In Flann O’Brien’s absurdist novel The Third Policeman, one of the triumvirate of gardaí, Officer MacCruiskeen, occupies his time by making miniature chests, such as a seafarer might use to store his valuables. Within each chest, matryoshka-style, MacCruiskeen placed another, identical in every respect except that it was slightly smaller. By the 32nd such chest, his handiwork was so small that it could not be seen, with or without a magnifying glass; and, for that matter, the tools he used were so minuscule as to be invisible too.

O’Brien’s lawman may inhabit a world of fantasy but, as John Mack reveals, his microscopic endeavours are not that far removed from reality. In this book you will find talk of Elizabethan miniatures painted using a single hair from a squirrel’s tail, of Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-Valise (a suitcase containing scaled-down versions of his artworks), and of our own modern MacCruiskeen, artist Willard Wigan, who carved a tiny Statue of Liberty within the eye of a needle. It being published by the British Museum, the items featured are, for the large part, taken from the collection, allowing the reader to draw parallels across continents and time periods. Thus, we can compare the worlds-within-worlds carved into a Netherlandish model altarpiece and a tiny shrine to Shiva, or observe that miniatures were as popular in the Mughal court as they were with Royalists in 17th-century Europe. (There is a wee little Charles I hidden within a hinged ring, accompanied by a rather bizarre caption that seems to suggest that he was hanged rather than beheaded.) Often, the quest for precision in craftsmanship will lead to tininess as an end in itself, so that the miniature is not a diminutive version of a larger object but rather a simple celebration of intricacy. This is perhaps most marked in Japan, where the culture of miniaturisation exemplified by netsuke later paid dividends in the world of consumer electronics.

One small criticism that could be directed at this book is that, at 25 x 20cm, it lacks the sense of minuteness appropriate to the subject-matter. True, these dimensions allow the various shrunken heads, charms and micro-mosaics to be reproduced at something approaching life-size, but one cannot help but wish that the book itself had adopted this bonsai mentality – maybe something along the lines of the Toppan Printing Co’s Ultra Micro Trio, a set of three volumes published in 1979, each measuring 2mm square. So astonishingly miniature are these books that with a single gust of wind they would be lost forever. As one collector relates: “I recently had the terrifying experience when breathing against the case… to see one of the books take off like a speck of dust and it was nothing short of a miracle that I managed to find it again”.

First published in World of Interiors issue 305. Reproduced with permission.

The Art of Small Things

by John Mack  (British Museum Press)

This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it