Exhibition | Close to the Heart: British Miniatures

Posted in exhibitions by Editor on April 7, 2013

Press release from the The Barber Institute:

Close to the Heart: 17th- 19th-Century British Miniatures from UK Private Collections
The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham, 1 February — 5 May 2013

Curated by Robert Wenley

miniature08500A 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.


Peter Cross, The Actress Anne Oldfield as Fame, ca. 1710
(Daphne Foskett Collection)

The miniature is one of 50 masterpieces of British portraiture from two outstanding private art collections on display at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in the exhibition Close to the Heart: 17th- to 19thcentury 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.

Richard Crosse, Two Unknown Boys, possibly a self-portrait of the artist and one of his brothers (Daphne Foskett Collection)

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.’

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