Belinda's Bash

Belinda Naylor-Stables

A little inspiration goes a long way

There’s something enormously liberating about creating a big work. Small, on the other hand, provides a different sort of creative satisfaction. Coming soon is the HVA Secret Exhibition for members, inviting donations of postcard-size works in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support. Each work raises £20 for the charity. So in this article I thought I’d visit the world of the small works in a range of media.

This all started when I visited Linda, our Open Studios Project Manager, for a chat about a press release for the HVA Secret Exhibition. The conversation turned to what artists could actually do on a postcard-size surface. Linda said, “A tiny miniature in the middle of the postcard would work too. It could be something really small - as long as it has impact.” I agreed and decided to go home and look up the story of miniature art – and hopefully find some inspiration there.

I turned to the word MINIATURE in my thick tome called ‘The Oxford Companion to Art’. This handy book says “The word derives from the Latin minium, the red lead used to emphasize the initial letters, decorated by the miniator.“ Perhaps you already know this is how the word miniature was born, even though, in their day, Latin-speaking monks beavering away in the Scriptorium, would have called their illustrations historia.

The ‘Companion’ goes on: “The term ‘miniature’ is also used to describe small paintings, particularly portraits.”


I’ve always had a love affair with illuminated manuscripts The colours and the patterns are mesmerising and the stories they tell find their way to your soul. Doesn’t everyone love them? I need inspiration for the postcard pieces I’m going to do and so this is where I’m going to start.

Page from the Book of Kells

Page from the Book of Kells

I’ve been known to go out of my way to see original illuminated manuscripts. For example, earlier this year I queued for ages in the rain to see the Book of Kells Exhibition at The Old Library, Trinity College, Dublin. I have to admit to being slightly disappointed. With fascinating books like this you want to see every page. I wish the conservation team would scan the book and provide a page-by-page slide show or a touch-screen version to flip through. I was also surprised at the texture of the vellum page which had a matt plastic quality. I wondered whether that had anything to do with attempts to stabilise the art – or whether this is how it would have appeared to the monk who had just completed it. Whoever he was, his faultless execution met every expectation.

Small portraits

I always think of small portraits as an ancient art. I think it stems from that story in the New Testament where the Pharisees and Herodians try to trick Jesus by asking, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Jesus asks them to bring him a coin and says, “Whose likeness is on the coin?” They say, “Caesar’s”. So he gives them a matter-of-fact response “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Whatever your beliefs, the coin with Caesar’s picture on it is a physical reality. This was a miniature portrait. The potential for this type of portrait was there from the moment human beings could smelt metal and sculpt or draw a face. The results were coins, commemorative medals and plaquettes with portraits or pictures of legendary heroes or religious scenes. You only have to visit our local Roman exhibition at St Albans Museum to see some examples. And my ‘Companion’ tells me this was not an art reserved for famous people. In Roman times middle class families would go to a medallist to create a portrait as a keepsake – just as we might go to a photographic studio or artist for a portrait now. I found that fascinating. Humans don’t change.

You can see the same trend for portrait medals and coins in the Renaissance period What I hadn’t thought about were the way these were made. My ‘Companion’ tells me there were two methods. Some were actually small sculptures – and the techniques were the same as creating a Renaissance bronze statue. Then Benvenuto Cellini (1500 – 71) cheated a bit by creating commemorative medals by striking them like coins. A heated metal disc is placed between engraved dies and this sandwich is then hammered or screw-pressed to the point where a good clear image is created on the metal. The artistry of medals meant that they were often given as gifts. But once they could be mass-produced like coins it meant that portraits were used for satirical propaganda too, with faces that look like cartoons. In some examples when you turn a medal with the face of the pope upside down he becomes the devil, and a cardinal becomes a foolish jester. 

What I do know is that the miniatures created by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497–1573) are said to be the best ever painted. You can see his miniature Anne of Cleves in the Victoria and Albert Museum. 

Anne of Cleeves by Hans Holbein the Younger

Anne of Cleeves by Hans Holbein the Younger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

My ‘Companion’ tells me that at that time miniatures were just small portable paintings. Then towards the end of the 16th century they began to be worn as jewellery with precious frames and the shape changed from square to oval and then they became lockets. You might recognise the names of Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver, the well-known Elizabethan miniaturists.

In the 18th century miniature artist began to work on ivory instead of vellum and used thinner colour with a much brighter result. My ‘Companion’ also tells me that the William Charles Ross (1794-1860), a Scottish artist, is considered to be the last of the great miniaturists, and that he created large rectangular miniatures, often over a foot high – called ‘pictures in small’. ‘Surely,’ I think to myself, ‘some of these would have been postcard-size...’


At some point miniatures became ‘collectibles’. According to my ‘Companion’, Horace Walpole was apparently the greatest collector of miniatures ever. [Horace Walpole was the youngest son of our first Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole who was in office from 1721 to 1742.] Then the Bone family started a fashion for painting enamel copies of Old Masters. At that point miniatures stopped being personal jewels and became part of a toy gallery. Then from 1850 photography took the place of painted portraits, and the miniature as a personal memento and portable portrait died.

When you look around you today you see that miniature toys, things like dolls house collectibles, have continued to fire the imaginations of children and adults – with perhaps fridge magnets being the latest development. Looking at the trends I can see that technology could be a threat to these – with various apps that offer play-lives in miniature on a screen. Though while we still have real walls, and coffee tables, chests of drawers and shelves, dolls house walls and fridge doors, there is a potential market for small art.

The HVA Secret Exhibition 2014 is not just for painters, photographers and textile designers – the techniques of calligraphers, jewellers, sculptors, and glass artists traditionally hold a place in small art too. It’s a good place to start small – and all in a good cause too.

See you there.