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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Collecting Miniatures

( Originally Published 1913 )



Miniatures are delightful things to collect. Of those which lie in wait for a collector many are beautiful and some are old.The origin of miniatures is "lost in the obscurity of the ninth century," a great French authority once said; but in "Gossip about Portraits " by Walter F. Tiffen, published forty-six years ago, it is written that "Adam and Eve wore each other's miniatures from the very day of their falling in love," and Mr. Tiffen quoted Tom Moore in proof:

Look in my eyes, my blushing fair!

Thou'lt see thyself reflected there

And, as I gaze in thine, I see

Two little miniatures of me.

Beware! Take note that hundreds of frauds await the unwary collector of miniatures. Seldom adventure upon a round wooden snuff or patch box with an oval miniature let into the top of the lid. Be chary of ivory boxes with miniatures on or under the lid. Be more chary of buying a poorly painted miniature in an old frame than of buying a well-painted miniature in a new frame. And keep in mind the classification in the following paragraph :

Seven Kinds of Old Miniatures.

1. The earliest English miniatures are those on vellum; these are seldom portraits, and have usually been cut out of missals and other illuminated books.

2. Then came portrait miniatures on cardboard. Holbein, Hilliard, Cooper, and their contemporaries worked on this surface. The cardboard was usually the back of a playing-card, because the best cardboard then made was used by playing-card makers.

3. About the same date paper was sometimes used.

4. Miniatures in enamel on metal, though early in France, came into use much later here.

5. Miniatures painted on silver or gold were almost contemporaneous with those on cardboard and paper.

6. Many early miniatures were painted in oil-colours on copper, but hardly anything is yet known about the painters of these.

7. Ivory, as a material, did not come into use until the beginning of the eighteenth century.

The Materials as Tests. Thus, if you are offered a miniature of Queen Elizabeth painted on ivory, you may be sure that it was not painted in the Elizabethan Age, and it will be, in that respect at least, a fraud. And so will almost certainly be a miniature of Lady Hamilton painted on old cardboard or paper. The material should correspond with the date of the supposed sitting for the portrait.

The pigments guide you also. Except on copper, oilpaint was seldom used. Water-colour mixed with white lead or "Chinese white" was the vehicle of the old miniature-painters-body-colour, or guache, as it is called. Transparent water-colour--not touched with Chinese white-was hardly ever used at all, and certainly not before the beginning of the nineteenth century.The Hard Dryness of the Pigments. If with a needle you can cut the thick parts of the painting in oil or guache, depend upon it the work is not more than twenty-five years old. It seems vandalish to suggest the use of a needle in that way, and it should only take place as a last test and resort ; it can, however, be done almost invisibly. In an old miniature the pigments have become hardened by age. They have also become friable, however, and you must distinguish between a "cut" of the paint and a scratch which reveals the cardboard or ivory.

The Use of a Lens. Forgers take a photographic process-print copy of an old miniature, and fake it up with colour. But a strong glass will show you the wire-blind-like lines produced on the print by the screen through which the original was photographed.

The Back of the Miniature. Old miniatures were often wrapped in gold-beater's skin, pasted down at the edges of the picture, to keep out damp and air; look for that ; always have the miniature out of the frame before buying. If between the back of the miniature and the frame you find hair, a scrap of writing, or a bit of old newspaper, these will be guides.

The Frames. Seventeenth-century miniatures were usually framed in gold, with a twisted ornamental top, or in silver, "parcel-gilt" (like the goblet by which Falstaff swore). Eighteenth-century miniatures had gold or gilt frames, often set with brilliants or paste, or in the latter part of that century, as in the beginning of the next, set in oblongs of black papier-mache or ebonised wood, with oval inner rims of ormolu or pinchbeck.

The Art of the Painter. But frames can be changed, and other addenda forged, so that the supreme test is the care, finish, and yet freedom of the painting. The lips are more difficult tests than the eyes; the hands are a good test, also. The use of the Chinese white which imitated lace is, especially, a test of this sort; if it be slovenly dashed in, the miniature is little likely to be old and good. In this, as in all antiques, the final and supreme criterion is the workmanship. It would not pay a forger of anything to work as slowly and conscientiously as the makers of the original treasures gladly did, and the forgers cannot work so well.

The Look. Instinctively, after a period of experience, you will come to know, by the mere look, if a miniature is old.



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