Big money for small art

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The Independent Online
FOUR HUNDRED years ago Nicholas Hilliard immortalised his contemporaries by means of exquisite portraits in miniature. Now a major exhibition in London shows that the "art of limning", or "painting in little", is enjoying a Renaissance.

Some 900 tiny works - many no bigger than a thumbnail - go on show next Friday when Lord Gowrie, chairman of the Arts Council, declares open the first world exhibition of contemporary miniature art at Westminster Central Hall.

The show includes landscapes and flower pieces, many painted with up to 500,000 brush strokes, as well as tiny chess pieces and jewellery painstakingly carved from teeth and antlers.

The event marks the 100th anniversary of the Royal Society of Miniature Painters, Sculptors and Gravers - a group which won its Royal Charter from King Edward VII in 1904, but which had fallen into decline and near bankruptcy by the mid 1980s.

At this point its president, Suzanne Lucas, rode to the rescue, setting up a system of annual prizes for excellence and commissioning a Gold Memorial Bowl from the royal jeweller Garrods for the best work of all.

By this year the quality had improved so much that this year's judge, Claudia Hill, who is the expert in miniatures at Bonhams auctioneers, could not make up her mind.

In the end she declared a tie-break between an immaculate rendition of tropical fish by Pat Heatley and a portrait of a woman regarding her reflection in a mirror by Elizabeth Meek.

Both, Miss Hill says, were "faultless ... jewel-like". The latter she says, she "had to look at several times to convince myself it was painted as opposed to being a photograph".

As part of the anniversary celebrations, the society decided to include works from overseas colleagues. This section accounts largely for the three-dimensional element in the exhibition.

Here are lacquer boxes from Russia of a far superior quality to those found in that country's souvenir shops and showing tiny scenes from folklore (pounds 95 to pounds 660), as well as German porcelain jars on the sides of which the paintings of the French artist Watteau have been recreated (pounds 2,000 to pounds 3,000).

The German, Eduard Stamm has submitted an elaborate casket carved from antler horn with scenes of Diana and the hunt, its quality close to some of the exquisite medieval work found in church treasuries.

The price of pounds 12,600 may seem expensive, Miss Lucas admits, until one learns that this particular work took a year to make.

"Artists don't charge by the hour," she says. "There are very few who live by their art. They teach or do something else."

Furthermore, due to all the hard work, artists feel ambivalent when they do make a sale: "They are schizophrenic about this," Miss Lucas explains. "They are absolutely devastated if they do and frightfully disappointed if they don't."