Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait miniature of a Lady, wearing blue dress with pearl and diamond clasps, a blue robe over her shoulder, further pearls at her neck and pearl earrings 

Nicholas Dixon (1645-1708)

Portrait miniature of a Lady, wearing blue dress with pearl and diamond clasps, a blue robe over her shoulder, further pearls at her neck and pearl earrings, Nicholas Dixon
Watercolour on vellum
17th Century
Oval, 2 ¾ inches (70mm) high
Mrs. Christine Joan Villiers
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Original silver gilt frame with pierced spiral cresting, the reverse engraved with scrolled design.

Nicholas Dixon succeeded the short tenure held by Richard Gibson, following the long career of Samuel Cooper, as king’s limner to Charles II in 1673. Despite his obscure origins and apparent intermittent poverty (he is documented as paying the ‘poor rate’ from his London home in the 1670s) he belongs, in style and quality, to the small, distinctive circle of Restoration court miniaturists, and was adept at transferring to miniature the languorous court beauties portrayed on the king’s walls by Peter Lely and Godfrey Kneller.

The present miniature can be dated to Dixon’s time at court, when he would have been granted the patronage of this elite assemblage. Although the sitter in this portrait is unknown, her gown and jewels mark her as a wealthy noblewoman. This recently discovered portrait is remarkable in that it has been kept from the light and the colours have survived close to their original vibrancy.

Few examples of Dixon’s portrait miniatures from this period survive in such fresh condition, but the present work can be compared in quality to the portrait of an unknown lady in the Victoria and Albert Museum [P.4-1942], dated to circa 1675. In this portrait, the sitter, previously identified as Frances Theresa Stuart (1657-1701), wears an almost identical gown and pearls. Similarly, the portrait now thought to represent Anne Hyde, Countess of Ossory (d.1685) [Royal Collection 420938], sports a parallel dark background and monogram, as well as comparable costume. At this date Dixon was clearly entrenched in the task of producing fashionable portraits of the King’s immediate circle, including his mistresses, imbuing his sitters with a sensuality that directly reflected the mood of the court.

Dixon was not only the king’s limner but also the keeper of the King’s Picture Closet and as such had access to the royal collection of paintings. With admittance to this rich resource, Dixon reinvigorated the art of the cabinet miniature so ably begun by Isaac and Peter Oliver (cat.?). In 1678 he had lost his royal appointment to Peter Cross (c.1645-1724) and Dixon’s work thereafter is often viewed as a decline from his glittering court career, ending with a lottery of his cabinet miniatures in 1698 that failed to attract public interest. The present miniature marks a point in Dixon’s life of great prosperity and patronage to which, sadly, he was never able to return.

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