Art historian and portrait miniature expert Emma Rutherford takes a look at a rare miniature of Charles I on loan to The Portland Collection. This miniature portrait of Charles I with mica overlays is on display in our museum from 26 January – 28 July. 2024.
From 26 January – 28 July 2024, one of the Civil War’s most gruesome treasures will go on display. The work consists of a base portrait miniature of King Charles I, painted in oil on copper, with transparent painted sheets made of mica (a natural mineral, which can be split into extremely thin elastic plates). When placed on top of the portrait, these painted transparent sheets transform the sitter, creating a new composite picture, much like outfitting a modern paper doll. The overlays can be changed to track the King’s journey from capture to execution. The display at the Harley Foundation’s museum opens almost 375 years to the day when, on an icy January morning in 1649, Charles I met his end.
In fact, one surprising consequence of Charles’s execution was his almost overnight transformation from ‘most-hated’ public figure to ‘martyr’. Even those who had fought on the side of the Parliamentarians felt that death was a step too far for a monarch appointed by God. With reports of those present at that shocking day dipping their handkerchiefs in the King’s blood, the cult of Charles I as ‘Martyr King’ was begun.
While it might seem a modern concept to monetise trends, the death of the King and the subsequent mourning which followed his execution required accessories which were common to bereavement rituals of the time. Whereas during the Middle Ages the living retained some form of contact with the dead through the offering of prayers for the soul, this practice was stopped at the Reformation. Post-Reformation, the dead could only be remembered, not helped – and this remembrance was aided by rings or lockets. Such aids, or memento mori, fuse the natural human need to keep in mind the presence of a dead loved one with the old traditions, and wills often stipulated funds to supply mourners with such accoutrements.
The death of the King brought forth a whole range of mourning paraphernalia – from individually commissioned paintings (such as ‘The Execution of Charles I’ – by an unknown artist who collaborated eye-witness accounts and contemporary engravings to produce a painted account of the day Fig. 3) to mass-produced rings with crude enamel portraits of the King’s face (Fig.4). As images commemorating Charles I’s execution were suppressed in England, the miniature is cased and can be closed to keep the contents secret. It is likely that the miniature was painted and imported from the continent, most likely Holland, the image of the King taken from engravings, such as those by Wenceslas Hollar (1607–1677) (Fig.5).
There is no documentary evidence which reveals the exact purpose of the current miniature or others like it. The figure of Charles I has been painted in a basic fashion, the costume on the fragile mica overlays similarly primitive and the case inexpensively crafted – this is not an object made with posterity in mind. While it may seem to be fulfilling the role of a memento mori, in a kinetic and interactive fashion, it is interesting to note that there are other versions of this type of portrait, some showing a female subject who could be dressed provocatively as a nun or a courtesan (Fig.6). So was this work simply a form of entertainment – a sickening retelling of the moment that the King lost his head? Given that the user can play with the narrative of time, were these miniatures also a way of examining alternative outcomes to the reality of how events unfolded?
We may never know how or why the original owner of this portrait commissioned it – or their political leanings – but the very survival of this everyday object provides an insight into how individuals attempted to comprehend one of the most complex and disturbing periods of England’s history.