Great and Small

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Great and Small

In this blog series our curators, archivists, conservators and learning team will be bringing together works of art from across the Collection under one theme. From armour and jewellery, to portraits and porcelain, read about some of the most fascinating and marvellous pieces in the Collection here.

Today we will be looking at the theme of 'Great and Small', comparing some of our largest objects, to some of our smallest ones, and the connections between them.

Portrait of Marie Leszczynska after Jean-Marc Nattier on canvas, c. 1746–56, and miniature version on ivory, c. 1748–60

The painting is an eighteenth-century copy of a portrait of Marie Leszczynska, Queen of France who was known for her kindly, gentle nature. Her low-key personality clearly comes across in Nattier’s composition where she chose to be represented reading, wearing an informal day dress, rather than surrounded by the signs and symbols of her royal status.

The original painting, now conserved at the château de Versailles, was by court artist Jean-Marc Nattier. The Wallace Collection’s copy, which probably originated in the artist’s studio, is smaller than the original. By coincidence the museum also possesses a miniature copy of the same composition — a work that reduces the composition even further: rather than depicting the sitter at three-quarter length, it shows her at bust length. Together the two works, one a reduced copy, the other a miniature, indicate the extent to which portraits of royal sitters were routinely replicated in various media, generally for use as gifts to visiting dignitaries and heads of state.

Find out more about the portrait of Marie Leszczynska and the miniature on ivory here.

Mrs Mary Robinson (Perdita) by Thomas Gainsborough, 1781, and miniature by John Hazlitt after Reynolds, c. 1790–1830

Here are two portraits of Mary Robinson, a gifted writer and actress, and celebrity of the Georgian era. She was nicknamed “Perdita" after her lead role as the lost shepherdess in David Garrick's production of A Winter's Tale. The role had brought her notoriety as it was then that she was spotted by the 17 year old Prince of Wales, with whom she had a short affair that caused a media frenzy.

Both portraits are closely associated with the Royal Academy exhibition of 1782, at which Mrs Robinson staged her public come-back through a range of portraits after the humiliating end of her affair with the prince. Each offers a different take on the situation. In his full length portrait, Gainsborough depicts Mary in a rural setting as befits a lost shepherdess. She holds a miniature, which is probably the portrait of the Prince of Wales, which he had given her just months earlier as a token of his undying love. This portrait therefore underlines the chief role of portrait miniatures in society, a fashion led by the Prince himself. Gainsborough quickly withdrew his portrait shortly before the opening of the show, perhaps due to the notoriety of the sitter.

The other portrait, M40, is a later copy by John Hazlitt after a portrait by Gainsborough’s chief rival, Reynolds, which was also exhibited at the 1782 show. Reynolds, Robinson’s friend and confidant, emphasises a more robust side of her character. Her cool and defiant expression is matched by her dashing costume formed from bold contrasts of black and white, especially the broad brimmed hat plumed with ostrich feathers. Reynolds's portrait once belonged to the Marquesses of Hertford but is now at Waddesdon Manor. Hazlitt's miniature captures the bravura of Reynolds’s original on a much smaller scale.

Find out more about Gainsborough's portrait here and John Hazlitt's miniature here.

Partial armour, France or Netherlands, c. 1610 and a cuirass, France, c. 1600

The introduction of firearms to the European battlefield meant that plate armour had to become thicker and heavier in order to fend off bullets and shot. This partial armour, made in France or the Netherlands in around 1610, is an example of this heavier armour. It consists of a morion, cuirass and shoulder defences, which combined weigh over 23 kg, making it one of the heaviest armours in the Wallace Collection.

In contrast, one of the lightest and smallest pieces of armour in the museum is this cuirass, which was made for a child in France around 1600 – it only weighs a little over one kilo. In the medieval and early modern periods, royal and aristocratic boys were often given armours of great quality which were scaled down versions of adult armours. They were designed to familiarise their owners with wearing body protection and could be used in battles, ceremonies or tournaments

Find out more about one of our heaviest armours here, and one of our lightest pieces here.

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