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Compton Verney unveils important collection of British miniature portraits
Installation view.

COMPTON VERNEY.- Over forty miniature paintings, not previously seen in public, have now gone on show at Compton Verney Art Gallery and Park in Warwickshire. The works are part one of the most important collections of this art form held anywhere in the world.

The collection consists of 842 works in total, and has been generously loaned on a permanent basis by Simon Dumas, following the death of his father in 2013.

Mr Dumas said: “We wanted Dad's exceptionally broad and, in the context of miniatures, important collection to be in the Midlands; and not in London, Cambridge or Oxford, since the Victoria and Albert Museum and National Portrait Gallery, the Fitzwilliam and the Ashmolean already have such wonderfully rich resources to display.”

He added: “We approached Compton Verney because they already have a fine collection of English portraits, which we thought Dad's mainly English collection would complement well.”

Upon his retirement from a successful career in the City, Mr Dumas’ firm, ED&F Man Capital Markets, gave him and his wife a round-the-world trip as a leaving present. It was on a wet day in Canada that the couple visited an art gallery which happened to be staging an exhibition of miniatures.

“They captivated Dad, who at the time was vaguely looking around for an indoor hobby for his retirement. He asked a curator where these little paintings were from, only to learn that they were from his own country, England. He started collecting almost immediately on their return from their trip in 1975, with the objective - impossible to achieve, but still a reference point - of acquiring an example, signed if possible, by every artist who ever worked in the British Isles,” Simon explained.

With his enthusiasm fired, Mr Dumas developed and added to his collection over the next thirty years.

The advent of photography and its ability to capture people’s likenesses relatively cheaply and led to the rapid decline of the portrait miniature from about 1850 onwards. Miniatures were often carried around or worn as a necklace or brooch but, because of the skill required to create them, were expensive to commission.

Deeply personal and available only to the wealthier echelons of society, miniatures were rarely seen by the greater public; consequently, miniature painting is not a well-known aspect of art – albeit that it flourished for some three centuries.

Prof Steven Parissien, Director of Compton Verney, believes the Dumas loan makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the British tradition of miniature portraits: “We are delighted that this world-class collection of outstanding British portrait miniatures has finally come back to England from Scotland, allowing us to share in the hidden delights of this most intimate and touching form of portraiture – as well as to learn much about their Stuart and Georgian sitters.”

Highlights include Lucas Horenbout’s Unknown Lady, painted circa 1543. Sir Roy Strong has suggested that the sitter was King Henry VIII’s sixth and last wife, Queen Catherine (Parr). Horenbout worked for Henry VIII from 1525, and is said to have taught Holbein how to paint miniatures – thus introducing this skill into Britain. Catherine herself died aged 36, five years after this portrait was painted, giving birth to a child by her fourth husband.

The celebrated Elizabethan and Jacobean painter Nicholas Hilliard is also represented, with Unknown Gentleman (1589). Hilliard made portrait miniatures popular in Britain, largely due to the patronage of Queen Elizabeth I herself. Having helped create fashionable images of the Virgin Queen and her court – one of whose members may be depicted here – Hilliard became the royal miniaturist (‘court limner’) to her successor, James I.

Also of note are the works of six female artists, including the exceptional Sarah Biffin (1784-1850). Born without hands, arms or feet, Sarah taught herself to paint and write by using her mouth. Apprenticed by her family to a man who exhibited her round the country as a sideshow freak, she simultaneously taught herself how to paint miniatures. She was rescued by the Earl of Morton, who sponsored formal painting lessons for her at the Royal Academy, and built up a large practice painting miniatures as a result of Queen Victoria’s patronage.

Having just visited the national gallery in Warwickshire to see the first selection from the collection on display, Simon Dumas says he is very pleased that his father’s collection has found the ideal place for members of the public to enjoy them:

“I hope the miniatures stay for many years in the beautiful surroundings of Compton Verney, where they are displayed so very well in the newly-made cabinet alongside the British paintings of the permanent collection. The display is far better than those in some of the London galleries in my opinion!”

The Dumas Loan can be seen in the British Portraits gallery at Compton Verney, along with remarkable collections such as the nationally-designated Chinese Bronzes and Britain’s best collection of British Folk Art.

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