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Nicholas Hilliard

Nicholas Hilliard


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Nicholas Hilliard, the son of a goldsmith, was born in Exeter in about 1547. He trained as a jeweller but later became an artist.

Influenced by the work of Hans Holbein, Hilliard worked for Elizabeth I and James I and established the English school of miniature painting. Hilliard also painted the portraits of Mary, Queen of Scots, Francis Drake, Philip Sidney, and Walter Raleigh.

Despite his success Hilliard had financial problems and in 1617 was imprisoned for debt. Nicholas Hilliard died in 1619.


Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver: The Art of Limning

Inspired by these exquisite tiny artworks, described by Hilliard as &lsquoa thing apart from all other painting or drawing&rsquo, we are turning the spotlight on Bridgeman Images collections that feature major works by the two giants of British miniature portrait painting, Nicholas Hilliard (c. 1547 &ndash 1619), and Isaac Oliver (c. 1565 - 1617).

Left-right: Self portrait aged 30, 1577 (watercolour on vellum), Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619) / Victoria & Albert Museum, London, UK Self-Portrait, c.1590 (w/c on vellum laid on card), Isaac Oliver (c.1565-1617) / Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2019

A bit of history.

&ldquoHow then can the curious drawer watch, and as it were catch these lovely graces, witty smilings, and those stolen glances which suddenly like lightning pass, and another countenance taketh place, except to behold and very well note and conceit to like.&rdquo Nicholas Hilliard, A Treatise Concerning the Arte of Limning.

Miniature portrait painting first appeared in the French and English courts in the 1520s, during the reign of Henry VIII. Prior to that, miniature painting had been confined to the art of illuminating manuscripts &ndash i.e. illustrating hand-written texts. Not simply the art of painting on a small scale, miniature painting also described the skill of using watercolour in its opaque form on vellum. The main difference between illuminating manuscripts and miniature portrait painting was that the latter was not attached to books. The portraits were designed to be portable and worn like medals, but as realistic in form and colour as conventional portraits. Their popularity began to increase when, with the development of the printed book, there was a decline in the need for hand-painted manuscripts. The miniature portrait, therefore, provided an opportunity for the illuminated manuscript painters to carry on working and practise their skills.

From top left clockwise: Self portrait, from a Book of Hours, c.1540 (vellum), Simon Bening (c.1483-1561) / Victoria & Albert Museum Anne of Cleves, 1539 (w/c on vellum mounted on ivory), Hans Holbein the Younger, (1497/8-1543) / Victoria & Albert Museum Henry VIII in a grey doublet and fur gown (w/c & bodycolour on vellum), Lucas Horenbout or Hornebault (fl. 1534-44) / The Portland Collection Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset, c.1534 (w/c & bodycolour on vellum), Lucas Horenbout or Hornebault, (fl. 1534-44) / Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2019 Queen Elizabeth I playing the lute (w/c on paper), Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619) / Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire James I, c.1609-15 (w/c on vellum laid on playing card), Nicholas Hilliard, (1547-1619) / Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2019


The miniature portrait became a useful tool for the British monarchy to signify favour. The portraits would often be presented in opulent and costly cases and were the perfect diplomatic gift to convey loyalty.

On occasion, portraits would be a gift between rulers as a means of conveying the likeness of proposed future spouses. When Henry VIII was considering Anne of Cleves as a possible fourth wife, his painter Hans Holbein the Younger was sent to paint miniatures of Anne and her sister.

Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver


Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver were the dominant miniature portrait painters of their time.

Nicholas Hilliard was the eldest of the two and burst on the scene in 1570. He had been an apprentice to the goldsmith Robert Brandon, who perhaps thought it would be useful to train one of his team in portrait miniature painting so that he could then make the expensive settings that would often accompany the miniatures. Hilliard&rsquos talent meant that he gained the patronage of the most important person in the country &ndash Queen Elizabeth I &ndash to whom he became the main portraitist.

The French-born Isaac Oliver was taught the art of Limning (as it was then called) by Hilliard, leading to their styles being very similar and sometimes indistinguishable. After the death of Queen Elizabeth I, Oliver became the main portraitist of her successor, James I.

