart, Richard Cosway, John Smart and 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.
One of the highlights of the show is a tiny, oval, sepia portrait – barely 1cm high – of 18th-century actor, playwright and impresario David Garrick – set in what is said to have been one of the actor's favourite rings. After his death in 1779, Garrick's wife, the German singer Eva Marie Viegel, had the portrait (painted by an unknown artist) and set in the ring. The item remained in Garrick's family until it was acquired in 1895 for the private collection in which it remains today.
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 painted portrait miniature. 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 these works on extended loan here, so they will be available for study after the exhibition closes. We also intend to use these loans for future 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 have provisional plans to show some of them alongside a contemporary artist's response to this traditional format in 2014, 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.
For more information about Close to the Heart, press images, or to arrange an interview with Robert Wenley, please contact Barber Press and Marketing Officer Andrew Davies on 0121 414 2946 / 07769 958114.
17th- to 19th-century Portrait Miniatures from UK Collections
1 February – 5 May 2013
The Barber Institute of Fine Arts
University of Birmingham
0121 414 7333
Open: Monday – Friday, 10am – 5pm; Saturday & Sunday: 11am – 5pm
(Closed Good Friday 29 March)
Admission to collections and all the exhibitions are free
NOTES FOR EDITORS
Bonhams, founded in 1793, is one of the world's largest auctioneers of fine art and antiques. The present company was formed by the merger in November 2001 of Bonhams & Brooks and Phillips Son & Neale. In August 2002, the company acquired Butterfields, the principal firm of auctioneers on the West Coast of America. Today, Bonhams offers more sales than any of its rivals, through two major salerooms in London: New Bond Street and Knightsbridge; and a further three in the UK regions and Scotland. Sales are also held in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Carmel, New York and Connecticut in the USA; and Germany, France, Monaco, Hong Kong and Australia. Bonhams has a worldwide network of offices and regional representatives in 25 countries offering sales advice and valuation services in 60 specialist areas. For a full listing of upcoming sales, plus details of Bonhams specialist departments go to www.bonhams.com