The Roman Baths

Once upon a time, around the 9th century BC, Prince Bladud contracted leprosy. His father, Ludhudibras, banished Bladud from the court and sent him to work as a country swineherd. Accepting his fate, Prince Bladud took good care of his pigs, noticing that when the animals wallowed in the steamy, muddy swamp at the bottom of the valley, they emerged cleansed of their warts and sores. Braving the mucky water, Bladud plunged into the stream and emerged without a blemish. His leprosy had vanished, and his father welcomed him back home. The news spread of the miracle, and soon, a small town developed around the thermal waters, building the foundations of the city of Bath.

The water that cured Prince Bladud is the same water that fills the city of Bath’s top tourist attraction. The Roman Baths or thermae date to around 60-70 AD, during the first few decades of the Roman occupation of Britain. These baths attracted people from far and wide who wished to sample the healing power of the water. The city became known as Aquae Sulis (Waters of Sulis) due to the Roman belief the hot spring that supplied the water belonged to the goddess Sulis Minerva. For this reason, the Romans also built a temple on the site.

As with most Roman buildings, the baths succumbed to the elements. Fortunately, parts of the original foundations survived, upon which 18th-century architects reconstructed some of the walls and columns. Today, swimming in the waters, which have turned green due to algae, is not possible, but the baths are open to the public as a museum. Next door, the Grand Pump Room sells samples of the curative water to taste – something that gets mixed reactions from visitors.

The water in the Roman Baths may be many hundreds or even thousands of years old. It originally fell as rain on the Mendip Hills and percolated down through limestone aquifers measuring a depth of 2,700-4,300 metres (8,900-14,100 ft). The deeper the water travelled, the higher the temperature rose, reaching between 64 and 96 degrees Celsius. Under the pressure of the limestone, the water eventually rises back up to the surface through cracks, forming heated springs. Scientists have studied this phenomenon to develop enhanced geothermal systems.

Around 1,106,400 litres of water rise every day to fill the baths. This is approximately 13 litres per second. It rises from the Pennyquick fault, which thanks to Roman engineering, flows directly to the bathing pools. There are an estimated 43 minerals in the water, including calcium, sulphates, sodium and chloride. There are also some traces of iron, which causes orange stains on rocks and stone. Sometimes, the water may appear to bubble. This is caused by gases escaping.

Archaeological evidence suggests the site of the baths was a worship centre for the Celts. They dedicated the springs to the goddess Sulis, a life-giving mother goddess, who the Romans associated with Minerva, the goddess of wisdom. When the Romans invaded, they kept the name Sulis, as seen in the name Aquae Sulis, but frequently referred to the goddess as Minerva-Sulis or Sulis Minerva. Before constructing the bathing complex, which took around 300 years, the Romans built and dedicated a temple to the goddess.

Builders began by creating a wooden foundation in the mud surrounding the thermal spring, then constructed a stone chamber lined with lead. In the 2nd century AD, a wooden barrel-vaulted ceiling enclosed the building, dividing it into several sections, including a caldarium (hot bath), tepidarium (lukewarm bath), and frigidarium (cold bath). Bathers usually started in the tepidarium, heated by underground lead pipes, which directed water from the spring into the baths. Here, the bathers acclimatised to the heat before moving on to the considerably warmer caldarium. The rich usually brought attendants to rub their bodies with fragrant oils before taking a plunge into the freezing water in the frigidarium to close the pores.

Bathing was not the only activity available at the baths. Alcoves provided spaces for business meetings, philosophical discussions, or a place to meet friends. Evidence suggests visitors played board games, gambled and consumed food and drink. In other areas, musicians performed while people received certain treatments, such as manicures and pedicures.

Many Roman towns contained a bathing house, but people travelled far and wide to experience the curative waters provided by Sulis Minerva. People with various ailments travelled to Bath to drink the water or submerge their ailing bodies. Others visited to ask the goddess for advice or vengeance. Over 130 lead or pewter curse tablets have been discovered, asking Sulis Minerva to punish a wrongdoer. Many of these relate to petty crimes, such as the theft of a towel. Often, the accuser did not know who committed the crime, but they believed the goddess would know and mete out punishment accordingly.

Excavation has also revealed thousands of coins, jewellery, dishes and cups, many containing a dedication to Sulis Minerva. When not asking the goddess for requests, people gave sacrifices and gifts. Unlike contemporary religions, where gods and goddesses are worshipped across the world, the Roman baths and temple became the point at which the human world could communicate with the presiding deity.

