Monday, 5 June 2017

June: Portrait miniatures at the post-war V&A

Tuesday, 3rd June, 1947

"Heat at its height today.  I love it but it's stifling.  Everyone else complains….I had a dinner party of Billa Harrod, Puss Milnes-Gaskell and Leigh Ashton.  It was so hot that we sat with the windows and door open in a direct draught.  Leigh, being very fat, sweated profusely.  Food the best I have had here yet: chicken in aspic, strawberries and cream.  I am a bad host however, and inattentive.  Leigh took us to his Museum across the way where he showed us the Elizabethan miniature collection just opened.  They are beautifully displayed behind glass.  He is a splendid  showman.  The V & A was all lit up for us alone, and attendants there in their uniforms.  Billa stayed and talked until one o'c, for sleep is out of the question in this heat."

Caves of Ice James Lees Milne 1947

Sir Leigh Ashton  V&A Museum Director   © V&A


Back in March 1946  Leigh Ashton was in charge of restoring the V&A Museum, as its various collections filtered back from wartime storage in the Aldwych train tunnel, underground quarries in Wiltshire and from Montacute House, along with the "piles of dusty furniture in the downstairs basement".   He established new galleries according to historic periods, bringing together the finest or most historically significant pieces of furniture, metalwork, textiles, painting, sculpture and ceramics of their time in visually arresting displays.
But in 1947 this was yet to come.  Then there was a display of Wellington's military medals and insignia in the Entrance hall, a study collection of Coptic and French textiles in the gallery beyond, and Frederick, Prince of Wales' Royal Barge (now in the NMM at Greenwich) sitting in an adjoining gallery; other large architectural items  (staircases, house fronts) stood against walls with little coherent plan.

Today, some of the finest Tudor miniatures are on display in the British Galleries, by artists such as Holbein, Isaac Oliver and Nicholas Hilliard, alongside contemporary jewels and textiles.

Unknown Man  Isaac Oliver c. 1600 © V&A

Nicholas Hilliard painted this self portrait below in 1577, while he was in France; his portrait of Mary Queen of Scots,  is dated c. 1578-9 and is a repeat of one in the collection of HM. the Queen (the repeat uses the less costly blue bice pigment).
Mary Queen of Scots c. 1579-9  Nicholas Hilliard   © V&A


The Museum's extensive main collection of portrait miniatures is upstairs in Room 91.  It does not include the miniature Lees-Milne brought to the Museum in March 1946:  "I left at the Museum Queen Elizabeth's reputed napkin from Charlecote which Leigh thinks may be sixteenth century.  Also the miniature of Sir Thomas Lucy which may be by Isaac Oliver."    This is now back home at Charlecote Park and ascribed to William Larkin.


Sir Thomas Lucy III,  oil on copper, c. 1609-10   William Larkin  © National Trust

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