Highlighted Collections:


Nicholas Hilliard

Nicholas Hilliard (c. 1547 – 7 January 1619) was an English goldsmith and limner best known for his portrait miniatures of members of the courts of Elizabeth I and James I of England. He mostly painted small oval miniatures, but also some larger cabinet miniatures, up to about ten inches tall, and at least two famous half-length panel portraits of Elizabeth. He enjoyed continuing success as an artist, and continuing financial troubles, for forty-five years. His paintings still exemplify the visual image of Elizabethan England, very different from that of most of Europe in the late sixteenth century. Technically he was very conservative by European standards, but his paintings are superbly executed and have a freshness and charm that has ensured his continuing reputation as "the central artistic figure of the Elizabethan age, the only English painter whose work reflects, in its delicate microcosm, the world of Shakespeare's earlier plays.

Later career

After his return from France he lived and worked in a house in Gutter Lane, off Cheapside, from 1579 to 1613, when his son and pupil Laurence took it over, carrying on in business for many decades. Hilliard had moved to an unknown address in the parish of St Martins-in-the-Fields, out of the City and nearer the Court. Strong describes the opening of the shop as "a revolution" which soon broadened the clientele for miniatures from the Court to the gentry, and by the end of the century to well-off city merchants.

Apart from Laurence, who continued in a "feeble" version of his father's style, his pupils included Isaac Oliver, by far the most important, and Rowland Lockey. He appears to have given lessons to amateurs also a letter from a young lady being "finished" in London in 1595 says: "For my drawing, I take an hour in the afternoon . My Lady.. telleth me, when she is well, that she will see if Hilliard will come and teach me, if she can by any means, she will"..

He continued to work as a goldsmith, and produced some spectacular "picture boxes" or jewelled lockets for miniatures, worn round the neck, such as the Lyte Jewel, which, typically, was given by James I (more generous in this respect than Elizabeth) to a courtier, Thomas Lyte, in 1610. The Armada Jewel, given by Elizabeth to Sir Thomas Heneage and the Drake Pendant given to Sir Francis Drake are the best known examples. As part of the cult of the Virgin Queen, courtiers were rather expected to wear the Queen's likeness, at least at Court. Elizabeth had her own collection of miniatures, kept locked in a cabinet in her bedroom, wrapped in paper and labelled, with the one labelled "My Lord's picture" containing a portrait of Leicester.

His appointment as miniaturist to the Crown included the old sense of a painter of illuminated manuscripts and he was commissioned to decorate important documents, such as the founding charter of Emmanuel College, Cambridge (1584), which has an enthroned Elizabeth within an elaborate framework of Flemish-style Renaissance ornament. He also seems to have designed woodcut title-page frames and borders for books, some of which bear his initials.


Nothing is known for certain about Nicholas Hilliard&rsquos training as an artist. This essay addresses this problem by providing an account of the lives of the artists active in London during the decade in which he completed his apprenticeship. It focuses on the artists John Bettes the Elder, the Master of the Countess of Warwick and Steven van der Meulen, all of whom had a strong profile at Elizabethan court, and would have been familiar to the young Hilliard as he set about becoming painter in the 1560s. It goes on to present new information about a number of other painters rarely discussed in the literature, bringing to light works of art that have not been included in studies of Hilliard&rsquos life. Together, this provides both a broad context for Hilliard&rsquos formative years and offers a plausible scenario as to how he acquired the skills that made him the most successful miniaturist of his generation.

Nicholas Hilliard was secretive it came naturally to him. A serial debtor, he took an economic approach to the truth, and this got him in and out of trouble. Secrecy was also integral to his argument that limning was of a higher status than painting in oils, and, most of all, that it was he and no one else that was privy to its secrets. In good conscience, he could claim that some techniques&mdashsuch as placing a spot of liquid silver to mimic the glint of pearl&mdashwere his and his alone, but as to where he learnt to take a likeness and handle his materials Hilliard is stubbornly silent. Discoveries made as part of a conservation treatment of two panel paintings made in France by Hilliard in the late 1570s have provided conclusive proof that he did, as the paper record suggests, work in oils, and the similarity of these two pictures to the &ldquoPhoenix&rdquo and &ldquoPelican&rdquo portraits of Elizabeth I&mdashthat date to the early to mid-1570s&mdashindicates that Hilliard had acquired this training in England well before his departure for France in 1576. 1 This gives clear proof that, when painting in large, Hilliard worked to the same format and in the same materials as other Tudor painters, even if some aspects of his approach were governed by techniques he used to paint miniatures. As such, it is instructive to conceive of his training in oils and his training in limning as linked, and to consider the possibility that these skills were acquired at around the same time and the same place. The only insight that Hilliard himself offers on this subject is the frequently cited but persistently opaque statement that although there were &ldquodivers other&rdquo salaried limners at the Henrican court, Hilliard considered Holbein&rsquos work &ldquofor the best&rdquo, and that it was Holbein&rsquos manner of limning &ldquoI have ever imitated&rdquo. 2 Hilliard esteemed Holbein&rsquos work on three counts: first, Holbein was the most &ldquocunning&rdquo, that is, the most skilful and artful practitioner of both painting and limning second, that Holbein was the &ldquoneatest&rdquo, and third, that he was &ldquotherewithal a good inventor&rdquo. In other words, Holbein was a most talented, precise, and ingenious artist&mdashall attributes Hilliard saw abundantly evident in himself.