Not much remains of the Temple of Sulis Minerva, which stood next to the baths. During excavations and sewage works, a handful of artefacts have been unearthed, which are now in the Roman Baths museum. A gilded bronze head belonging to a statue of Sulis Minerva was discovered by workers in 1727. Its body has never been found, but it is believed it once wore a tall Corinthian helmet. Other items once belonging to the temple include a relief carving of the goddess wearing a gorgon mask and parts of a carved pediment, which may also feature a gorgon. According to Greek mythology, the hero Perseus killed the gorgon Medusa and gifted her head to the goddess Athena, the Greek equivalent of Minerva.

The baths remained popular for many years, permitting both men and women entry. At one time, men and women could not visit together, but further construction provided separate changing areas for the different sexes. Builders also raised the floors of the baths to escape the rising water levels caused by the frequent flooding of the nearby River Avon. These floods also sent mud into the water system, which accumulated in the Sacred Spring. The higher the bath floors, the further away they got from the underground heating, rendering it useless. The number of visitors dropped rapidly, and the inhabitants of Aquae Sulis gave up the losing battle against the floods. Eventually, mud and debris found their way into the temple, damaging the walls and causing the building to collapse. The baths suffered a similar fate, and the ceiling crashed into the swamp below, where people once bathed in the thermal water.

The story of the Roman Baths did not end there. During the 12th century, John of Tours (d.1122), the Bishop of Wells, built a new bath over the once-Sacred Spring. The pool became known as the King’s Pool and is where Anne of Denmark (1574-1619), the wife of King James I (1566-1625), bathed on 19th May 1613 on the recommendation of the court physician, Théodore de Mayerne (1573-1655). Anne returned in 1615 to bathe in the newly constructed Queen’s Bath, decorated with the inscription Anna Regnum Sacrum (Anne’s Sacred Kingdom).

During the 18th century, father and son architects John Wood, the Elder (1704-54) and John Wood, the Younger (1728-82), designed a new building to house the King and Queen Baths. Basing the design on the original Roman Baths, the neoclassical building also contains the Grand Bath, which the general public used. Next door, they built the Grand Pump Room, where visitors could “take the waters”, in other words, drink it, or attend social functions.

Further expansion of the baths continued during the Victorian era. During the late 19th century, statues of Roman Emperors and Governors of Roman Britain were placed on the open terrace surrounding the Grand Bath. Over time, the elements have eroded some features, particularly the faces, but a new protective wash prevents further damage. The statues represent Julius Caesar, Emperor Claudius, Emperor Vespasian, Governor Ostorius Scapula, Governor Suetonius Paulinus, Governor Julius Agricola, the Head of Roma (symbolising Rome), Emperor Hadrian and Emperor Constantine the Great. These men lived between 100 BC and 337 AD, and all had significant connections with Britain, or Britannia, as it was then known.

The Roman Baths stayed open until October 1978, when a young girl contracted naegleriasis and died. The fatal brain infection is caused by Naegleria fowleri, more commonly known as a “brain-eating amoeba”, which lives in untreated waters. The Baths closed for several years to tackle the microorganism, but it never reopened for public use. In 1979, the psychiatrist Herbert Needleman (1927-2017) documented the dangers of lead exposure. Lead interferes with the normal functioning of cells in the body, chemically displacing vital elements, such as calcium, zinc and iron. Although Naegleria fowleri still poses a risk, the lead piping delivering water to the baths is also a health risk.

In 1982, a new spring water borehole was sunk to provide safe, clean water for drinking in the Pump Room. This water also fills the pools at the nearby Thermae Bath Spa, which opened in 2006. Here, visitors can experience the effects of the healing waters in a modern environment and receive various treatments.

Although the waters at the Roman Baths are out of bounds, visitors to Bath can wander around the Grand Pool where people of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries once congregated, and before them, the people of Roman Britain. The entry fee also incorporates the Roman Baths museum, which houses artefacts from the Roman period. Objects include over 12,000 Denari coins and the gilt bronze head of Sulis Minerva.

The museum building preserves the remains of the original Roman Baths. With the help of projections and CGI, the museum recreates scenes in the original changing rooms and saunas to help visitors understand how the original baths were used. The 1.6 metres deep frigidarium or plunge pool is also part of the self-navigated tour, as is part of the Roman drainage system.

Visitors should expect to spend a couple of hours at the Roman Baths. There are thousands of objects on display in the museum, spanning four centuries. Many of the items were found in the sacred pool and are presumably offerings to Sulis Minerva. Several metal pans, known as paterae, are inscribed DSM or Deae Sulis Minerva, suggesting people used them to make offerings of holy water. There are also many curse tablets on display, which are some of the earliest examples of prayer in Britain.

