Duke’s marvellous miniatures

One of the world’s greatest collections of miniature portraits can now be seen in a new light – thanks to a major new exhibition at Bowhill.

For the first time, a museum-quality display has been created to show off some of the finest examples from Bowhill House’s stunning collection of miniature paintings.

And the first exhibition utilising the new set-up showcases some 50 jewel-like portrait miniatures from the internationally-renowned Buccleuch Collection, including some never-before-seen pieces.

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The event, officially launched by the Duke of Buccleuch. pictured, has been co-curated by the duke himself and Dr Stephen Lloyd, former senior curator of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

The latest in display cabinets and lighting techniques are allowing the miniatures – regarded as the most important collection in private hands, excepting that of the Royal Collection – to be seen in their proper glory for the first time.

The exhibition contains the famous unfinished portrait of Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper, and other fine examples of the miniature art form, some dating back to the 1520s, including a masterpiece by Hans Holbein. Subjects depicted range from kings and queens to cats and dogs, displaying the versatility and brilliant eye for detail of these extraordinary skilled artists.

However, in England, it was only at the start of the 16th century that artists began painting these tiny portraits for their own sakes.

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The leading painters associated with the Tudor period were Nicholas Hilliard (circa 1547-1619) and Isaac Oliver (1565-1617). Samuel Cooper (1609-1672) was the dominant figure of the 17th century and perhaps the greatest English-born miniature painter ever.

His unfinished portrait of Oliver Cromwell “warts and all” – included in the Buccleuch Collection – is regarded as outstanding.

The 50 miniatures from the collection, which in total boasts around 750 of the tiny portraits, will be exhibited at Bowhill throughout July.

“Some of these miniatures are so small they can be very difficult to see clearly and enjoy properly unless well lit and displayed,” the present duke told us this week.

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“The cases for the display have been created by expert designers and really do show these glorious miniatures off to their very best.”

Asked for his personal favourite, the duke told us: “That’s a difficult one – my father’s favourite was one of a cat by B Lens, painted in 1720 – a cat with attitude!

“For myself, I particularly like some of the mysterious Tudor characters captured in the portraits.”

The duke is hopeful the new specially-created display in Bowhill’s Chaplain’s Room will appeal to the many visitors a who come to the house each year, as well as attracting first-time newcomers.

“This new exhibition really shows off these wonderful works of art to their very best,” he added.