Thursday, September 22, 2011

Two Inches of Ivory - Miniature Portrait Painting in the Regency Era

National Portrait Gallery
The following is a combination of two articles Tony Grant wrote on his blog, London Calling, about painting on ivory. He has kindly agreed to share them with my readers.

This particular drawing of Jane Austen was done on paper, but it serves a similar purpose to those done on ivory that Jane references:

Jane wrote to her nephew, James Edward Austen, on 16 December 1816. She congratulated him on leaving Winchester College and commiserated with him about his time there. Jane writes to him in terms as an equal in novel writing.

“Uncle Henry writes very superior sermons. You and I must try and get hold of one or two and put them into our novels.”

Then she explains the difference between their writing: Uncle Henry's is “strong, manly, spirited-- Sketches full of Variety and Glow.” Hers is comparable to a “little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour?”

Ivory Tusk

It was the practice, in 1816, to paint miniature portraits in fine detail on fine slivers of ivory cut from elephant tusks. They were intended to not only show the likeness of the sitter but also to try and capture their personality.
Pieces of Ivory Prepared for Painting
In 1847, thirty-one years after Jane wrote her letter, Charlotte Bronte has Jane Eyre using the miniature portrait as a sort of talisman or voodoo doll to expunge her feelings for Mr Rochester and her thoughts and feelings about Blanche Ingram. She decides to draw a self portrait in chalks on a piece of glass and a portrait in watercolours of Blanche Ingram on “a piece of smooth ivory.”

Metal Paint Box

The miniature portrait was a purveyor of fine detailed true likeness. It was an artistic process. Jane used it as a metaphor for her writers style. Emily Bronte used it as a way of comparing individuals as well as controlling and guiding emotions. We ourselves become integrated in the interpretation. We are bringing our beliefs and insights to the interpretation of the miniature too.

Unknown subject - Victoria and Albert Museum

References:Sir Walter Scott’s Review of Emma posted in Books, Emma, Jane Austen, Literature, Review by onlyanovel on January 19th, 2008

Le Faye, Deirdre (Ed) Jane Austen’s Letter’s (New Edition)
Oxford University Press 1997

The National Portrait Gallery

1 comment:

  1. How neat would it be to have a miniature of yourself done on a bit of ivory?! I wonder if people still do this today? Great post, Mary!