Many collectors are enchanted by miniature objects, and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is no different.
To keep the art form alive, the Queen has been purchasing miniatures of considerable significance during her reign, including a portrait of the architect Hugh May by Samuel Cooper and a portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria by John Hoskins, once in the collection of Charles I.
All of the royal families have been charmed by teeny things for centuries, and more than 3,000 miniatures in the Royal Collection constitute one of the largest groups of such works in existence. The development of the miniature as an art form, from its origins in the early 16th century to its slow decline in the 19th, can be traced through examples in the collection. It’s a goldmine of beautiful tiny treasures, especially miniature portrait paintings, and with an oddity or two – at least it might be a bit surprising to see X-rays of hands in the collection that also includes numerous little Fabergé masterpieces.
The Tudors were the first collectors of miniatures, when Henry VIII started acquiring them, and miniaturists began to hold official positions at court. During the earlier centuries, their work often directly reflected the circumstances, interests and even the character of the sovereign. During Queen Victoria’s reign, the patronage of miniaturists continued, and her interest in miniatures was nurtured by her passion for family and dynastic history. Prince Albert even designed a special cabinet with sliding drawers for her to store her collection.
Everything is meticulously documented on the Royal Collection Trust’s digital database, where you can rummage through one of the largest and most important art collections in the world, including the crown jewels, and also search for miniatures. While the collection is not owned by the Queen as a private individual, the Royal Collection is held in trust by her as sovereign for her successors and the nation.
This is a just a sampling of some favorite minis:
This model kitchen range from the 19th century is made of wood, iron, tin and enamel and features a painted wood back, purple and blue tiles and a back shelf to support the 13 miniature accessories and utensils.
This black rough leather box with sloping hinged lid and box front contains a set of silver miniature cutlery of six knives, six spoons and six forks, and a silver key; 3-1/2” x 2-1/2” x 2”. This was acquired by Queen Mary.
Two blue-and-white miniature porcelain bottles painted in underglaze blue, Jingdezhen (Jiangxi Province, China), 1690-1700, about 3” h. Each pear-shaped, with tapering neck and spreading lip, the sides have a pair of animal-headed loop handles picked out in brown glaze. Painted in panels round the sides are three women tending flowers in pots, with a petal border below.
This is the smallest English dictionary in the world, c. 1922; 1” x 1/2”.
Birch-bark model canoe, 1869, sewn with spruce root and the exterior decorated with porcupine quills; contains a miniature birch-bark circular bowl and two wooden paddles. This was presented to Prince Arthur Duke of Connaught in Canada in 1869.
A model of the queen’s grocery store
Model of a grocery store called “Grocer to SPRATT Her Majesty,” with a glazed door and windows and a display of miniature baskets, jars and bottles of food. Inside is a wooden counter and at the back of the store are wooden drawers and metal jars that contain spices and groceries. The whole model is in a glass case; 28-1/2” x 32” x 24-1/2”.
This group of tiny fashion accessories includes a pair of pale pink silk slippers with two silver buttons on the front of the shoe joined with a silver link and cut-out moons, and leather soles stamped with crosses. These were a state gift to Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret Rose from the children of France during a state visit by the king and queen in 1938.
This gold box, 1” x 5” x 3.3”, features miniature enamel portraits of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert Edward and their children Princess Alice, Prince Alfred, Princess Helena, Princess Louise, Princess Helena, Princess Louise, Prince Arthur, Princess Beatrice, and Victoria, Princess Royal. The enamel studs were given as gifts by Queen Victoria to Prince Albert in commemoration of their wedding anniversary in February 1859 and also on her birthday in May 1859.
This radiograph of an uninjured hand belonging to an Indian soldier of the First World War was taken to draw comparison with an injured hand, 1914-15, and is from the collection of King George V; 3-3/4” x 3”.
A miniature copy of the Liberty Bell cast from a fragment of the original and housed in a red leather case was presented to Queen Elizabeth II at Independence Hall in Philadelphia during her 1976 state visit to the United States, in conjunction with the bicentennial of American Independence.
Arch of Septimius Severus
This marble and gilt bronze model of Septimius Severus, c.1808-15, together with arches of Titus and Constantine, were made under the auspices of the Roman Academy of St Luke by the silversmiths Giovacchino Belli and his son, Pietro; 25” x 22-1/2” x 11”. More information is here.
