One of the finest collections of miniature portraits from Georgian Britain and Ireland will go on display at Kenwood House in North London after it was given to the nation.
Curators said it was unusual that the 65 miniatures of the Lady Cohen Collection, which mostly date from the 1760s-1840s and depict aristocrats, society figures and soldiers, were all by important named artists.
Louise Cooling, curator of collections and interiors at Kenwood, said it was particularly appropriate that the miniatures should come to the house, which already has an “iconic” collection of British art including works by Reynolds and Gainsborough. The mansion, on landscaped grounds adjoining Hampstead Heath, was remodelled by architect Robert Adam for the 1st Earl of Mansfield during the 1760s and 1770s and was in its heyday during the golden-age of miniature painting.
Highlights of the Lady Cohen Collection include an 1821 double-portrait by Andrew Robertson, showing Mrs Wadham Wyndham and her sister Miss Slade — daughters of Peninsular War veteran General Sir John “Black Jack” Slade — admiring a miniature in a red leather case.
Robertson mixed gum arabic with his watercolours, allowing him to build a greater depth of colour and more texture on the smooth ivory surface than his rivals. This enabled him to paint more complex compositions in a slightly larger, rectangular format than the oval portraits that had been the norm.
Mrs Wyndham, an MP’s wife, is depicted with a blue bodice and gold belt, an ermine-bordered pink stole and coral crucifix and a double-strand of pearls in her hair. Her sister is dressed more soberly in a brown dress with a double lace collar and a white gauze veil tied up in her hair.
Other artists represented include George Engleheart, a student of Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Anne Mee, who secured the patronage of Queen Charlotte and her son the Prince Regent and painted a number of court beauties. Curators believe the sitter of a portrait by Mee in the collection at Kenwood may be Albana, 1st Marchioness of Bristol, based on comparison with a bust at Ickworth in Suffolk.
Among other aristocratic sitters are Maria, Viscountess Duncannon, a sister-in-law of Lord Byron’s lover Lady Caroline Lamb. She was painted around 1810 by George Sanders, one of the most fashionable miniaturists of his day.
The collection also includes works by several provincial artists such as the Jewish Daniel brothers, whose careers in the West Country are more obscure but whose work is highly regarded.
Cooling said: “It’s one of those collections that really shows you the breadth of talent in the field of miniature painting in the second half of the 18th century and first half of the 19th century. Because the big hitters are there but also there are all these other artists whose names might be less familiar, even to people who are interested in portrait miniatures, but who were really talented and skilled at the work they did.”
She added that, in this period, miniatures were often regarded as of equal artistic merit to larger portraits, although they also had some of the characteristics of selfies. “It wasn’t considered a secondary form — it was different. When the Royal Academy was first founded, they were shown around the mantelpiece in the main exhibition space. And miniatures themselves had a different function. They were intimate, sentimental objects that were given as representatives of absent loved ones, lost loved ones [ . . . ] as tokens of affection, friendship.
“Whereas an oil painting by Gainsborough or Reynolds was really only obtainable to the top tier of society, there were a lot of miniature painters working in Britain in the second half of the 18th century whose work was more affordable to the middling classes. I think they played a much larger role in the consciousness of people, in the way that photography does nowadays — you don’t have to be passionate about art or a collector of arts to enjoy taking pictures with people you love. And miniatures occupy a bit of that ground between art objects and sentimental objects.”
The miniatures will go on display later this summer. Cooling said: “I want to display just a handful at a time to give people space to really engage with them as these small, discreet, sentimental objects, rather than overwhelming them with lots and lots of these very small portraits.”
Visitors will be able to use a magnifying glass to study each one closely. Cooling also hopes to make digital images of all the miniatures available online, so that art fans around the world will be able to zoom in to see the individual brush strokes. “They do benefit from that kind of close looking.”