So much for Hilliard&rsquos opinions. He never knew Holbein, who had died before he was born, but he had, as Elizabeth Goldring suggests, probably come into contact with Holbein&rsquos work as a child. It seems likely Hilliard saw the portrait miniatures by Holbein of Henry and Charles Brandon that had been taken by their mother Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk, when she fled England in religious exile in 1555, and that these were shown to him in Wessel, while he was part of the household of the Protestant John Bodley. 3 These are two of Holbein&rsquos most innovative miniatures, conveying what most other miniaturists failed to achieve: a convincing depiction of a child on a miniature scale. Thus, at an impressionable age, Hilliard was exposed to some of Holbein&rsquos finest work. It is easy to imagine that upon sight of these miniatures Hilliard&rsquos heart was set upon becoming Holbein&rsquos successor as the greatest limner and painter at court. This was no schoolboy daydream. When Hilliard returned to London in 1559, no artist had been able achieve the same status that Holbein had enjoyed as principle painter at court and this was not for lack of trying. The painters Gerlach Flicke, William Scrots, and Hans Eworth had all arrived in England in some hope they might occupy the breach left by Holbein&rsquos death, but by the time Hilliard returned to England in 1559, Flicke had died (1558) Scrots had disappeared (in around 1553) and Eworth was&mdashinexplicably but undeniably&mdashout of favour with the new Elizabethan regime. Individually and collectively, the careers of these artists were of false promise and blighted ambition. There was one artist however, who, even in spite of his limitations as a painter, was able to sustain his career through the troubled middle years of the sixteenth century. This was John Bettes the Elder, active from the mid-1540s, if not before, until to death in the early 1560s.

Tracing Bettes&rsquo career opens up the possibility that p erhaps&mdasha little like the lies Hilliard spun to avoid his creditors&mdashthere is a kernel of truth in his assertion that it was Holbein he had &ldquoever imitated&rdquo . For although Hilliard never knew Holbein, he may have known, and may possibly have trained under an artist who was part of an artistic &ldquodynasty&rdquo (that helpful term that Karen Hearn has given us) that begun with Holbein, passed to John Bettes the Elder, and came down to Hilliard through another painter called Arnold Derickson. 4 Underpinning this account of this artistic dynasty and the wider artisanal composition of London during the first decade of Elizabeth I&rsquos reign is the research undertaken for a biographical dictionary of 848 painters active in that city between the years 1547 and 1625. 5 It is also informed by technical study of a number of pictures from the 1560s and 1570s undertaken as part of a research project at the Yale Center for British Art and a wider survey of over 5,000 portraits from this period in collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery, London. What follows here does not provide a definitive answer to the question of Hilliard&rsquos training but instead gives the immediate context for the first decade of his life in London based upon the extant material and documentary evidence.

Only a handful of the 848 painters active in London during Hilliard&rsquos lifetime made portable pictures. Most made their livelihoods solely as decorative painters. They painted banners, buildings, buckets, and barges. Some learnt to limn. In itself, limning was not a closely guarded secret. In 1573, the printer and bookseller Richard Tottell published a short anonymously authored treatise on limning, which ran to several editions over the remaining decades of the century. 6 The treatise provided instruction as to prepare, mix, and handle various colours, but not the means by which to make portrait miniatures. Thus, working pigments bound in water and gum Arabic on vellum was a skilled but by no means unfamiliar task for Elizabethan painters. For example, in 1600&ndash1601, the painter-stainer Robert Winchell (fl. 1585&ndash1618) was paid 20 shillings by the Clothworkers&rsquo Company for &ldquolymning certen borders upon vellam with gould and fine coullors&rdquo and a further 6 shillings 8 pence for writing the names of the company&rsquos benefactors &ldquoin liquid gold&rdquo. 7 There is no evidence that Winchell produced any type of easel painting or portrait miniature, but the decoration of borders of vellum manuscripts was well within his abilities as a craftsman.

