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The portrait miniature is a rare art form that was brought to perfection in Elizabethan and Jacobean England by Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619) and Isaac Oliver (c.1565-1617). The surviving miniatures, of which the Fitzwilliam holds a collection of national importance, together with a small number of contemporary treatises produced by practitioners of the art, allow a unique insight into a formative period in the development of the country’s visual and political culture.

Nicholas Hilliard, establishing his reputation from the early 1570s onwards (he was shown the rare honour of being commissioned to portray Elizabeth I in miniature in 1572), has received much attention in the past, due in part to his written work: A Treatise Concerning the Arte of Limning, through which an opinionated and diligent artistic personality emerges. However, Isaac Oliver, Hilliard’s most famous and arguably more talented pupil, was a highly versatile artist who also excelled in draughtsmanship, but whose artistic scope and technical range is nevertheless much harder to establish in full. This in not least because, disappointingly and unlike his teacher, Oliver is not known to have produced any written documentation about his life and practice.

This research project will therefore approach Isaac Oliver from a technical angle, by the undertaking of a study of his working methods, techniques and use of materials as evidenced in approximately ten attributed works, mainly from the Fitzwilliam Museum miniatures collection. A technical and analytical approach will be employed, which expands on the methodology developed for the examination of illuminated manuscripts that fed into the recent COLOUR: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts exhibition (30 July 2016 – 2 January 2017). The planned analytical protocol was furthermore successfully employed during the Hamilton Kerr Institute’s work on the recently acquired National Trust cabinet miniature of Lord Herbert of Cherbury, attributed to Oliver and now restaged in the House of Portraits exhibition at Powis Castle, Wales.

The project aims to establish the suitability and output of employing an extensive, non-invasive analytical protocol that will reveal what paint media and pigments are present in the works, and how they were utilised to accomplish such highly refined results. Differences in approach to Nicholas Hilliard will be explored, allowing the unique traits of Oliver’s working methods to emerge out of a selected handful of his surviving miniatures.

This project is a pilot study funded by the Cambridge Humanities Research Grant scheme, necessarily limited in its scope, but aiming to pave the way for a much expanded future project that would include a greater selection of works by Isaac Oliver, as well as by other miniaturists, in the Fitzwilliam Museum and in other collections. It is hoped that this technical approach can help resolve many outstanding attributional questions in the field of miniature research. The project includes collaboration with the V&A, the National Portrait Gallery, the History of Art department of the University of Cambridge, and Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen. A small exhibition to showcase the main findings of this pilot study is planned for 2019 at the Fitzwilliam Museum.



Dr Paola Ricciardi, Research Scientist, Fitzwilliam Museum   

Christine Slottved Kimbriel, Senior Painting Conservator, The Hamilton Kerr Institute


This project is funded by the Cambridge Humanities Research Grants scheme.

Friday, 23 February, 2018