From London, Gallery of Miniatures at the V&A

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.



    • TwointheMiddle

      All of the miniatures mentioned in this post are at the wonderful Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

  • Grandmama

    Those miniatures as you say feel so personal in viewing them. They really are lovely and they motivated me to do a little search into the times they were living in. The fact that Diana raised a family in India made me curious to know the kind of business the East India Company was. After reading about it I could imagine she with her husband and children lived a privileged life in India. But there must have been fear in their lives too because they were living there in the time of the cholera pandemic: “10,000 British troops and countless Indians died during this pandemic. Between 1736 and 1834 only some 10% of East India Company’s officers survived to take the final voyage home.”
    Anna Mee, twenty-five or thereabout had her hardship, but she was so pretty and her husband’s rule that she not have male sitters for her portraits confirms that the beauty she portrays in her self-portrait is true.

    A Very nice vicarious trip for me today at the V & A museum.

    • TwointheMiddle

      I loved learning from your research so much about what Diana Hill’s life might have been like in India. It’s amazing that only 10% of the officers survived. Something about these miniatures makes one want to know more about the subjects, right? Interestingly, talented women artists found an artistic outlet and career in miniature-painting, as they were not allowed careers in full-size portraiture. I find that part of the story so interesting.

  • Andy McEwan

    Hello, Pamela,
    I’ve always found miniature paintings fascinating because, I think, of the combination of immense skill, artistic achievement and, not least, the personal nature of so many of the images. In the days before the ubiquitous photograph, in which we live, these tiny pictures would have been the only image people had of loved ones maybe half a world away. They must have held them very precious.
    Miniature painting, of course, has a long history. I sometimes think that nowadays it’s sometimes seen as a quaint offshoot of “real art” which is a pity as some miniatures can easily hold their own artistically with many masterpieces on the grander scale. It’s good to know that, even in our photographic age, miniature painting is still alive and kicking. The U.K. is home to the rather grandly titled Royal Society of Miniature Painters, Sculptors & Gravers. A look at their website
    will show the amazing range and beauty of the work of its members.

    • TwointheMiddle

      Andy, first I went to the royal miniature society’s website, which made me want to see if there was anything on the V&A’s site worth exploring (of course there was), especially on this page — Thank you for inspiring me to delve deeper. The idea, as you say, that “these tiny pictures would have been the only image people had of loved ones maybe half a world away” is what makes the old miniatures especially interesting and particularly moving. Amazing that artists today choose to work in this tiny format!

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