6 Miniature Painter

                                William Warner Major


Jill C. Major, Author

British Portrait Miniatures - Victoria & Albert Museum


Famous Artists in London

William Warner Major was surrounded by art from his earliest years.  An 1819 guide to London says, " Exhibitions of works of art...are uncommonly numerous; the mention of each is almost impossible, but we shall notice all those of which we have any knowledge. In the rooms of the Royal Academy at Somerset-House, in those of the British Institution, Pall Mall, at Spring Gardens, and in Bond Street, there are annual exhibitions of paintings, drawings, sculptural and architectural designs; and a careful examination of the works here exhibited will furnish the visitor with ample means to appreciate the individual and aggregate merits of English artists. Beyond these public exhibitions, some artists have galleries of their own; Mr. (Benjamin) West, Mr. Turner, Mr. Wilkie, Sir T. Lawrence, and some other painters." 1

Major lived among some of the World’s greatest artists and had numerous opportunities to view their works. Benjamin West (1738-1820) was an American artist who moved to London and became the president of the Royal Academy from 1792 until he died. 2 London born, Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), was known as the "the painter of light" because of his use of brilliant colors.3 Sir David Wilkie (1785-1841) was the chosen artist and friend of the Prince Regent, who became King George IV. 4 Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) was born in Bristol, like William Warner Major. He was also a portrait painter of eminent people like the Catholic Pope and the Prince Regent.5 Major’s contemporaries, and the work of famous artists from centuries past, were within walking distance of William Warner Major’s home.

Teacher and Student of Art

How did Major become an artist?  He was trained by copying the masters that were readily available to him. Major carried prints of works of art from his favorite artists to America in 1844. He used these masterpieces to teach the citizens of Nauvoo art lessons. Bathsheba W. Smith remembered, "At Navuoo I was privileged to study drawing and painting from an artist, Mr. Majors, who allowed us to draw from copies of Reynolds and Gainsborough."6 Teachers teach as they were taught.

It is from Bathsheba Smith’s art that we learn about some of Major’s print collection. There was a picture of Caroline Amelia Elizabeth of Brunswick, the Queen when William was growing up, drawn about 1820 by Richard Dighton (1796?-1880).7 An accompanying portrait of King George IV was possibly a copy from Sir Thomas Lawrence.8 Major's collection included a picture of Alexander Pope (1688-1744) by Jean-Baptiste Van Loo (1684-1745).9 Sir Joshua Reynold’s, "The Infant Hercules Strangling the Serpents sent by Hera," dated 1789, was also copied by Bathsheba Smith in Major’s art school. 10 Other pictures from Smith’s art book show lithe women in flowing dresses reminiscent of Gainsborough.

Still, with all the opportunities for training, compared to Gainsborough and Reynolds, Major’s paintings are amateurish and stiff. The feet of his subjects could never have been walked on; they were disproportionately tiny and narrow. The faces, however, appear to be good likenesses of his subjects. There is an excellent reason for this: Major was a skilled miniature painter. He was trained to paint portrait busts, no larger than a small photograph.

1841 Census: 90 Strand, St. Clement Danes, London, England


1841 England Census, 90 Strand, St. Clement Danes.  William Warner Major is listed as a "miniature painter." The Major family lived in a small art community; their building also houses two picture dealers, an engraver, and a carver/guilder (someone who applies gold leaf to a product, such as a picture frame).


Young miniature artists started training as young as fourteen, so Major may have been receiving lessons for 3 years before his father died.  Youthful Miniaturists - Victoria and Albert Museum  Miniature portraits were keepsakes and cherished in the same way people cherish photographs of loved-ones today.  Many were protected in a small oval or square frame while others were placed in jewelry with a lock of hair attached. The English tradition of miniature painting was a British specialty which started during  the 1520's in King Henry VIII’s court. It was very popular when William Warner Major began learning the art, probably about 1818.

The Market for Miniatures - Victoria and Albert Museum

As people recognized Major's skill in producing an accurate likeness of themselves, they were willing to pay for his talents. Congeniality and patience were essential skills for a man who worked so closely with his clients. His subjects were required to maintain a statue-like position. Often portraits took several sittings to complete. In a history of William Warner Major written by William H. Kimball and James Marsden,(hereafter referred to as the Kimball/Marsden History) Major was described as a "perfect master of his temper." They also wrote that "his kindly disposition won for him many friends." These were wonderful personality traits and essential characteristics for a artist who depended on the referrals of his clientele to continue in business.,

In 1839 photography was invented. When people could sit for a cheaper exact likeness, taken in minutes instead of days, the decline of the need for miniature painters began.11  The invention of photography was certainly a great concern to William Warner Major and his fellow artists, many of whom took up the new trade.   

 The Impact of Photography - Victoria and Albert Museum