Category Archives: Research

Secrets of a Silent Miniaturist: Technical Analysis of Isaac Oliver’s Miniatures

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 therefore approaches 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 twenty attributed works, from the Fitzwilliam Museum and from other British and European collections. 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 exhibition COLOUR: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts (30 July 2016 – 2 January 2017). The same analytical protocol was also 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

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 therefore approaches 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 twenty attributed works, from the Fitzwilliam Museum and from other British and European collections. 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 exhibition COLOUR: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts(30 July 2016 – 2 January 2017). The same analytical protocol was also 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 can 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 are being explored, allowing the unique traits of Oliver’s working methods to emerge out of a selected handful of his surviving miniatures.

limited in its scope, this pilot project aims to pave the way for a much expanded project that would include a greater selection of works by Isaac Oliver, as well as by other miniaturists. 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, Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, among others. A small exhibition to showcase the initial findings of this study is on show until August 2019 at the Fitzwilliam Museum. More details about the project can be found at https://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/research/secrets-silent-miniaturist-technical-analysis-isaac-oliver%E2%80%99s-miniatures.

Researchers:

This project is funded by the Cambridge Humanities Research Grants scheme, a British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research Grant and the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Marlay group.