The narrative that follows here plays out across the extramural parishes of St Clement Danes, St Mary le Strand, and St Martin-in-the-Fields. But it begins in the heart of the city: hard by Cheapside on Foster Lane, Goldsmiths&rsquo Hall was where Nicholas Hilliard was enrolled as an apprentice on 13 November 1562. Just over six and a half years later, on 29 July 1569, he gained the freedom of the Goldsmiths&rsquo Company, ostensibly by virtue of his servitude under one of the Royal goldsmiths, Robert Brandon (d. 1591). Herein lies an unusual aspect of Hilliard&rsquos education. The duration of apprenticeship was set between seven years at the short end and twelve at the long end. Masters were routinely fined and sometimes ejected from their company altogether for presenting their apprentices shy of seven years. So even before Hilliard was launched into the professional world, he was exceptional.

Things were to continue in the same vein. Within a year, he was attempting to recruit his own apprentices and, by 1571, he had both native and foreign-born craftsmen under his supervision. As Goldring has shown, by the middle of 1571, he was enjoying royal patronage producing portraits of the queen to be sent as diplomatic gifts in the marriage negotiations with the future Henri III, and by 1573 had received, in reward, grants of land from the crown that bestowed rental income and gentlemanly status. 8 The portrait in question had been requested by Henri&rsquos mother, Catherine de&rsquo Medici, who had been so delighted by a miniature of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester received from Dudley early that year, that she demanded a miniature of Queen Elizabeth &ldquomade in the same fashion &hellip pivoted slightly to the right&rdquo, which as Goldring suggests, may indicate that the French were familiar with Elizabeth&rsquos appearance only through the poor quality portraits made in the first years of her reign.


Nicholas Hilliard portrait miniature art

Miniature portrait of Elizabeth I of England, c.1595-1600, auctioned by Christie’s, London, in June 2007, for £276,000 ($560,000)

The miniatures of any period are one of our most important sources of knowledge for its costume. Full-scale portraiture is often suspected of dressing the sitters in stock clothes, showing them as they want to be shown rather than as they are. Miniatures are a more accurate index of dress and its changes. In the Elizabethan age English countrymen were renowned for borrowing fashions of attire from the most far-fetched and discordant sources, making the whole characteristic, bizarre mixture of styles.

There is a detailed evidence of the forms of ruffs and collars. At the beginnings of Hilliard’s career the ruff was a small frill of convoluted linen appearing modestly at the neck a sumptuary law controlling the sizes had been promulgated in 1562. Soon it began to grow vigorously, and delicate ornamentation of lace was added, until it became the great cart-wheel ruff typical of the year of the Armada.

Playing the lute, Elizabeth I c. 1580

Youth amid Roses. About 1588. Nicholas Hilliard portrait miniature

Portrait of Elizabeth I, Queen of England

Christopher Hatton c. 1589

The ‘Pelican’ portrait – Elizabeth I, c. 1572

Marguerite de Navarre, 1577

Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke c. 1590

Sir Walter Raleigh, 1585. Nicholas Hilliard portrait miniature

(from the article Graham Reynolds, Nicholas Hilliard &Isaac Oliver)
from the book “Glimpses of British Art”


Romanticised Love Analysis

loneliness, longing and other types of emotional suffering. Three texts with well known representation of unrealistic love are, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), Nicholas Spark’s Notebook (1996) and J.F. Lawton’s Pretty Woman (1990). Each of these texts represent and demonstrate unrealistic ideas of love, however differ in the impacts they have on each individuals life. Throughout The Notebook a number of key scenes portray a love which is unrealistic causing many expectations for&hellip


Fair branch of honour, flower of chivalry

Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, was the eldest son of Walter Devereux, 1st Earl of Essex and his wife, Lettice Knollys. His father died in 1576, after which his mother incurred the Queen's wrath by marrying her favourite Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. For this Elizabeth never forgave her. In 1584 Essex was just seventeen and his mother, in an attempt to placate the Queen, induced him to come to court.