The Fabergé Treasures
The royal family owns three of the surviving 43 “Imperial” Fabergé eggs, and also has the largest overall collection of works by the great Russian jeweler Carl Fabergé and his workmasters. Acquired almost exclusively through the exchange of personal gifts between the Russian, Danish and British royal families, here are some highlights:
Nephrite and gold table
Rectangular miniature Louis XVI-style table by workmaster Mikhail Perkhin, 1896-1903, is made of nephrite and mounted with red gold borders and has tapering legs with gold feet and a chased lid with leaves around edge and is hinged; 3” x 2.7” x 2”. Fabergé produced a number of bibelots in the form of miniature furniture. Some, such as this table, were intended to be used as bonbonnières, fancy boxes for bonbons. This was a Christmas present for Queen Mary by Lord Revelstoke in 1921.
Miniature magnifying glass, c. 1900, pale yellow guilloché enamel frame and handle, fluted gold and beaded collar; 2-3/4” x 1” x .2”. Even for the most minute and barely functional objects, such as this magnifying glass, Fabergé’s level of craftsmanship and quality of finish of objects was always of an extremely high standard. This was likely acquired by Queen Alexandra, c. 1900.
Fabergé made numerous objects with military associations, often as presentation pieces. Helmets were produced as drinking vessels, although this miniature version made before 1896 by Erik August Kollin is far too small to have been intended as a functional object. It is a helmet of the Imperial Chevalier Guard and is enameled on the front with the star of the Order of St Andrew. The helmet is surmounted by the imperial eagle; 1” x 1” x 1/2”.
This gold, crystal, enamel and ruby tea service was made by Carl Fabergé, 1896-1908; 1” x 2-1/2” x 2-1/2”. Comprising a teapot, hot water pot, sugar bowl and milk jug, this tea set is of gold enameled in a pale opaque bluish-white, but there is no engine turning on the metal. This deliberately plain enameling creates the impression that the tea set is made of porcelain. The lids are each surmounted by a finial in the form of a cabochon ruby. The quality of the gemstones and the rich application of four colored gold decoration may indicate that this was an imperial commission. The box is of silver-gilt, applied with colored gold and with guilloché enamel in mauve, the favorite color of Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, which this belonged to, and the lid is set with a panel of crystal.
This rock crystal, gold and silver-gilt globe was made sometime before 1896 in the workshop of Erik Kollin, Carl Fabergé’s first head workmaster. It was purchased by Tsar Nicholas II in December 1897 for 350 roubles and was subsequently owned by Prince Vladimir Galitzine, from whom Queen Mary purchased it in December 1928. The globe is geographically correct and swivels within its mounts; 4” x 2-1/2”.
This miniature grand piano in Louis XVI style was made by Mikhail Perkhin. It’s made of nephrite with mounts of red and green gold, and the keyboard is opaque black and white enamel. Foliate swag mounts are around the edge and the top is hinged; 2” x 2.8” x 2”. Judging by her acquisitions, Queen Mary was particularly fond of Fabergé’s miniature objets de fantasie, which include several examples of miniature furniture in the form of bonbonnières. These objects afforded the craftsman the opportunity to demonstrate skill in applying specialist techniques to replicate the real materials of the full-scale object. This miniature piano of Siberian nephrite is carved and polished to resemble ebonized wood. The lid opens for use as a bonbonnière and the front drops down to reveal the keyboard in gold and enamel, inscribed “C. Fabergé.” The piano belonged originally to Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna and is also seen in one of the display cases in photographs of the exhibition of Fabergé held in St. Petersburg in 1902. Queen Mary acquired it sometime between 1922-1931.
This egg-shaped box of two-color gold and pink guilloché enamel was made by Carl Fabergé, c. 1900; 1-1/2” x 1”. The lid is set with a domed rock crystal with a surround of rose diamonds and the body is hung with crossed yellow gold laurel swags suspended from rose diamonds. The egg has a cabochon emerald thumb piece and a gadrooned base. Fabergé produced boxes, pendants and even cups in the form of eggs and there are numerous examples of these objects in the Royal Collection.
Mikhail Perkhin made this ivory elephant automaton in 1892; 2-1/2” x 2” x 1-1/2”. The elephant has separate, jointed body legs and head and is ridden by an enamel man sitting on its head and carrying a pink and white enamel castle with two rose-cut diamond set bands and a pierced upper rim; the top set with a single diamond in gold. This automaton was made as the “surprise” for the Diamond Trellis Egg, made by Carl Fabergé for Tsar Alexander III. The Tsar presented the egg to his wife, Tsarina Maria Feodorovna, for Easter 1892. The elephant is wound with a watch key through a hole hidden underneath the diamond cross on one side of the elephant. It walks on ratcheted wheels and lifts its head up and down. You can learn more and watch a short video about this piece here.