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This article is taken from PN Review 218, Volume 40 Number 6, July - August 2014.Pictures from a Library 15: Elizabeth Gaskel
The Arte of Limning’: Speculations on a Portrait Miniature of Elizabeth Gaskell
Miniature portrait of Elizabeth Gaskell by William John Thomson, 1832. Copyright The University of Manchester.
The year is 1832 and a young woman of twenty-two is soon to marry the Reverend William Gaskell, assistant minister at the Cross Street Unitarian Chapel in Manchester. Before long, Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson will become Mrs Gaskell and through time Mrs Gaskell will become a celebrated writer, but for now she is in Edinburgh, having her likeness painted by her stepmother’s brother – the artist William John Thomson.
Thomson was born in Savannah, Georgia in 1771, but lived and worked for most of his life in Britain. On arriving from America he went to London, where he trained as a painter. In 1812 he moved to Scotland where he was known for his miniature portraits and in 1829 he was elected to the Royal Scottish Academy.
The materials and techniques he employed in this miniature portrait of his niece have their origins in the secret spaces of mediaeval books. The first painters to make miniature portraits as small, independent and transportable objects were accustomed to decorating and illuminating the vellum pages of manuscripts. They made the pigments that they used, coaxing a shimmering spectrum of shades and hues from minerals (malachite, azurite, lapis lazuli), natural earths (ochres, umbers), the stains of plants and insects, and gold and silver leaf. They ground these pigments into fine powders, and bound them with gum arabic into cakes of colour. These were then mixed with water in mussel shells and applied with tiny brushes made from squirrel hair. As times and tastes changed innovations were made. By 1706 ivory, prized for its translucence, was used instead of vellum as the paintings’ support, and by the 1760s paintboxes with ready-made watercolours were commercially available.
Yet what never changed was the lapidary radiance of the portrait miniature, as is evident from Thomson’s exquisite delineation of Miss Stevenson shown here. Hidden in a small red oval case, this profoundly evocative object is designed to show to good advantage the charms of her swan neck, shapely shoulders and sparkling eyes. As a ‘sentimentally invested artefact’ (Marcia Pointon), the portrait here invites a private and intimate dialogue between viewer and viewed. In all probability, it was commissioned by Miss Stevenson for her to give to her future husband as a keepsake, to have by his side during periods of separation. As a surrogate of Miss Stevenson it would, in her absence, stand in her stead, for to ‘make a gift of something is to make a present of some part of oneself’ (Marcel Mauss).
This article is taken from PN Review 218, Volume 40 Number 6, July - August 2014.