Miniatures & medallions

In order to help protect the health of our staff and visitors during this difficult time we have closed all of our research rooms. During this time we're not taking bookings for individual appointments or group visits.

Location: Scottish National Portrait Gallery
Open by appointment: Closed
Contact: [email protected]

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery cares for the national collection of 400 portrait miniatures, around half of which are on long term loan to the gallery. The collection provides a thorough survey of the development of the miniature from the second half of the 16th century to the mid-19th century, with works in all the media and supports used (oil, watercolour, bodycolour, ink, plumbago, enamel; vellum, ivory, paper).

We hold a very large and representative collection of profile portraits, including glass-paste medallions by the leading portrait modeller of the late eighteenth century, the Scottish artist James Tassie (inventor of this medium) and his son, William Tassie, with a further collection of plaster replicas taken from Tassie medallions.  These works are an important manifestation of late eighteenth century neo-classical taste and a document of Scottish society, with almost every notable contemporary figure recorded.  

James Tassie

James Tassie (1735–1799) was a Scottish gem engraver and modeller. He is remembered for a particular style of miniature medallion heads, portraying the profiles of the rich and famous of Britain. He invented a formula for a type of glass paste which he used for the rest of his life to make gems and portrait medallions. His reproductions of antique gems were avidly collected by patrons as distinguished as Catherine the Great of Russia. He was also the leading portrait modeller in Britain, making around five hundred medallions of his contemporaries.

The National Galleries of Scotland holds over 300 medallions either by or inspired after James Tassie.

There are magnificent examples by Nicholas Hilliard, John Hoskins and Samuel Cooper and a range of miniatures by continental artists.  This collection differs from the Galleries paintings in that many of the miniature sitters are not Scottish. The primary collecting purpose is the quality of individual pieces and comprehensiveness of the collection in illustrating the history of the miniature. That said, there are important depictions of iconic Scottish sitters - for example, the Netherlandish miniature of James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, 1566, and Alexander Reid’s portrait of Robert Burns, 1795/96.

The collection also includes numerous sketches by Scottish miniaturist Andrew Robertson. After attending the Royal Academy Schools in London in 1797, Robertson decided to establish his own practice as a miniature painter in the city. During a career lasting over forty years, Robertson exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy and painted members of the royal family. His sketches reveal his studio practice as a portrait miniaturist. A number of his studies are dotted with pinpricks, which indicate that he used these drawings to transfer his composition onto the ivory surfaces of the miniatures.



Book a visit

First-time visitors will be asked to show some form of ID such as a passport or driver's licence.
There is wheelchair access to the library via a lift. 

Groups of up to 10 are welcome to visit the library.
Group visits should be pre-booked at least four weeks in advance.

+44 (0)131 624 6407

[email protected]