The dimly lit miniaturist’s gallery in the Victoria & Albert Museum enthralls us with its tiny likenesses, painted by artists called “miniaturists.” When viewed with a magnifying glass, these miraculously detailed masterpieces achieve a breathtaking three-dimensional quality. Viewing people from the past in such an intimate way magically transports the viewer into the past, when these tiny portraits were carried as tokens of love and affection, sometimes journeying thousands of miles to distant lands during an era of British exploration and expansion. Eventually, a few miniaturists traveled to those distant lands themselves. With a few miniaturists based in India, the exchange of portraits between Britain and India became cheap and easy. They could be mailed or carried home by a friend or relative.
In 1785, a widowed artist whose work and story captivated us, Diana Hill (born Diana Dietz in about 1760) independently made the six-month voyage by boat to India. To set up a business in Madras or Calcutta she needed the permission of the East India Company, the trading company that ran these areas at the time. Although some of her sitters were local dignitaries, most were British. They included employees of the Company and their families. Here is a painting she did of an unidentified girl. The East India Company made it difficult for company employees to marry Indian women. But there were many unofficial marriages. The girl in this watercolour painting on ivory (1785-90), wearing fashionable western clothes, could be the daughter of such a couple.
In 1788, Diana married Lieutenant Thomas Harriott, an officer in the East India Company’s service. She continued to paint while raising a family in India.
Anna Mee (born Anna Foldsone in about 1771) painted the self-portrait below in 1795. She supported her mother and eight brothers and sisters painting miniatures after her father’s death. Her husband only agreed to her continuing to paint professionally if she had no male sitters.
In what has become one of our favorite museums, the gallery of miniatures is one of our favorite destinations. We spend an entire hour here, independently studying portraits that call out to us and then beckoning to each other when we notice something new in the tiny brushstrokes, whispering as if the subjects in the paintings will awaken if we speak too loudly.