SAN MARICO, CALIFRNIA.- The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens present “Pictures in Private – British Portraiture in Domestic Spaces 1680-1830,” on view through September 28, 2003. Pictures in Private brings together for the first time, over 100 portraits from The Huntington’s impressive collection of drawings, mezzotint prints, and miniatures in order to take an intimate look at the type of small-scale portraits that were often displayed in the home. In the process, this new exhibition provides visitors with a glimpse into the many roles portraiture played in eighteenth-century British interior design, art collecting practices, and domestic customs.
With its ability to capture likeness and illustrate biography, portraiture has long been a part of the domestic interior. During the eighteenth century, small-scale portraits not only ornamented a collector’s walls as treasured works of art, but prints and drawings were also assembled in albums as a pastime to be leisurely enjoyed in the home. Portraits in varied shapes and media were often carefully positioned so they functioned like "furniture" for the eyes and the imagination, stimulating visual interest through the contrasts in size, shape, and level of detail. Such displays were also meant to provoke intellectual interest. For example, the well-known author and collector Horace Walpole built a special miniature cabinet in his Tribune, a room in his house at Strawberry Hill where he hung portraits in different media. Pictures in Private features a recreation of an eighteenth-century miniature cabinet to illustrate the type of visual stimulation collectors like Walpole wished to achieve.
Within the private spaces of the home, small-scale portraits served a variety of needs. They could function as a memento of an absent loved one or display a personal sentiment, illustrating new ideas about the importance of the family and childhood that developed in the eighteenth century. Edward Burch’s miniature portrait of William Lamb was probably made around the time he was sent to school at Eton as a token of affection for his parents to keep at home.
Portraits could also illuminate elevated notions of beauty, highlighting its associations with ideals of virtue. Objects of beauty often signified the good taste of those who displayed them. British print collectors, for example, sought out Valentine Green’s mezzotint of the Ladies Waldegrave from the time of its publication onward not only for its high quality, but, perhaps more avidly, for the legendary beauty of the sitters.
Although portraits were often prized for their personal associations, those who purchased them would not necessarily have known the sitter depicted, appreciating the pictures instead for their decorative appeal or their ability to convey elevated ideas. Portraits of celebrities or accomplished individuals epitomized values such as intellectual achievement or social success, while images of controversial figures could work as both titillating ornament and suitable decoration. For example, Anne Mee’s miniature of Emma, Lady Hamilton emphasizes the beauty of Admiral Nelson’s notorious mistress.
Portraits also helped make sense of political and social changes, allowing collectors to construct visual histories of the nation in albums or on their walls. Images of military heroes such as the Duke of Marlborough symbolized concepts of patriotism and nationalism, and recalled great British victories, while royal portraits, traditional expressions of loyalty to one’s country, further asserted national identity.
Pictures in Private illuminates the many functions of small-scale portraiture within the private spaces of eighteenth-century homes. The exhibition’s installation evokes several popular modes of display, providing insight into how collectors constructed meaning for these objects. For example, one gallery wall recreates the idea of an eighteenth-century print room, a fashionable form of interior decoration that allowed amateurs to choose prints and arrange them according to their own aesthetic program. In the case of portraiture, chosen prints might focus on images of celebrated women or illustrious men, for example. Pasted directly onto the wall and surrounded by printed borders, these images reflected their owners’ tastes and interests. In turn, such displays helped fashion a collector’s self-image, reinforcing ideas about his or her own cultural sophistication or intellectual authority. Despite their relatively small size, portrait prints, drawings, and miniatures were powerful tools for the construction of identity within the eighteenth-century domestic interior. By affording visitors a chance to experience in some small way a few of these private spaces, Pictures in Private sheds light on one aspect of life in an eighteenth-century home.