Elizabeth was immediately attracted to this glamorous youth who, shortly after, left as General of the Horse to fight in the Protestant cause in the Low Countries. There he befriended Sir Philip Sidney and so close did they become that Essex promised Sidney on his deathbed, after the battle of Zutphen, to marry his widow. This he did shortly after his return to England but, like his mother's marriage, it was kept secret from the Queen.

For three years, from 1587 to 1590, Elizabeth never knew that her new favourite was a married man. During the summer of 1587 Essex was decisively established as her constant companion and, following the formula already laid down by his predecessor, Raleigh, he began to live out a platonic affair with her. To this period the miniature belongs. It reflects the poetry he wrote about the relationship:

Love no more since she is gone!
She is gone and loves another.
Having been deceived by one,
Leave to love, and love no other.
She was false, bid her adieu
She was best, but yet untrue.

Later in his career, when he fell from favour, Essex dramatised himself as the bee no longer able to dwell upon the Royal Eglantine. And, of course, as successor in the public eye to Sidney, the Shepherd Knight, and as the exponent of a vigorous military policy against Catholic Spain, the role of Pompey suited him exactly. The Earl deliberately cultivated an image, in the words of Edmund Spenser, as 'fair branch of honour, flower of chivalry'.

If indeed the 'Young Man Among Roses' is Essex, it is the Earl at an unfamiliar period of his life, long before he grew his beard in 1596. The portrait evidence to support his identification is limited and the viewer must draw his own conclusions. The earliest certain portrait of Essex depicts him about three years after the Young Man in 1590 still with elements of a baby face, slightly more moustache and his hair differently dressed.

And there is another Hilliard miniature which may also be Essex. The dates are exactly right, for it depicts a man aged 22 in 1588. These suggest but do not absolutely prove the identification to be correct. In the final analysis, although such proof would heighten the portrait's interest, it would add little to our appreciation of this supreme evocation of the Elizabethan Arcadia.

Written by Roy Strong, Director of the V&A, 1976 and published in the V&A Masterpieces series.
Revised 2006. This article was based entirely on the study of this miniature in Roy Strong, 'The Cult of Elizabeth' (published in 1977).

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Discover the many treasures in the beautiful V&A galleries, find out where events are happening in the Museum or just check the location of the café, shops, lifts or toilets. Simple to use, the V&A interactive map works on all screen sizes, from your tablet or smartphone to your desktop at home.


Nothing is known for certain about Nicholas Hilliard&rsquos training as an artist. This essay addresses this problem by providing an account of the lives of the artists active in London during the decade in which he completed his apprenticeship. It focuses on the artists John Bettes the Elder, the Master of the Countess of Warwick and Steven van der Meulen, all of whom had a strong profile at Elizabethan court, and would have been familiar to the young Hilliard as he set about becoming painter in the 1560s. It goes on to present new information about a number of other painters rarely discussed in the literature, bringing to light works of art that have not been included in studies of Hilliard&rsquos life. Together, this provides both a broad context for Hilliard&rsquos formative years and offers a plausible scenario as to how he acquired the skills that made him the most successful miniaturist of his generation.

Nicholas Hilliard was secretive it came naturally to him. A serial debtor, he took an economic approach to the truth, and this got him in and out of trouble. Secrecy was also integral to his argument that limning was of a higher status than painting in oils, and, most of all, that it was he and no one else that was privy to its secrets. In good conscience, he could claim that some techniques&mdashsuch as placing a spot of liquid silver to mimic the glint of pearl&mdashwere his and his alone, but as to where he learnt to take a likeness and handle his materials Hilliard is stubbornly silent. Discoveries made as part of a conservation treatment of two panel paintings made in France by Hilliard in the late 1570s have provided conclusive proof that he did, as the paper record suggests, work in oils, and the similarity of these two pictures to the &ldquoPhoenix&rdquo and &ldquoPelican&rdquo portraits of Elizabeth I&mdashthat date to the early to mid-1570s&mdashindicates that Hilliard had acquired this training in England well before his departure for France in 1576. 1 This gives clear proof that, when painting in large, Hilliard worked to the same format and in the same materials as other Tudor painters, even if some aspects of his approach were governed by techniques he used to paint miniatures. As such, it is instructive to conceive of his training in oils and his training in limning as linked, and to consider the possibility that these skills were acquired at around the same time and the same place. The only insight that Hilliard himself offers on this subject is the frequently cited but persistently opaque statement that although there were &ldquodivers other&rdquo salaried limners at the Henrican court, Hilliard considered Holbein&rsquos work &ldquofor the best&rdquo, and that it was Holbein&rsquos manner of limning &ldquoI have ever imitated&rdquo. 2 Hilliard esteemed Holbein&rsquos work on three counts: first, Holbein was the most &ldquocunning&rdquo, that is, the most skilful and artful practitioner of both painting and limning second, that Holbein was the &ldquoneatest&rdquo, and third, that he was &ldquotherewithal a good inventor&rdquo. In other words, Holbein was a most talented, precise, and ingenious artist&mdashall attributes Hilliard saw abundantly evident in himself.

