“It’s history in your hand, really,” says Robert Harman. The ormolu frame he is holding contains an exquisitely painted late-18th-century circular portrait, the size of his palm, of an enchanting young woman, Marie-Françoise-Victoire Dousset de Saint-Brice: sweet, enquiring, her confident gaze fixed on the beholder. Yet she, as chambermaid to the Dauphin, the future King Louis XVII, had witnessed real horror as a prisoner during the French Revolution.
“These are almost always real people, some of whom lived though terrible times,” says Harman of the subjects of the 250 or so miniatures he owns, and it is unearthing such stories that makes these little portraits so compelling. Created as keepsakes, mementoes, even diplomatic gifts, they were, says Emma Rutherford, the specialist in portrait miniatures who advises him, “meant to be held by someone who loves that person. I think the closest equivalent we have today is the image you have on your mobile phone. I’ve got a photograph of my daughter, so every time I switch it on, there she is. It’s portable, something I look at all the time – even the scale is similar.”
Miniatures, she explains, usually don’t have the formality of oil portraits. Painted in watercolour on vellum and later ivory, they “were far cheaper, so people didn’t think of them as intended for posterity. They were made to be worn” – hence their often bejewelled frames, although men would sometimes have them disguised as pocket watches or set into the lids of snuffboxes – “so their subjects tended to be dressed in absolutely up-to-the-minute fashion”.
Harman’s fascination with these captivating images verges on the forensic. He talks me through the symbolism of the decoration on the enamel case – inset with rose-cut diamonds – of an oval likeness of the young King Charles II by the English painter Nathaniel Thach. Only four of Thach’s fully authenticated works are known to exist – the others are in the Mauritshuis, the V&A and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery – “so it’s very rare indeed”. Next he points to a piece by John Smart (six of whose works he owns), of a young woman in Madras, probably on the occasion of her wedding. “You can see it was painted on a warm day. She actually glows. Look, her chest is flushed with the heat.”
Harman, a director of one of Kleinwort Benson’s property funds, is actually a former solicitor whose interest in miniatures dates back to a legal conference in Buenos Aires that he attended as managing partner of the City law firm Travers Smith. He and his first wife had been browsing in an antiques mall when they happened on some 19th-century portrait miniatures “of Marie Antoinette and people like that”, with ivory frames crafted from old piano keys. He bought them for $100, “and I eventually sold them for £200 each, so I did quite well.”
After the conference the couple flew to Rio de Janeiro, where they happened on another miniature, this time of the Italian poet Vittorio Alfieri. “It was really the foundation point of the collection,” says Harman. But having acquired some 250 works, they divorced, most of the pieces were sold, and he started again.
Harman sold as he buys, through various dealers and auction houses, notably Bonhams – which was where he met Rutherford, a former director of its miniatures department. “Bob’s name has been synonymous with collecting at the high end for 20 years now,” she says. He deflects the compliment: it’s his discernment, not his extravagance that defines his buying.
But then, prices can vary widely. One of the highest amounts paid in the UK for a miniature stands at £362,500 for a portrait by Isaac Oliver of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. This belonged first to Charles I and latterly to TS Eliot’s widow, Valerie, who spent a proportion of the royalties from the musical Cats on at least 230 miniatures, which Christie’s sold last November – it was the stellar lot and realised over £2.3m. (The world auction record for a portrait miniature is $1.2m for an image of George Washington by John Ramage, sold in 2001.) In contrast, another, smaller head-and-shoulders likeness of “a gentleman, traditionally called Robert Devereux” – though now not thought to be him – also by Oliver sold at Bonhams in 2004 for £26,290. It was previously owned by the banker JP Morgan, who amassed a collection of almost 800 miniatures in the 1920s and 1930s.
And at Masterpiece London last summer, the dealer Philip Mould & Co, at which Rutherford is also a consultant, sold a portrait of an unknown Tudor lady by Hilliard for £200,000. At the time of writing, it also had a miniature by Adam Buck – who will be the subject of an exhibition Rutherford is involved with at Oxford’s Ashmolean next year – for £1,650, and one by Engleheart, an important Georgian English miniaturist, for £3,750.
Harman has a Hilliard, as well as works by Isaac Oliver and Peter Oliver, but he is unusual among collectors in that he delights almost as much in selling as in buying. “This collection isn’t meant to cost me money,” he says. “It usually makes a profit for me. Of course, I enjoy buying, but in the end I don’t want to be left with a hole in my pocket.” He is grateful that, as well as a “shared enthusiasm – we do both get a huge amount of fun from it – Emma has a business brain and I trust her”, which is crucial. In that respect, “it’s almost like a marriage. If trust gets broken it can survive, but it’s never the same.”
They also share an exceptionally analytical view of the market: Harman from a valuation perspective (“lawyers are a bit obsessive; you have to get things right, otherwise people sue you”); Rutherford from an academic one (“I still don’t think of myself as a dealer”). Harman mentions a US collector, who “snaps up virtually every Smart and Augustin that comes on the market. Some of them go for prices I just gawp at, and I do wonder what will happen to the market when he’s no longer part of it.” That said, Harman managed to purchase an early-19th-century double portrait of two boys by Augustin, which came up at Sotheby’s New York the week that Hurricane Sandy hit Manhattan in 2012, when perhaps his rival had more pressing things on his mind.
Harman and Rutherford are in touch every few weeks, catch up with one another in London and then “a couple of times a year, I go to Bob’s [country] house to see the new additions,” says Rutherford. “I’m not trying to flatter him, but I run out of meaningful things to say because his collection is all so good. He’ll pull out all his Englehearts, for instance, and ask, ‘Which one do you think I should get rid of?’ It’s like having to choose one of your children.”
But Harman’s home, he stresses, is “not a museum”, and beyond keeping his miniatures out of direct sunlight, he takes no special conservation precautions. “If I didn’t have them out so that I can look at them every day,” he says, “I’m not quite sure what the point of them would be.”