As It Happens

Beauty in the details: British artists create miniature masterworks

When art galleries and museums closed down last year, Simon Martin came up with a workaround on a tiny scale, calling on some of the most well-known artists in the country to create work that fits into the palm of your hand.

The lilliputian artworks are all less than 20 centimetres

A model of the miniature gallery, showcasing 30 lilliputian artworks. (Pallant House Gallery)

When art galleries and museums closed down last year, Simon Martin came up with a solution that ended up drawing in the best in British art: he called on 30 of the U.K.'s biggest artists to create work that fits into the palm of your hand.

"Fortunately, most of them said yes," he told As It Happens guest host Peter Armstrong. 

Martin is the director of the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, West Sussex, where in June, the work will be exhibited in a miniature gallery.

The paintings, photographs, ceramics and sculptures themselves are all smaller than 20 centimetres, and the gallery itself is set to be about the size of a refrigerator.

Maggi Hambling's Naked Night piece is one of the artworks being shown. (Pallant House Gallery)

"I think artists, they're intrigued by things like this," Martin explained. "They love this idea of playing with scale and actually trying to condense — often quite complex — ideas into a fun way of creating work. And I think for a lot of people, it provided something a bit lighter in this relentlessly awful period."

Damien Hirst created a miniature spin painting for the exhibition. While his spin paintings are normally about three metres wide, Martin says the artist managed to recreate his signature style of whirling colours on a smaller scale. 

Lubaina Himid is also featured in the miniature art gallery. She was the first Black woman to win the Turner Prize in the U.K. in 2017. Himid's paintings focus on cultural history and reclaiming identities. 

"She's created this wonderful wood panel collage painting, which is figurative and just such an optimistic and bright painting," said Martin.

"It makes you smile, you know? At the same time, there's a playfulness, but actually some of the works are still quite serious in intent."

All of the artists have donated their miniature art to the Pallant House Gallery's permanent collection. Their work will be displayed alongside two other miniature model art galleries — together presenting a time capsule of 80 years of British art. 

The piece created by Lubaina Himid for the show. (Pallant House Gallery)

Martin originally came up with the idea based on the other miniature pieces.

"I [thought] this could be a really interesting thing to revisit, 20 years on, to ask the artists of today."

His goal was also to inspire people in the British art world to continue working during the pandemic. Back in April 2020, Martin was "struck" to see people "suddenly not able to work in their studios." 

"Everyone had to be at home and lots of artists were trying to home educate their children. And I was thinking, 'Well, what is a manageable project in this situation? How can people still be creative on a manageable scale?'

"In the midst of a pandemic, being able to create work which will collectively create an exhibition, which will have a long-term future, I think is also a really lovely thing to do."


Written by Mehek Mazhar. Interview with Simon Martin produced by Chris Trowbridge.

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