Skip to main content

Unlocking the English Portrait Miniature: The Materiality of Isaac Oliver's Oeuvre

The portrait miniature is a rare art form that was brought to perfection in Elizabethan and Jacobean England by Nicholas Hilliard (1547 – 1619) and Isaac Oliver (c. 1565–1617). The surviving miniatures, of which the Fitzwilliam holds a collection of national importance, together with a small number of contemporary treatises produced by practitioners of the art, allow a unique insight into a formative period in the development of the country’s visual and political culture.

Nicholas Hilliard, establishing his reputation from the early 1570s onwards (he was shown the rare honour of being commissioned to portray Elizabeth I in miniature in 1572), has received much attention in the past, due in part to his written work, A Treatise Concerning the Arte of Limning, through which an opinionated and diligent artistic personality emerges. However, Isaac Oliver, Hilliard’s most famous and arguably more talented pupil, was a highly versatile artist who also excelled in draughtsmanship, but whose artistic scope and technical range is nevertheless much harder to establish in full. This is not least because, unlike his teacher, Oliver is not known to have produced any written documentation about his life and practice.

A pilot study, funded by the Cambridge Humanities Research Grant Scheme and undertaken during 2018–19, approached Isaac Oliver from a technical angle through the undertaking of a study of his working methods, techniques and use of materials as evidenced in approximately ten attributed works, mainly from the Fitzwilliam Museum miniatures collection. A technical and analytical approach was employed, which expanded on the methodology developed for the examination of illuminated manuscripts that fed into the COLOUR: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum (30 July 2016–2 January 2017). The same analytical protocol was furthermore successfully employed during the Hamilton Kerr Institute’s work on the recently acquired National Trust cabinet miniature of Lord Herbert of Cherbury, attributed to Oliver and now exhibited at Powis Castle, in Wales.

The pilot study, although limited in scope, confirmed the potential of the cross-disciplinary approach and of the proposed analytical methodology, which includes technical photography and micrography (in visible and raking light), X-radiography, imaging (in the ultraviolet and near-infrared range) and spectroscopy (FORS, XRF and FT-IR). It revealed in great detail what paint media and pigments are present in the examined miniatures, and how they were utilised to accomplish such highly refined results. It also clarified questions about later interventions and deterioration phenomena, which on such a small scale can be extremely difficult to chart with the naked eye!

The present research project (August 2019–July 2021) builds on the former, but greatly expands the scope by incorporating a much larger number of miniatures attributed to Isaac Oliver from a wide range of collections across Britain and abroad. Over a two-year period, technical data will be collected from Isaac Oliver miniatures in the Royal Collection, the National Trust, the Swedish National Museum and many others in public and private ownership. This will enable a new and extensive characterisation of Isaac Oliver’s surviving oeuvre. Already at this stage, the collected data is giving away some of the artist’s secrets, suggesting a freer use of materials than prescribed in Hilliard’s treatise, an experimental streak rarely evident in the finished works, as well as strong connections with the artistic scene on the Continent.

A key outcome of the project will be a digital resource containing the technical images and data collected, which will allow for public and academic audiences to experience and examine the material with their own eyes, comparing and contrasting features across different miniatures and getting closer to these secretive objects than has been possible previously.

The ongoing research is generously funded by the British Academy/ Leverhulme Small Research Grant Scheme and the Fitzwilliam Museum Marlay Group.

Other research projects you might like

Sign up to our emails

Be the first to hear about our news, exhibitions, events and more…

Sign up