The Wallace Collection

Horenbout: Portrait Miniature of Hans Holbein (M203)
Treasure of the Month - September 2003

Horenbout: Portrait Miniature of Hans Holbein (M203)

September’s Treasure of the Month focuses for the first time on a miniature.

Miniatures evolved not as small variants of oil paintings but as a distinct art form in their own right, known in England as limnings. Their minute technique derived from the hand-painted illustrations, or illuminations, found in early books and manuscripts (examples of which are on view in the Sixteenth-Century Gallery). When the demand for small portable commemorative images arose in the 1520s, prompted by the culture of diplomacy and gift giving central to the courts of François I of France and Henry VIII of England, the techniques of manuscript illumination were transferred to portrait miniatures. In 1523 a miniature portrait of the heir to the French throne, the Dauphin, was painted on vellum by Jean Clouet (c.1485–1540/1) and sent to Henry VIII (examples of miniatures by Jean’s son, François, may be compared in the same case). This in turn inspired the English monarch to commission a series of similar images of himself and his family from one of his court artists, the Flemish manuscript illustrator, Lucas Horenbout (1490/5–1544).

Horenbout’s exquisitely detailed manner of painting on vellum established the main characteristics of miniature painting in England in the sixteenth century. This style is superbly represented in the Wallace Collection by Horenbout’s miniature of the Swiss artist, Hans Holbein (1497/8–1543). The features of the face are carefully modelled by hatching in grey and red strokes over a pink flesh colour called the carnation. Careful attention is paid to the depiction of the costume, including the sitter’s black doublet and white shirt, and to details such as the ring on his left hand. The whole figure is then set against a jewel-like blue background with characteristic gold lettering. The miniature was originally kept in an ivory turned box, as George Vertue recorded c.1745. Its gilt-metal frame was probably added when, as an inscription on the reverse tells us, the miniature was given to the famous wit and MP, George Selwyn, by Lord Bolingbroke in 1757.

Horenbout taught this technique to Holbein himself, who as Painter to Henry VIII (from 1536), was responsible for many of the most memorable portraits of the Tudor King and his Court. As a miniaturist Holbein soon surpassed his teacher, producing some of the most acutely observed miniatures ever painted, including the famous portrait of Anne of Cleves (Victoria and Albert Museum). The present image of Holbein, shown in the very act of drawing, crayon in hand, is a generous homage by Horenbout to his fellow artist. The inscription in gold identifies the sitter by his initials, H H, states his age, 45 years old, and the date, 1543. This was the year of Holbein’s death from plague and the Wallace Collection miniature was probably painted posthumously to commemorate the deceased artist. Horenbout followed his pupil to the grave the following year, leaving this portrait as a touching reminder of the two artists’ friendship.

Other major miniature collections on public view in the UK

  • Cambridge Fitzwilliam Museum.
  • Edinburgh Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
  • London Gilbert Collection, National Portrait Gallery, Royal Collection (changing temporary exhibitions in the Queen’s Gallery), Victoria and Albert Museum.
  • Oxford Ashmolean Museum.