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Hello from Hannah

The Elizabethan Selfie

I have never liked having my photograph taken and despite today's filters and a bit of flattering photo-shopping, (I'd love to have an hour-glass figure and no wrinkles, truly I would), I tend to avoid the craze. But a selfie is not a twenty-first century invention. It's been around forever.


Throughout the 16th and 17th century, miniature portraits were known as limnings or "pictures in little." The artists or "limners" were itinerant painters who were usually trained craftsmen. Limnings seemed to be a natural extension of their work as house painters or as coach and sign painters. It wasn't unusual for limners to prepare stock portrait canvases fully painted in advance except for the space where the face should be!


Measuring just 5 to 6 cm (2 – 2 ¼") in diameter, early miniature portraits were impossibly small and delicate. Usually painted in watercolour on vellum – a type of primed, translucent calf skin, the vellum was then laid onto a piece of card (usually the back of a playing card) with starch paste.


Yet, despite these minute dimensions they would have powerful effects on their viewers. Peppered with flowers (and sometimes flames of passion) they would have been the equivalent of kisses and emojis from our modern-day selfie. Oh, and just like today, these miniatures were "airbrushed" to show the subject in a flattering light. Sir Francis Drake had a wart on his nose but very few artists ever painted it in.


Featured here is a typical limning of a handsome courtier. I am feeling quite faint with longing.


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