Cataloguing and Digitising the Jim Murrell Archive

Jim Murrell

For anyone working on the topic of early modern portrait miniatures, 2019 was an exciting year, seeing the fruition of much new research in exhibitions and publications, including the large exhibition Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver (21 Feb 2019 – 19 May 2019), which introduced a new generation to this art form at the National Portrait Gallery, London; Elizabeth Goldring’s much-awaited biography, Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist, (New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 2019); and Cambridge’s very own focused display, Secrets of a Silent Miniaturist: Technical Analysis of Isaac Oliver’s Miniatures at the Fitzwilliam Museum. In Cambridge, work on miniatures continues with the technical analysis of Oliver’s work and, as part of this project, the digitisation of the hitherto largely unexplored archive of Jim Murrell (1934–1994), housed at the Hamilton Kerr Institute (HKI).

A selection of the Fitzwilliam Museum’s miniatures, show-casing some of the recent discoveries on the work of Isaac Oliver, in the Rothschild Gallery of Medieval & Renaissance Art (Gallery 32)

Vernon James Murrell, known as Jim, was a conservator of miniatures and wax objects at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (V&A) from 1961 until his retirement in 1994. Murrell worked on the V&A’s National Collection of portrait miniatures as well as examples in private and other public international collections. He wrote and contributed towards a number of key publications, in which he shared his technical knowledge of miniatures.  These include John Murdoch et al., The English Miniature (New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 1981); Roy Strong and V. J. Murrell, Artists of the Tudor Court: The Portrait Miniature Rediscovered, 1520–1620 (London: V&A, 1983); and The Way Howe to Lymne: Tudor Miniatures Observed (London: V&A, 1983). His edition of Edward Norgate’s seventeenth-century treatise Miniatura, or The Art of Limning, co-authored with Jeffrey M. Muller, was published posthumously (New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 1997). Murrell’s work pioneered the technical study of miniatures and the communication of his findings to non-specialist audiences, and continues to be used today by art historians and new audiences.

A selection of the two-hundred-plus files, books and boxes in the Jim Murrell Archive at the Hamilton Kerr Institute

The archive contains Murrell’s notes, sketches, slides, and lectures, most of which have not yet been published, as well as secondary reading materials.It  reveals adesire to understand how miniatures were made, the materials and techniques which were used to create them, and Murrell’s curiosity concerning the technical interest in miniatures in early modern Britain. His notes reveal how artists created miniatures, what pigments were employed for the paints, and how the artist applied the paint to the support. Murrell transcribed copies of historical manuscripts and annotated them to indicate where recipes were unique, had been copied from other treatises, and where they offered a variation on existing knowledge. These annotations highlight the ways in which information circulated amongst artists, patrons and other interested readers in early modern England. Information about the painting of portrait miniatures can also be found within a variety of written materials on other topics, including commonplace books, books of coats of arms and heraldry, and books on plants.

The archive was donated to the HKI by Jim’s wife, Ann Murrell Ballantyne, a restorer of medieval wall paintings, in June 1999. Access to the archive is currently greatly limited but plans are afoot to create an archive centre at the HKI. In the meantime, however, and for those who are not able to travel to the HKI, it is hoped that the digitised version will soon be available online, providing access to reproductions of Murrell’s notes and sketches.1

Lindsey Cox digitising the Jim Murrell Archive at the Hamilton Kerr Institute

Between April and December 2019, I digitised over five thousand images from the archive. The images were captured using DocScan, a free mobile phone scanning app which was installed on a Sony Xperia XA1. Docscan works with the mobile camera and does not require a flatbed scanner.  This would make it a good option for researchers visiting archives where no scanner is available or where scanning may damage the original. Often, the DocScan app could detect the outlines of a page and suggested where to crop and edit the images before saving to the phone. I found that this function worked better with pages of typed text than with notebooks of faint, pencilled sketches or notes. Once the images had been captured and edited, they were saved as PDF files and transferred to a computer. This made it easier to view the image to check for focus and cropping. Sometimes images needed to be taken again to ensure legibility, which was the main priority of this project. Digitising the archive will not only increase accessibility, but also help decipher Murrell’s notes: his script is tidy but sometimes very small, and is therefore easier to read once it has been magnified on the computer. Digitisation will also help to ensure the longevity of Murrell’s knowledge, should anything ever happen to damage the original material.

