Bryony Cohen began collecting portrait miniatures in 1987 and over more than 30 years amassed 65 miniatures.
She has now bequeathed this collection to the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for English Heritage’s Kenwood House.
The acquisition was made possible by The Art Fund via the Cultural Gifts Scheme.
Valued at around the £200,000 mark, Cohen says the tax relief of 30% was the equivalent of what she had spent over the years. But she adds that if she had sold at the top of the market she would have got much more.
However, her delight at being able to have her collection kept together and on display for the public to see (for free) gives her great satisfaction.
She says: “I am thrilled that my miniatures have found a good home. Miniatures were very highly valued in their day – the photographs of the past – but the fact that I, on a very limited budget, could amass a collection of national importance goes to show how undervalued they are.”
Cohen, a qualified medical artist and trained watercolourist, started her collection with limited funding (she had inherited a few thousand pounds) which she describes as “like working with your hands tied behind your back, but it is incredibly good discipline”.
She says: “From the very beginning I decided that the criterion for my collection would be quality. I could not afford to buy the best 16th or 17th miniatures painted on vellum, such as those by Nicholas Hillard or Samuel Cooper, which cost thousands of pounds. So I concentrated instead on the work of the later miniaturists and especially the Victorian artists which have never been popular.”
Cohen took advice from Robert Bayne-Powell (read about Bayne-Powell here) who worked on the principle that “whatever you pay for a miniature today you should be able to sell it for more tomorrow”, so she followed this guidance and would buy, keep it and wait (sometimes years) until she could find something better by the same artist.
She adds: “If I hadn’t spent too much in the first place, I could turn it over at a profit by selling it at auction. Not spending too much in the first place often depended on my recognising an artist that the seller hadn’t (most miniatures are not signed) and this is where honing my ‘eye’ and increasing my general knowledge was essential.”
Getting to know your subject takes time: studying and researching.
“Over time I amassed several folders of notes on artists and their styles. After every auction I would spend the evenings cutting out images from the catalogue and filing them under the artists’ names. I gradually built up a reference library with the date, where they were sold and for how much”, Cohen says. “I also read all the books on miniatures that I could find. Eventually I did develop a reasonable eye.”
Cohen’s collection of 65 miniatures is roughly half 18th century and half 19th century and were bought both at auction and from dealers.
But the thrill of the saleroom was part of the allure of finding the next piece for the collection.
Cohen adds: “The auctions themselves were exciting events and a good opportunity to meet other collectors, especially when viewing. It was very much a collector-driven market.”
Her collecting style was at odds with some expert advice. Often experts suggest collectors should always buy the best of what they can afford.
But Cohen adds: “Of course they are right, but if I had done that I would have locked up my money on one or two items for too long to keep up a regular turnover. And it wouldn’t have been half so much fun.”
Once Cohen decided her collecting days were over she started thinking about what would happen to her miniatures. She made tentative enquiries about whether they could be taken by a museum in 2015. She adds: “I had missed the boat if I really wanted to make money out of my miniatures and my heart had never really been in selling them. I liked the idea of keeping them together, especially as I was well aware that once I had dispersed the Victorian miniatures, in particular, it would be extremely difficult to create another collection of similar quality.”
After failing to make any headway in contacting institutions directly, Cohen did two things “which made all the difference”. She had the collection professionally photographed and contacted the Art Fund. The Art Fund advertised the collection on the Understanding British Portraits network which resulted in three institutions expressing an interest.
Kenwood was among the parties. Curator Louise Cooling visited Cohen and presented the case to the English Heritage Acquisitions Board in early 2020. It was accepted, but then there was lockdown and Cooling was furloughed, causing a long delay.
Finally English Heritage took possession last year. Remedial restoration has taken place and a case for the display of the collection is being made with the hope it will go on display in 2023.
The location was just what Cohen had hoped.
“Kenwood had always been my preferred destination as my collection fitted in well with theirs; in fact they already had one of my miniatures which I had sold previously”, says Cohen.
“I also loved the fact that here was someone [Louise Cooling] who had some knowledge of the subject – so many curators don’t know much about portrait miniatures. I hope that the collection will prove a draw at Kenwood and a way of exposing visitors to this neglected art form.”
Kenwood House, in Hampstead, north London, already has a significant collection of portrait miniatures which began with a gift of 20 given in 1988 by collector Marie Draper. This gift inspired English Heritage and Draper’s executors and over the following 10 years almost 100 miniatures were acquired with funds from the Draper estate.
The addition of Bryony Cohen’s 65 examples complements Kenwood’s existing works.
Louise Cooling, curator of collection and interiors at Kenwood, said: “This is a wonderful collection with really exemplary examples. These miniatures plug gaps in our collection of 18th and early 19th century miniatures.”
The 65 miniatures will be on public display as a smaller group on rotation every few months.
The period that the miniatures cover (1740s-1850s) was when Kenwood was occupied by the Mansfield family: William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, bought Kenwood in 1754 and his descendants lived there into the early 20th century.
From records it is known the family had an extensive collection of miniatures.
Cooling has been researching the Cohen miniatures and has begun making connections between the sitters and Kenwood. A newly identified 1861 portrait by Reginald Easton has been revealed as of eight-year-old Edward Paget, the great-great-great nephew of Elizabeth, first Countess of Mansfield.
Tips for getting a collection into a museum
■ Have your collection professionally photographed
■ Look into approaching the Art Fund
■ Look at schemes such as Cultural Gifts Scheme
■ Find an enthusiastic supporter within the museum you are looking at
The Cultural Gifts Scheme
The scheme was introduced in 2013 to enable taxpayers to donate important works of art to be held for the benefit of the public or the nation. In return the donors receive a tax reduction of 30% of the value of the item(s) to be set against the individual’s tax income over five years. To be eligible under the CGS Cohen’s miniatures had to be valued by two different experts, appointed by the Acceptance in Lieu (AIL) committee. The valuation had to be acceptable, and the AIL panel also had to agree that the gift was pre-eminent enough to be included in the CGS.