In a time when we can carry, literally, thousands of photographs around on our telephones, it’s easy to forget how having a ready and available image of a loved one was not only difficult, but was also the almost exclusive domain of the wealthy (this dates back not only to the days before iPhones, but before cameras).
Beginning in the 16th century as somewhat of a novelty and painted on copper, miniature portraits became the height of personal luxury mementos – and their popularity grew over the next 200 years.
Sometimes mistakenly called “mourning portraits,” miniatures were, indeed, oftentimes created to commemorate departed loved ones, but were just as often intended as a keepsake to be carried as a reminder of someone cherished and far away. Tucked in pockets by gentlemen or worn around the neck by ladies, by the 18th century, these tiny treasures were painted on ivory, framed in gold, adorned with expensive silk ribbon and packaged in their own fitted leather cases.
Nowadays, these are pretty rare and highly valuable collectibles.
In my opinion, these miniscule collectibles…masterpieces, actually… are almost more impressive than the large gilt-framed effigies we’ve come to expect when thinking of historic portraiture…not only for their technical execution at such a size, but in the sentiment behind them. They are certainly more personal. Intimate.
Many years ago, while on a buying trip in Belgium, I came across a tiny red leather case. Upon opening it, I discovered the image of a late 19th century gentleman dressed in ruffled collar and painted in profile on ivory. Under the jeweler’s loop that I always carried, the detail amazed me…down to the gold stickpin in his lapel. It was framed in gold with all the hallmarks and still had the original green silk ribbon tied onto it. But when I took the portrait from the case and turned it over, I was immediately sold.
On the reverse and under glass was a beautifully executed basket weave overpainted with a bouquet of tiny delicate flowers. Leaning in with the loop, I realized that the basket weave was done using the hair of the portrait’s subject. While it was not uncommon to find simple locks of hair in lockets and such, this was exceptional and I bought it immediately (extremely excited to add it to my collection of collectibles), tucking it into my coat pocket where it stayed until I was back in the States.
Part of the appeal of antiques to me has always been imagining who owned them before me. That thought never seemed more palpable than while carrying this little portrait around Europe in my pocket. I don’t know who this little man was, but someone loved him… A LOT…and left behind an exquisite little testimony to their affection. That is part of what makes these collectibles so remarkable…it’s not just the age or rarity, but the human story behind them.
Look for these collectibles at the Palm Beach Show Group’s upcoming Palm Beach Jewelry-Antiques-Design show on December 3-7.