The Roman Baths is a very popular tourist destination, and it is not uncommon to see queues of people waiting in the courtyard outside Bath Abbey. For this reason (and the recent pandemic), visitors must book their tickets in advance. Ticket prices change throughout the year depending on school term time, bank holidays, and so forth. They also cost more at weekends. In November, for example, an adult ticket costs £20 on weekends and £17.50 on a weekday. Students and seniors (65 +) received £1 off their entry, and children cost between £10 and £12.50. Visitors can expect to pay at least £3 more during peak times.

For more information about booking tickets, visit the Roman Baths website.


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Havering Palace

Once upon a time, in an Essex village called Havering-atte-Bower (now part of London), sat a palace. Many kings stayed in the palace during their travels around the country until it was abandoned in 1686. Today, nothing remains of the palace, and not many people know it ever existed. Fortunately, records of the building still exist, and the Romford Historical Society is determined to keep the history of Havering Palace alive.

According to Havering Museum, people inhabited Havering-atte-Bower during the Saxon times. In the 7th century, Sigeberht the Little, the King of Essex from c. 617-653, built either a wooden hunting lodge or palace. Naturally, this building disintegrated over time.

The second palace was built during the 24-year reign (1042-66) of Edward the Confessor. There is no proof the king stayed at the palace, except for a local legend. Allegedly, during one visit, the king came across a beggar asking for money. Edward regrettably told him, “I have no money, but I have a ring,” which he handed to the beggar. Some claim this is how Havering got its name: “have a ring”. It is more likely the name is derived from Hæfer, a Saxon landowner. The far-fetched tale continues, claiming the beggar later gave the ring to some pilgrims, telling them, “Give this to your king, and tell him that within six months he shall die.” Suspicious of the claim, the pilgrims asked the beggar who he was, to which he replied, “St John the Evangelist.” Six months later, Edward the Confessor died.

According to the Domesday Book, completed in 1086, the manor or palace belonged to Earl Harold in 1066. This record suggests the king gave the land to the Earl before he died. Upon the king’s death, Earl Harold became King Harold II (1022-1066), also known as Harold Godwinson. Harold Wood, a suburban neighbourhood in the London Borough of Havering, got its name from the king.

On 14th October 1066, Harold II died during the Battle of Hastings, and the crown and palace passed to William the Conqueror (1028-1087). The Norman king proceeded to take the surrounding land away from the previous owners. Lands included Upminster, owned by Sweyn the Swarthy; Cranham, owned by a freeman called Alwin; Rainham, owned by Lefstan the Reeve; and Berwick Farm, which belonged to someone called Aluard. William also took North Ockendon but later swapped it for Windsor, where he built Windsor Castle.

Havering Palace remained the property of the crown and nearly all the kings and queens of England used it until the 17th century. During this time, extensive building works resulted in a palace with at least 26 rooms, a chapel, several kitchens, a gatehouse and an inner courtyard.

In 1262, King Henry III (1207-72) granted Havering Palace to his wife, Eleanor of Provence (1223-91). From then on, Havering Palace belonged to the subsequent queen consorts and queen dowagers until Jane Seymour’s death in 1537. The word Bower in the name Havering-atte-Bower may stem from the queens’ presence in the area. One meaning of bower is “a woman’s private room or bedroom”, although another source suggests atte-Bower meant “at the royal residence.”

King Edward III (1312-77) made over 30 visits, frequently staying for weeks at a time. In 1358, Edward held a Marshalsea Court at Havering Palace for five months and allowed locals to air their grievances. Traditionally, a Marshalsea Court let the domestic staff of the royal household express their views, but not usually members of the public.

Richard II (1367-1400) also met with members of the public at Havering Palace, but under less favourable conditions. In 1381, some of the rebels involved with the Peasant’s Revolt came to Havering Palace to ask for mercy. Despite their pleas, Richard sent the majority to trial and execution. On another visit to the palace in 1397, the king organised the murder of his uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester (1355-97). Richard ordered Thomas de Mowbray, 1st Duke of Norfolk (1366-99), to ambush his uncle while riding in Epping Forest. The Duke of Norfolk owned the Romford manor of Mawneys and is honoured by the street name Mowbrays Road in Collier Row.

Henry IV (1367-1413) is reported to have stayed in Havering Palace, and it is where his second wife, Joan of Navarre (1368-1437), spent her final year before passing away in 1437. Following the death of Henry IV, Joan’s stepson Henry V accused her of witchcraft and imprisoned her for many years in Pevensey Castle, Sussex, and later at Leeds Castle, Kent. Six months before his death, Henry V (1386-1422) released Joan from her imprisonment.

