Why miniaturism is getting bigger every day
At the end of last year I made myself eight inches tall. I had seen the movie Downsizing , in which Matt Damon shrinks himself into a place called Leisureland, and I’d thought, “How hard can that be?” It turns out, not hard at all. I paid £199 to be photographed in a small white bell tent at Westfield shopping centre in Stratford, east London, and was told to stand on a round white disk and keep perfectly still. As I froze the white disk began to rotate slowly, and a bank of 14 cameras on a pole took about 400 photographs of me from top to toe. The whole thing lasted less than a minute, and when it was over I watched the layered images rendering on a display screen at the back of the tent. Once the photos had combined to reformat me back into a whole person, the 3D image was sent to a 3D printer, and within a few weeks I was made into a sandstone composite.
The first sight wasn’t unnerving, as I had expected, but reassuring: it was a good likeness. Receiving my model was a little like unboxing an Action Man, although I couldn’t bend its arms or legs, and I wasn’t quite so ripped. The reaction from those who saw it unprepared was different: they were astonished. There was surprise that such a thing was possible, and admiration for the detail. They commented on the accuracy of my hair, and the creases in my jacket and jeans. And almost everyone wanted one of themselves or their family or their pets.
This is the miniature’s moment. Jessie Burton’s muchloved novel, The Miniaturist , was a bestseller and a recent BBC adaptation. In March 2017, the most notable sale at the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht was a Dutch doll’s house containing 200 17th-century silver ornaments (the asking price was €1.75m). Four months later, a miniature portrait of George IV by Richard Cosway sold at Christie’s for £341,000, many times the previous record for the artist. Earlier this year, a 19th-century French porcelain doll sold in Maryland for $333,500, a world record for a doll at auction.
What can possibly be the appeal? The answer lies in our desire for mastery and elucidation. The ability to enhance a life by bringing scaled-down order and illumination to an otherwise chaotic world – a world over which we may otherwise feel we have little control – cannot be overvalued. The fascination of holding in our hands something completely realised at an impossibly reduced scale is a wholly fulfilling one, and the satisfactions of inquisitive observation will never tire. At its simplest, the miniature shows us how to see, learn and appreciate more with less.
I’ve written a book about the role of the miniature in our lives, and I’m not sure I’ve ever tackled a subject as big. The miniature world embraces control. The toys we enjoy as children invest us with a rare power at a young age, conferring the potency of adults, and possibly giants. Toy cars and dolls and plastic construction kits are not merely pliable in our hands; they render us conquerors. We may never have such dominion over the world again, unless we continue the play into adulthood.
As adults, we bring things down to size to understand and appreciate them. Something too big to visualise at full scale – a building perhaps, or a war – may be rendered comprehensible at 12:1. Artists, sculptors, set designers and poets all work in miniature because it encourages greater scrutiny and deeper participation. Miniature items help us imagine grander schemes. A signal box on a model railway is eyed with needling precision, and with the care we would seldom apportion to one at full size. Architects of future cities must first scheme in model form, and the model may be the only proof that they attempted such a thing.
We would struggle to educate ourselves without the miniature. Models have been part of the intellectual architecture of museums for more than 200 years, and it is often the spatial encounter with these objects that make a child’s first encounter with a museum memorable. The satisfaction of observing small things becomes a desire to make small things, and both stages address the human need for comprehension and order. We live in a huge and doomy universe, and controlling just a tiny scaled-down part of it restores our sense of order and worth. We may not play in the World Cup or the Ryder Cup, but there is always table football and crazy golf. What is a drone if not a modern remote-controlled model aeroplane? And what is a globe if not everything we understand about the lay of the land?
I think we may also struggle to educate ourselves without the amateur. The world advances on enthusiasms and ingenuity from the shed and the garage (the steam engine, the personal computer), and until their work is appreciated and valued they know only private passion and familial disapproval. But the miniature aspires to art: at its best, it may offer up the illuminating and profound. At the very least, it may expand our perception of the things the mind only thinks it knows.
Soon after I began examining the scaled-down world I found I had fallen down a rabbit hole so infinite that I feared I might never crawl out of it. I once regarded with suspicion the sign on the door of the doll’s house emporium near my home that says: “This is not a toy shop.” For what else could it be? When I entered I found tiny tennis racquets with real stringing, and jars of Marmite so small that even a mouse wouldn’t be satisfied come teatime. The shop performed that familiar miniature trick: it had indelible belief in its own existence. And because everything was miniature, nothing looked small. I left the shop believing that the cars outside were juggernauts, and the pillar box was the size of the Guggenheim.
