notes, finds & fragments of research
A sturdy shiver went down my spine as I opened today’s e-mail from Bonhams. No, it was not the invoice for my last purchase there, but the announcement and catalogue of this week’s auction Fine Portrait Miniatures.
It has been a long time since I first came to adore this kind of portrait, especially those from the 18th and (early) 19th century. I can’t exactly put my finger on it, but it has most likely to do with the fact that they resemble a fluffier focus on historical life, or, perhaps better phrased: the softer and kinder personification of troubled times – i.e. the French revolutionary Reign of Terror and the Napoleonic Wars. These portrait miniatures were often tokens of genuine love or affectionate friendship. Sometimes given to secret lovers (a miniature, after all, is easier to hide from prying parental eyes and snooping siblings than a portrait of, let’s say 23 by 17 inches tall). But likewise by men to their fiancées, mothers, or dear sisters before sailing out to sea or marching off to a faraway war. Some were commissioned to remember a deceased child, or to keep friends, that were about to emigrate to the New World close to the heart.
These small tokens are the epitomes of the most basic sentiment of Remember Me. And exactly for this reason I cannot hide a sad smile as I browse through the catalogue and read the best the expert could do with the objects before her: ‘Lady wearing a silver robe…’, ‘Naval officer wearing a dark blue coat…’, ‘Portrait of a child...’, etc. It is the apprehension that all those people whom, as it were, gave themselves to be remembered by a loved one; their image survived history but their personal existence died somewhere along the line. And, as has often been my cry of perplexity: Why are the heirs selling this – and why, oh why! did they not make the effort of sticking the appropriate (possible) name to the face?
Research for the sake of identification in the case of these portraits is difficult, close to impossible – unless there is a signature or marking with a hint, or the availability of the artist’s administration. These items were so small and often of (then) so little financial value, that they are not described in inventories – unless the frame was set with pearls and diamonds. There are, of course, miniature portraits with names, but it mostly concerns the royal and famous faces, and a handful of lucky survivors. All the others were destined to join the legion of les inconnus, the unknown. They are, to put it bluntly: Art-historical driftwood.
It pains me; it truly does, as a researcher of history and the people of the past. But even the nameless deserve to be seen, at least once more before they disappear again in the obscurity of a private collection. And as I looked at those sweet and brave faces, I could not help but to think of Nahum Tate’s words, which he wrote for Dido’s lament, set to music by Henry Purcell in his Dido & Aeneas: Remember me, remember me, but ah! forget my fate…
This is my small but appreciative selection of 26 of the 126 portrait miniatures, which will be auctioned this coming Thursday, November 21st, at Bonhams (London, Knightsbridge).
See for more information
and the other 100 portrait miniatures
the catalogue of Fine Portrait Miniatures
NB – The following images are edited by me, but with the photo’s and information from the aforementioned Bonhams’ catalogue.