The group of 14 miniatures to be sold at Christie's on Tuesday provide an insight into the early development of the art which is never likely to be repeated in the sale room. There are two by Holbein the Younger, the only seriously great European artist ever to have turned his hand to the game. One is datable to 1532 and is thus his earliest known miniature. There are five more by Nicholas Hilliard, Queen Elizabeth I's favourite. There are also two miniatures by Hilliard's best pupil, Isaac Oliver - whose work is even rarer than his master's.
They come for sale, rather surprisingly, from the Philips family of Eindhoven, founders of the electrical goods company. Dr Anton F Philips (1874-1951), one of the two brothers who founded the firm, bought them in the 1930s - when Renaissance and medieval art was high fashion with the rich. The two Holbein miniatures, both depicting Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, are enclosed in an gold and enamel box made around 1800, and cost him 1,650 guineas at Christie's in 1932; although they measure a mere 1 3/4 inches across, they are expected to fetch between pounds 500,000 and pounds 750,000 this week. Philips had the box repaired - you can see the enamel was chipped in the 1932 photograph - with the result that it is now impossible to get the miniatures out of it without risk of damage. A pity, since one version of Essex's superbly painted, ugly mug would probably satisfy most auction bidders.
The Hilliards, Olivers and four other early miniatures were bought at Christie's sale of the Pierpont Morgan collection in 1935 at prices ranging from 30 guineas to 540 guineas; this week's estimates suggest prices between pounds 2,000- pounds 3,000 and pounds 80,000- pounds 100,000. Whatever came over Anton Philips that persuaded him to buy English miniatures at two dates three years apart, and then apparently forget about his interest, has not been revealed by his heirs.
That was not the way the previous owner of most of them had behaved. Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913) was one of the most successful American bankers of the late 19th and early 20th century and formed a famous art collection, much of which now resides in the Metropolitan Museum and the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. He had 794 portrait miniatures when the catalogue of his collection was drawn up in 1906. Those were, however, the days when art history was a romance subject -not a science. Virtually all the attributions on his miniatures have changed. The first lot in Tuesday's sale, a circular portrait of a gentleman on a blue ground, now described as Flemish and dated to around 1550, was sold at Christie's in 1901 as a Holbein for 185 guineas; when Morgan's collection was sold in 1935, it had already been downgraded to 'School of Hans Holbein the Younger' and the price dropped to 65 guineas. Christie's is expecting to get pounds 8,000- pounds 10,000 for it next week. The two best Morgan miniatures, now attributed to Hilliard, were both described in 1935 as being by one Levina Teerlinc. Royal records show that Teerlinc painted miniatures for Queen Elizabeth, and in 1935 she was considered a great gun. Since then, art historians have decided that there is no evidence of what her work looked like and reattributed everything previously thought to be by her to other artists.
Thus, the miniature described as a 'Portrait of Queen Elizabeth by Lavina Teerlinc' in 1935, and sold to Philips' agent for a resounding 540 guineas, has become the likeness of 'a noblewoman' by Nicholas Hilliard. It is still regarded as the best of the group, Holbein apart; Christie's is suggesting it will make pounds 80,000- pounds 100,000 this time round. The lady's hair is peppered with jewels while her high lace ruff has a thistle pinned to one side and a daffodil to the other, presumably symbolising Scotland and Wales. A tiny fly is shown alighting on the daffodil, a symbol of vanitas and the passing of all earthly goods.
Another of Tuesday's Hilliards was called Queen Anne of Denmark by Isaac Oliver in 1935 and only cost Philips 30 guineas. She is depicted right down to the waist, which is unusual in a miniature, and wears a high-crowned feathered hat. This time Christie's has been content with calling her 'a noblewoman, perhaps Anne of Denmark' and pointing out that someone has fraudulently altered her age. It is written on her left, while the date of 1609 is inscribed on her right; one can't now tell whether this fits Anne or not. The change was probably made when the miniature was put in its present gold frame in around 1710. The miniature is otherwise untouched, and is expected to make pounds 25,000- pounds 35,000.
The great event of the auction, however, will be the sale of the two Holbeins. Miniature painting itself derived from two sources, medieval manuscript illumination and Renaissance portrait medals. The idea of a small round portrait came from the latter, the technique of painting from the former. The first recorded examples, portraits of Francis I and his family, were sent by the French King as a gift to Henry VIII in 1525. The fact that the earlier of Holbein's portraits was probably painted only seven years later, in 1532, underlines that it is one of the earliest miniatures in existence.
Both Holbeins depict Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, one of the most powerful figures at Henry VIII's court; he was the architect of the Dissolution of the Monasteries and main proponent of the Reformation. Cromwell was a blacksmith's son, and the first 'man of the people' to reach high office at a European court - he has been called 'the father of Western democracy'.
As a wily statesman, he was quick to grasp the propaganda opportunities offered by miniature painting and became an influential patron of Holbein. Inadvertently, however, it was to be his undoing. He sent Holbein to paint Anne of Cleves and successfully negotiated her marriage to Henry in 1539. However, the outraged king, who found Anne not at all to his taste, had Cromwell executed for treason in 1540.
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