Ruffs, Cards and Treasures at the National Portrait Gallery

Off we went to the National Portrait Gallery to see the Elizabethan Treasures exhibition. Now, you might not think a whole bunch of cases of miniatures could be that fascinating – but you are reckoning without the exhibition’s must-have accessory: a magnifying glass.

Yes, we got these from the man on the door (don’t forget to ask him as he doesn’t offer) and then spent about five minutes looming up on each other with them. Great fun, and I only wish we’d taken selfies, looking like deranged versions of Sherlock Holmes. But the magnifying glasses were actually used to much better effect scrutinising the amazing miniatures on display.

Gentleman lounging against a tree – check out those natty breeches!

Now, I know there are people out there today who carve extraordinary things on cherry stones. But these beautiful objects were painted four hundred-odd years ago, and look as vibrant and as full of life now as they must have done then. And, through our spyglasses, we could truly see all the hidden details of mischievous smiles, delicate lace, gorgeous jewels and come-hither glances.

In an era without cameras and when the mirrors in the UK were often fogged up, either by our ghastly weather or defective silvering, pictures were one of the few ways to get your likeness logged. For people like Queen Elizabeth, the miniature portrait was a vital method to get her brand across, to her courtiers and the world beyond. Think QEI and you think massive ruff, towering headdress, gown dripping with jewels – and the proliferation of her miniatures is one of the reasons.

Another ruff day for Elizabeth I

But, perhaps more interesting even than the bejewelled and bedazzling crowned heads on display here, were the more humble middle-class portraits. And I also loved the fact that miniatures were often painted on playing cards, as they happened to be the right sizes and thickness, and made of the right materials. I’m writing a whodunit about playing cards at the moment so anything card-related seems especially resonant.

The ones I loved the best, though, were two near-identical pictures of little girls. They looked so similar, until they were under my magnifying glass. This peeled away the centuries, revealing the difference between their two impish little faces, both alight with fun and life. The postcard produced for the exhibition does not do them justice. Go and peer at them with your own magnifying glass and tell me they don’t catch at your heart.

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