Image showing a page from one of Murrell’s notebooks

The image above shows a digitised page from one of Murrell’s notebooks in which he has included notes and sketches from the V&A collection of portrait miniatures. The upper image shows Murrell’s sketch of an unknown lady painted by the enamel miniature artist, Christian Friedrich Zincke, c. 1705–1745, 46 mm x 38 mm (P.37-1931). With the benefit of viewing the original painting under magnification combined with his technical knowledge of how these works were created, Murrell has noted that the sitter’s blue dress was painted ‘wet-in-wet’, a painting technique in which paint layers are applied one after the other, before the previous layerhas dried. This technique is used to create a very smooth appearance with no visible brushstrokes. Murrell also noted this highly finished effect in the pale grey ‘floating’ background of the miniature, and the almost invisible washes laid down to create the features of the figure. Below this in Murrell’s notebook is a sketch of a second miniature by Zincke: Charles, 2nd Duke of Grafton, c. 1730, enamel on metal, 45 mm x 37 mm (Evans 320). Again, Murrell’s close observation of the work reveals the techniques whereby Zincke achieved his smooth effects. The background is noted as ‘very softly stippled’,a technique of using small dots or short strokes of the paintbrushwhereas  vertical hatching (closely drawn lines) and ‘sharp dotted stipples’ are used by the painter to model the sitter’s face. The different sorts of marks are clearly represented in Murrell’s sketch. The notebook contains further sketches and notes on miniatures by Zincke and his contemporaries.

The archive now exists in its original state and, largely, as a series of digitised files. With further funding, it will be possible to make these digitised files available for public viewing online. It is hoped that providing the Murrell archive with an online presence will provide an ongoing legacy and foster  the revival of interest in miniatures. The funding for the digitisation work undertaken so far was granted by the British Academy Small Research Grant scheme and the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Marlay Group, as part of an ongoing technical research project on Isaac Oliver.

If you want to know more or contribute to the project, please get in touch by emailing



Elizabeth Goldring, Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist, (New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 2019)

Jeffrey M. Muller and Jim Murrell, Edward Norgate: Miniatura, or, the Art of Limning (New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 1997)

Jim Murrell, The Way Howe to Lymne: Tudor Miniatures Observed (London: The Victoria and Albert Museum, 1983)

Roy Strong and V. J. Murrell, Artists of the Tudor Court: The Portrait Miniature Rediscovered, 1520–1620 (London: V&A, 1983)

John Murdoch, Jim Murrell, Patrick J. Noon and Roy Strong, The English Miniature (New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 1981)


Lantern Project in the Founder’s Entrance (Part 4)

Work on the Founder’s Entrance lantern is in full swing. The internal plaster conservation works were completed last month, along with the conservation cleaning.  And Tobit Curteis Associates have given us the below update on the conservation paint treatments they have been working on.

The scheme of decorative plasterwork and polychromy in the entrance hall is among the finest of its period in the country. It was conserved for the first time at the turn of the millennium at which point it was found that, although the surfaces were extremely dirty, having lived through the Industrial Revolution, the condition of the plaster and paint work was generally very good. Cleaning and conservation revealed the decoration in all its richness and had a huge effect on the appearance of the hall as visitors enter the museum. Some 17 years later, the conservation survey showed the condition still to be generally very good although there had been additional accumulation of dust and dirt as well as some minor flaking and loss resulting from unstable environmental conditions.

The aim of the current conservation project therefore is to record and document the condition of the decoration and to carry out limited stabilisation, cleaning and retouching. The team of conservators, working with Tobit Curteis Associates, has now been working on the conservation of the polychromy for three weeks and the work is progressing well. Most of the treatment carried out by Tobit’ team in 1999 and 2000 has remained stable and the areas of more recent damage have responded well to treatment. The planned relighting of the entrance hall will further improve its appearance so that visitors can again experience the decorative scheme much as the architect originally intended.

Tobit Curteis Associates

Miraculous Madonna Make-overs: Preparations for the ‘Madonnas and Miracles: Private Devotion in Renaissance Italy’ exhibition, March 7th – June 4th, 2017

Every now and again, an upcoming exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum provides a welcome opportunity to carry out much needed conservation treatment on important works from the Museum’s collection of paintings. While these works may in fact normally be on display in the permanent galleries, and their general state of preservation is stable and acceptable, they have not necessarily received further attention from the Museum’s conservators since they came into the collection many years ago.

