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Pocket-sized paintings: Elizabethans in miniature

A collection of pocket-sized paintings – most no bigger than the lid of a jam jar – form a major new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Art historians Elizabeth Goldring and Catharine MacLeod tell us what five of these works reveal about 16th-century tastes and the artists who popularised a unique form | Words by Charlotte Hodgman

Published: March 21, 2019 at 7:01 am
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Emerging confidence

Self-portrait, aged 30 by Nicholas Hilliard, 1577


One of the most prominent artists of the 16th century, Nicholas Hilliard trained as a goldsmith before turning to miniature painting. His talent was clear and by around 1571, aged about 24, he had become miniature painter to Elizabeth I, creating exquisitely detailed portraits of the queen and well-known courtiers such as Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.

“Miniature portraits served a similar function to that of photography,” says Elizabeth Goldring. “Their diminutive size meant they could be placed in a locket or carried around as a visual reminder of a loved one.” In 1576, Hilliard travelled to France to serve as court painter to the Duke of Anjou, youngest son of Henry II of France and Catherine de Medici.

“This likeness, painted in France, reveals how Hilliard viewed himself and how he wished to be seen by others,” says Goldring. “Painters in England at this time were generally viewed as no more than manual labourers, but Hilliard’s self-portrait demonstrates a growing confidence in his own social and intellectual status as an artist. His imperious gaze and fine clothing are not a million miles away from those of the aristocratic patrons he was painting. Its message is clear: here is a man who is going places.”


Wedded bliss

Alice Hilliard by Nicholas Hilliard, 1578

Before he left for France in 1576, Hilliard married Alice Brandon, daughter of the goldsmith to whom he had been apprenticed for most of the 1560s. Hilliard spent more than two years at the French court, but was joined at some point by his wife – the couple’s first child was born in 1578. Before or just after she gave birth, Alice returned to England, six to eight months prior to her husband. This portrait was painted shortly before she departed.

“This exquisite painting of Alice depicts her either in the final stages of pregnancy, or as a new mother,” says Goldring. “It’s likely Hilliard painted the portrait as a reminder of his wife while they were apart – and she, too, probably returned to England with her husband’s self-portrait.

“The painting is full of symbolism: the head of wheat on Alice’s bodice indicates fertility, while the carnation was a traditional symbol of marriage. Hilliard’s signature (above both shoulders), which previously consisted of an ‘N’ superimposed over an ‘H’, now includes an extra diagonal stroke, creating two back-to-back ‘A’s – one, perhaps, for ‘Alice’, and the other, possibly, for ‘amour’.”


Flames of love

Unknown Young Man Against a Background of Flames by Nicholas Hilliard, c1600

As well as works for high status patrons, Hilliard also painted miniatures of now-unidentified men and women. His services, however, were not cheap – a miniature by Hilliard cost £3, the annual wage for an architect in Chester at this time.

“It’s no accident that Hilliard enjoyed a near 50-year career,” comments Goldring. “As seen in this miniature, which stands in stark contrast to his more formal portraits, he constantly adapted his style to meet the demands of his sitters, so his paintings were rarely, if ever, out of fashion.

“This painting, with its erotic overtones, portrays a man in a state of semi-undress. Flames of love lick at the sitter’s head and torso as he turns a jewelled locket towards his heart, perhaps containing a miniature portrait of his beloved.”

The dotted outline beneath the portrait shows its actual size – just 6.9cm by 5.4cm. (The other portraits in this feature are not shown in actual size.)


Age laid bare

Elizabeth I by Isaac Oliver, c1589

Hilliard was not without competition in the miniature market. Born in France around 1565, Isaac Oliver studied under Hilliard but went on to become his main rival.

Elizabeth I saw distributing miniatures as a relatively inexpensive and easy way of currying favour with her courtiers. Around 1589, Oliver was given a commission to create an updated image of the queen that could be used as a general template for future miniatures.

“Official patterns or templates meant Elizabeth wasn’t required to sit for every painting made of her,” says Catherine MacLeod. “Hilliard had produced a pattern of the queen in c1584 that had been in use for several years.

“Oliver’s proposed template does not appear to have gained Elizabeth’s approval – perhaps due to his all-too-realistic depiction of the ageing queen – with sunken eyes, hooked nose and furrowed brow. As far as we know, Oliver was never asked to paint the queen again.”


The mask of youth

Elizabeth I by Nicholas Hilliard, c1595–1600

In around 1592, Hilliard was asked to create a template image of Elizabeth I, who was fast approaching her 60th birthday. “Nevertheless,” says Goldring, “the image he created shows none of the physical problems we know she was suffering at this point in her reign – black teeth, wrinkled grey skin and thinning hair. Instead, Hilliard created an ageless image of Elizabeth I (left), which became known as ‘the mask of youth’.”

This image (one of several surviving examples of, and variations on, Hilliard’s ‘mask of youth’ template, in use from c1592) demonstrates many of the artistic techniques Hilliard became famous for – in particular the queen’s crisp white ruff, created by layering white pigment in varying thicknesses.

“Hilliard developed several techniques that made his paintings appear highly lifelike,” says Goldring. “But he was reluctant to share his secrets, preferring instead to attribute his incredible skills to God-given talent.”

Elizabeth Goldring is honorary associate professor at the University of Warwick and the author of Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist (Yale, 2019). Catharine MacLeod is senior curator of 17th-century portraits at the National Portrait Gallery

Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver is on show at the National Portrait Gallery until 19 May 


This article was first published in the April 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine


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