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A Rare Portrait Miniature of Charles I

11th October 2019.

A rare mid-17th century portrait miniature, which tells the story of the trial and execution of Charles I through a series of interchangeable overlays, is to be offered for sale in at Tennants Auctioneers in its Autumn Fine Art Sale on 16th November with an estimate of £5,000-7,000 (plus buyer’s premium).

The miniature, which likely dates from the decade after Charles’ execution in 1649, consists of an oval oil on copper portrait of the monarch housed in a tooled leather case, over which a set of overlays of transparent mica sheets painted with additional images can be placed to transform the scene.

The mid-17th century saw a trend for unusual portrait miniatures and sets of mica overlays (or talc as the mineral was known at the time) that changed the outfit, headwear and hairstyle of the sitter like a modern paper doll were particularly popular. The mica sheets, however, are very delicate and only around 45 sets are now known worldwide. The trial and execution of Charles I is the most commonly found subject matter in the extant sets; whilst no version is complete, it is thought that a full set would have consisted of 24 overlays. Similar sets can be found in the Royal Collection and the National Portrait Gallery. It is thought that the portrait was modelled from an engraving by the Bohemian graphic artist Wenceslaus Hollar, whose engravings also provided inspiration for the exotic costumes in other sets of mica overlays.

The miniatures were amongst a great number of objects made in the aftermath of the monarch’s execution that honoured him as a martyr. The present set comprises the base portrait, depicting Charles in simple black and white costume with the George badge of the Order of the Garter suspended from a ribbon around his neck, and eleven overlays. In chronological order the overlays then appear to show the king: dressed in his crown and robes of office; in fashionable but informal dress; in black hat and black cloak which he wore to attend his trial; in the black hat he refused to remove during his trial to signify his refusal to recognise the authority of the court; asleep in bed, the night before his execution; handing his George badge to Bishop Jaxon; prior to the execution with Bishop Jaxon and another figure (possibly regicide Matthew Tomlinson) about to have his nightcap placed on his head as he requested to keep his hair off his neck; with the executioner who wears a mask and false beard and moustache to disguise his identity; with his decapitated head held aloft by the executioner and his body prostrate on the block; presented as a martyr figure in fur-lined robes. A further overlay with an exotic costume has yet to be identified and may possibly be from a different set as it has not been seen in other examples of the execution set.

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