Paintings sitting in the same spot on a gallery wall year after year are not usually scrutinised in the same way as works emerging into the light after a long period in storage. It is often a challenge to find the time and opportunity to look at something very familiar with fresh eyes! However, for each of the five paintings that were given a session of careful TLC by staff and students at The Hamilton Kerr Institute before entering this special exhibition, the visual changes resulting from the treatments were more drastic than initially anticipated. While the size, style and colour scheme in these works are in one sense quite different, they are also all depictions of tender moments between the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child, painted to serve as devotional pieces for private worshippers in the 15th and 16th centuries. The removal of discoloured varnish layers, mismatched overpaint and centuries of dirt, transformed the images and revealed paintings of even greater colouristic beauty and refinement than could be appreciated previously.

Figure 1: Detail showing the back of the Virgin and Child during the removal of centuries worth of dirt. Brilliant colours were revealed within a trompe-l’œil frame, which surrounds a depiction of a fantastical marble slab.

The small Virgin and Child, tentatively attributed to Pietro di Niccolo da Orvieto (c.1430-84) although its iconography and decorative elements could suggest a considerably earlier date, has always been on display showing only its front. When it was recently taken off the wall for a closer assessment however, it became evident that the back is also well worth looking at. Just like the front, the back was originally prepared with a smooth, white gesso ground. A convincing trompe l’oeil frame was then painted to surround an image that was initially very hard to make out through the thick dirt layer that has accumulated through the centuries. As cleaning progressed, a brilliantly colourful, fictive marble slab emerged (figure 1).

The panel was subjected to x-radiography, which revealed how the timber structure was put together prior to the gesso application (figure 2). Four individual moulding profiles were nailed to the face of the panel with three to four nails along each side, which were bent to lie flush with the back prior to the gesso application, thus sealing them within the structure.

Figure 2: The x-radiograph of the Virgin and Child shows the x-ray opaque nails employed to attach the frame profiles to the main panel prior to the application of gesso, paint and gilding.

Although the front of the panel was also somewhat obscured by dirt and varnish, it had clearly been cleaned at least once in the past. Remarkably, most of the decorative scheme is still in rather good condition.

Even though the painting’s style owes much to the stylised and somewhat flattened depictions of the Madonna and Child in the Byzantine icon tradition, the Virgin’s outer garment, the maphorion, was still surprisingly dark and flat compared to the other passages in the painting (figure 3). However, infrared reflectography showed how folds were in fact present in the maphorion (figure 4). Dark overpaint obscured these folds to the naked eye, and careful removal of this non-original layer revealed the original, but worn, blue colour of the garment, painted with two paint layers containing the blue mineral pigment, azurite (figure 5). The top layer has rather large pigment particles, which would have resulted in a rich, velvety surface. Good quality azurite was deliberately employed coarsely ground, because with further grinding, it loses its intensity of colour and turns increasingly grey. The gritty surface resulting from the use of a coarse pigment would have rendered it vulnerable to wear and absorbent to later applications of medium and overpaint, leading to the darkening effect that gives the misleading impression of a black paint passage.

As a result of careful cleaning and a changed approach to display, the beauty of both front and back of this small, devotional object can once again be appreciated in the current exhibition, where it sits in a vitrine allowing both sides to be seen.

Seven painting conservators spent nearly 600 hours on careful conservation and restoration work up to the ‘Madonnas and Miracles: Private Devotion in Renaissance Italy’ exhibition, and if these madonnas have indeed become familiar faces on the walls of the Museum’s permanent collection, they are certainly well worth a second glance, restaged alongside other devotional objects for the duration of the show, which runs from March 7th to June 4th.

To read about the conservation work and painting techniques of the School of Botticelli tondo and of the Joos van Cleve Virgin and Child, follow this link to the Hamilton Kerr Institute Student and Intern Conservation Blog, where you can also read about the challenging process of creating a reconstruction of the Virgin and Child discussed above, using traditional artists’ materials and techniques:

All images in this post are the copyright of The Hamilton Kerr Institute, University of Cambridge