So much for Hilliard&rsquos opinions. He never knew Holbein, who had died before he was born, but he had, as Elizabeth Goldring suggests, probably come into contact with Holbein&rsquos work as a child. It seems likely Hilliard saw the portrait miniatures by Holbein of Henry and Charles Brandon that had been taken by their mother Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk, when she fled England in religious exile in 1555, and that these were shown to him in Wessel, while he was part of the household of the Protestant John Bodley. 3 These are two of Holbein&rsquos most innovative miniatures, conveying what most other miniaturists failed to achieve: a convincing depiction of a child on a miniature scale. Thus, at an impressionable age, Hilliard was exposed to some of Holbein&rsquos finest work. It is easy to imagine that upon sight of these miniatures Hilliard&rsquos heart was set upon becoming Holbein&rsquos successor as the greatest limner and painter at court. This was no schoolboy daydream. When Hilliard returned to London in 1559, no artist had been able achieve the same status that Holbein had enjoyed as principle painter at court and this was not for lack of trying. The painters Gerlach Flicke, William Scrots, and Hans Eworth had all arrived in England in some hope they might occupy the breach left by Holbein&rsquos death, but by the time Hilliard returned to England in 1559, Flicke had died (1558) Scrots had disappeared (in around 1553) and Eworth was&mdashinexplicably but undeniably&mdashout of favour with the new Elizabethan regime. Individually and collectively, the careers of these artists were of false promise and blighted ambition. There was one artist however, who, even in spite of his limitations as a painter, was able to sustain his career through the troubled middle years of the sixteenth century. This was John Bettes the Elder, active from the mid-1540s, if not before, until to death in the early 1560s.

Tracing Bettes&rsquo career opens up the possibility that p erhaps&mdasha little like the lies Hilliard spun to avoid his creditors&mdashthere is a kernel of truth in his assertion that it was Holbein he had &ldquoever imitated&rdquo . For although Hilliard never knew Holbein, he may have known, and may possibly have trained under an artist who was part of an artistic &ldquodynasty&rdquo (that helpful term that Karen Hearn has given us) that begun with Holbein, passed to John Bettes the Elder, and came down to Hilliard through another painter called Arnold Derickson. 4 Underpinning this account of this artistic dynasty and the wider artisanal composition of London during the first decade of Elizabeth I&rsquos reign is the research undertaken for a biographical dictionary of 848 painters active in that city between the years 1547 and 1625. 5 It is also informed by technical study of a number of pictures from the 1560s and 1570s undertaken as part of a research project at the Yale Center for British Art and a wider survey of over 5,000 portraits from this period in collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery, London. What follows here does not provide a definitive answer to the question of Hilliard&rsquos training but instead gives the immediate context for the first decade of his life in London based upon the extant material and documentary evidence.

Only a handful of the 848 painters active in London during Hilliard&rsquos lifetime made portable pictures. Most made their livelihoods solely as decorative painters. They painted banners, buildings, buckets, and barges. Some learnt to limn. In itself, limning was not a closely guarded secret. In 1573, the printer and bookseller Richard Tottell published a short anonymously authored treatise on limning, which ran to several editions over the remaining decades of the century. 6 The treatise provided instruction as to prepare, mix, and handle various colours, but not the means by which to make portrait miniatures. Thus, working pigments bound in water and gum Arabic on vellum was a skilled but by no means unfamiliar task for Elizabethan painters. For example, in 1600&ndash1601, the painter-stainer Robert Winchell (fl. 1585&ndash1618) was paid 20 shillings by the Clothworkers&rsquo Company for &ldquolymning certen borders upon vellam with gould and fine coullors&rdquo and a further 6 shillings 8 pence for writing the names of the company&rsquos benefactors &ldquoin liquid gold&rdquo. 7 There is no evidence that Winchell produced any type of easel painting or portrait miniature, but the decoration of borders of vellum manuscripts was well within his abilities as a craftsman.