Worlds within worlds existed long before those suggested by Lewis Carroll or quantum physics. The history of the miniature stretches back to the ancients, and its path tracks an irreducible line. Lucretius had it right when he observed, “A small thing may give an analogy of great ‹
‹ things, and show the tracks of knowledge,” and the art director George Lois had it right too when he claimed, “The only thing that gets better when it gets bigger is the penis.”
I spent time with Egyptian shabtis, the pottery figurines designed to secure a life free of toil in the afterlife. I studied the wooden model of a slave ship that hastened the end of the slave trade in the UK. But almost inevitably I was drawn to the obsessives, those men with their train driver’s caps and their tiny models in sheds and attics, with their wives long gone… And their wives with their own china madnesses, their little toy families, their smooth hedgehog collections, their treasured things in felt. We create small universes in which we may bury ourselves to the exclusion of all else. Blocking out real life for a while – always the prerequisite of the dedicated domestic hobby, from doll’s house modeller to jigsaw enthusiast to adult book colourist – may be contemplative, meditative, blinkered and essential. The people crouching over tiny details as if the world depended on it are only doing it because their world does depend on it.
The deep craziness began in the 19th century with the flea circus, in which creatures with names such as The Great Herman were tethered to jeweller’s tiny chariots and appeared to pull them for fun; they were actually trying to rid themselves of the harness. The fleas also fought duels (not generally of their own volition for their swords were similarly tethered), and appeared to jump through hoops. So popular were these attractions in London, Hamburg and New York that flea masters vied for the public’s shilling with all manner of hucksterism, including a newspaper story claiming that one star flea – a daredevil on a motorcycle – had deserted his circus with a bout of depression.
No less extreme, I enjoyed straining my eyes with the enthusiasts of the Miniature Book Society, a group who will stop at nothing to bring great literature down to size. The members, about 300 worldwide, are primarily concerned with the artistic beauty of volumes of any subject, but will also proudly sell you what was once considered the world’s smallest book, a bound collection of flower illustrations printed in Japan in 2013 at 0.7mm x 0.7mm. But such a feat now appears huge alongside the miniature reading material rendered possible by the digital world, such as the entire opening page of A Tale of Two Cities reduced by Stanford nanotechnologists to fit on the head of a pin.
Pins and needles feature a lot among modern miniaturists, not least the microscopic endeavours of Willard Wigan MBE, whose honour has accrued from placing, say, Snow White and Seven Dwarfs or The Last Supper within the eye of a needle, or the astute and emotive work of Slinkachu, who abandons minuscule plastic model-railway figures to their tragic or hilarious fate in the real world (a seemingly huge pro-Trump election badge pierces the heart of a tiny potential voter; a man hangs himself on a thin branch of vibrant cherry blossom).
And then I wasted a fair bit of time watching someone’s hands make tiny food on YouTube. Here, everything is reduced in scale – the chopping board, the entire miseen-place array. The spoons look very stupid when held between the tips of two average-sized fingers, but try to sit through, for example, the miniature construction of an egg-burger with carrots and broccoli by YouTube’s Miniature Space and not start salivating. And you won’t be alone: at the time of writing, this video has been watched 1,113,391 times. The internet and social media has validated and monetised all these tiny madnesses: a maker may no longer be dismissed as just a sad or crazy person, they are instructional leaders.
At the end of my research – seldom arduous, it should be said – I wondered where my own fascination with miniature objects had begun, and initially I was stumped: growing up, I wasn’t fond of Action Man or Lego, or building things small. But then it dawned. One of the most treasured objects I have from my late parents is a small and fragile sandstone figure with an Ishtar cap and upturned arms made in Cyprus around 700 BC. I’ve been aware of it all my life, but I’ve only recently acknowledged its significance. It’s a fertility figure, 5in tall, and I was conceived only a year or so after my father brought it into our home. ■
We create miniature universes in which we may bury ourselves
Little and large: (clockwise from top) Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig in Downsizing; Hayley Squires in the screen version of The Miniaturist; a 19th century doll’s house
Bite sized: (clockwise from top) Egyptian shabtis from the Middle Kingdom onwards; three microscopic artworks in the eye of a needle, by Willard Wigan