Miniatures, as the name suggests, were paintings on a small scale. They are painted in any medium such as watercolour, oil or enamel. Early examples are painted on vellum but by the 18th and 19th centuries miniatures were commonly on ivory.
The miniature portrait originated in the early 16th century, it is believed to have been a union between the illuminated manuscript and the portrait medal. Portrait miniatures were usually circular or oval and often commissioned as a memento and worn as a piece of jewellery.
In England, the miniature portrait emerged during the reign of Henry VIII (c. 1520). All 16th century miniatures, except those in oil, were painted on vellum (fine parchment made originally from the skin of a calf) and stuck over cardboard, commonly playing cards as they offered the strongest support. Blue backgrounds and inscriptions in golf leaf were common features of 16th century miniatures.
It has been written that Hans Holbein was the founder of the portrait miniature but it is now recognized that in fact Lucas Hornebolte, a Flemish illuminator and miniaturist taught Holbein the art of limning. Both men worked on circular portraits but by the end of the 16th century, the first great English miniature portraitist, Nicholas Hilliard, had introduced the oval. Hilliard was limner and goldsmith to Queen Elizabeth and King James I. He had skill in detailing the elaborate dress of the court; he encouraged the use of gold leaf and gem-like colours to give a rich and precious effect. His work is highly sought after today.