The narrative that follows here plays out across the extramural parishes of St Clement Danes, St Mary le Strand, and St Martin-in-the-Fields. But it begins in the heart of the city: hard by Cheapside on Foster Lane, Goldsmiths&rsquo Hall was where Nicholas Hilliard was enrolled as an apprentice on 13 November 1562. Just over six and a half years later, on 29 July 1569, he gained the freedom of the Goldsmiths&rsquo Company, ostensibly by virtue of his servitude under one of the Royal goldsmiths, Robert Brandon (d. 1591). Herein lies an unusual aspect of Hilliard&rsquos education. The duration of apprenticeship was set between seven years at the short end and twelve at the long end. Masters were routinely fined and sometimes ejected from their company altogether for presenting their apprentices shy of seven years. So even before Hilliard was launched into the professional world, he was exceptional.

Things were to continue in the same vein. Within a year, he was attempting to recruit his own apprentices and, by 1571, he had both native and foreign-born craftsmen under his supervision. As Goldring has shown, by the middle of 1571, he was enjoying royal patronage producing portraits of the queen to be sent as diplomatic gifts in the marriage negotiations with the future Henri III, and by 1573 had received, in reward, grants of land from the crown that bestowed rental income and gentlemanly status. 8 The portrait in question had been requested by Henri&rsquos mother, Catherine de&rsquo Medici, who had been so delighted by a miniature of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester received from Dudley early that year, that she demanded a miniature of Queen Elizabeth &ldquomade in the same fashion &hellip pivoted slightly to the right&rdquo, which as Goldring suggests, may indicate that the French were familiar with Elizabeth&rsquos appearance only through the poor quality portraits made in the first years of her reign.


2 comments on &ldquo Is this life size portrait of Elizabeth I by our greatest painter of miniatures? &rdquo

Can you tell me why the photos of the paintings are almost impossible to see? It’s as if a white scrim is in front of them. It would be lovely to see color and detail clearly.

Hi Katya, apologies, we saw the scrim too – it was because of a technical fault caused by a film embed we tried, but we thought we fixed it before go-live, so you shouldn’t be seeing it. We are looking into it now. Regards Richard (editor).


The 400th anniversary of the burial of Nicholas Hilliard, and Hilliard book news!

On this day in history, 7th January 1619, Nicholas Hilliard, the famous Elizabethan goldsmith and miniaturist, was buried at the parish church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London. This means that it's the 400th anniversary of his burial!

Hilliard is known for his beautiful portrait miniatures of the English court in the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, and his paintings of Elizabeth I: the “Pelican” portrait and the “Phoenix” portrait.

Hilliard is a fascinating man and artist, and he is the subject of Dr Elizabeth Goldring's new book, which is due to be released by Yale University Press on 12th February. Its title is Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist and here is the blurb:

"This illustrated biography follows Nicholas Hilliard’s long and remarkable life (c. 1547–1619) from the West Country to the heart of the Elizabethan and Jacobean courts. It showcases new archival research and stunning images, many reproduced in color for the first time. Hilliard’s portraits—some no larger than a watch-face—have decisively shaped perceptions of the appearances and personalities of many key figures in one of the most exciting, if volatile, periods in British history. His sitters included Elizabeth I, James I, and Mary, Queen of Scots explorers Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh and members of the emerging middle class from which he himself hailed. Hilliard counted the Medici, the Valois, the Habsburgs, and the Bourbons among his Continental European patrons and admirers. Published to mark the 400th anniversary of Hilliard’s death, this is the definitive biography of one of Britain’s most notable artists."

Elizabeth Goldring is an honorary associate professor at the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance at the University of Warwick and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

Congratulations to Elizabeth on her forthcoming book and also because the Financial Times newspaper included it in their list of "What we'll be reading next year . the biggest titles out in the first half of 2019".

Elizabeth did a wonderful talk for us based on her previous book on Robert Dudley and his art collection and members can see that here. I was lucky enough to hear Elizabeth talk on the Discover the Tudors tour in September - she's fantastic, so this book is a must-read.


Watch the video: Masters in Miniature: Hilliard and Oliver (November 2022).

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