In 1465, King Edward IV (1442-83) issued a royal liberty charter in Havering, which gave residents freedom from taxation. The charter also allowed the area to establish a jail and employ local magistrates. The liberty was formed of eight wards: Romford Town, Harold Wood, Collier Row, Noak Hill, Havering(atte-Bower), Hornchurch Town, North End and South End (South Hornchurch). Gallows Corner, Romford, is named after the liberty’s execution site.

During the reign of Henry VIII (1491-1547), extensive work took place on the Palace, costing over £280 (over £145,600 today). This equated to 9300 days wages of the average skilled tradesman.

By the 1530s, Havering Palace needed at least five keepers, including Keeper of the Outwoods, Keeper of Havering Park, Paler of Havering Park, Keeper of the South Gate and Keeper of the Manor. The building and surrounding land needed constant attention and repairs. Before Elizabeth I (1533-1603) visited in 1568, a team of seven carpenters, four bricklayers and two plumbers were employed to make the palace fit for a queen.

It is not certain if Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, stayed in the palace, but he certainly hunted in the area. Havering Palace belonged to Henry’s first three wives until their deaths, or in the case of Catherine of Aragorn (1485-1536), her divorce. Following Jane Seymour’s (1508-37) death, the future Edward VI (1537-53) used part of the palace as his nursery.

During her youth, Mary I (1516-58) lived at Havering Palace amongst many other locations. Elizabeth I may also have spent time in Havering as a child, and in 1561, received a translation of a religious book from Greek to Latin by Sir Anthony Cooke (1504-76), who lived nearby at Gidea Hall.

Elizabeth believed moving from one place to another involved less maintenance and less cost, so she frequently visited Havering Palace when in Essex. She also stayed nearby at Ingatestone Hall, Loughton Hall and St Osyth Priory and gave her legendary speech at Tilbury to 5,000 soldiers on the eve of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Havering Palace needed significant repairs each time Elizabeth visited. In 1594, new rafters were installed, gate posts rehung, and the lime and sandstone bricks treated to make the building watertight. In the latter stages of her reign, Elizabeth made Havering Palace a lodging for Ladies of Honour, such as Frances Newton, Baroness Cobham (1539-92). Lady Cobham served as a Lady of the Bedchamber and was one of Elizabeth’s closest friends.

Elizabeth’s heir, James I (1566-1625), frequently stayed at Havering Palace, but usually for only one night at a time. The palace now belonged to the king’s wife, Anne of Denmark (1574-1619), who was awarded a new jointure estate after becoming Queen Consort. Her estate included Somerset House in London, Hatfield House in Hertfordshire, Pontefract Castle in West Yorkshire, Nonsuch Palace in Surrey, and the palace in Havering-atte-Bower. This was more than had been granted to any former King’s wife.

James I allegedly preferred to stay at Theobalds House in Cheshunt on the other side of Epping forest when staying in the area on hunting expeditions, yet invited his noble companions to stay at Havering Palace. One Scottish courtier, George Home, 1st Earl of Dunbar (1556-1611), went hunting with the King in 1608 and wrote favourably about his stay in the palace.

The king appointed Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), the Keeper of Havering in 1603, shortly after the coronation. When De Vere died, his wife, Elizabeth Trentham (d.1612), a former Maid of Honour to Queen Elizabeth, took on the role of custodian until she died in 1612.

Charles I (1600-49) was the last king to stay at Havering Palace. Records suggest he only stayed there in 1637 when his mother-in-law, Queen Marie de’ Medici (1575-1642), visited Britain. Charles slept at Havering on 8th November during his journey from London to Chelmsford, where he met the Queen of France and accompanied her to Gidea Hall. Rather than stay in the same building as his mother-in-law, Charles returned to Havering Palace for the night.

The next day, Charles and Marie de’ Medici made their way to St James’s Palace, much to the annoyance of anti-Catholic protestors who rioted in the street. The French queen stayed for a few years until Parliament paid her £10,000 to leave in 1641. The following year, Civil War broke out in England and many buildings were sequestrated by Parliament, including Gidea Hall. The South Essex Parliament committee set up their headquarters in Romford, meaning Havering Palace was no longer safe for any member of the royal household to stay.

After the execution of Charles I on 30th January 1649, Richard Deane (1610-53), one of the men who signed the king’s death warrant, began dismantling parts of Havering Palace and ordered all the mature trees in the area cut down. By the time of the Restoration of the Stuart Monarchy in 1660, Havering Palace was but “a confused heap of old ruinous decayed buildings.”

At some point during the interregnum, Havering Palace became the property of Robert Bertie, 3rd Earl of Lindsey (1630-1701), who also owned Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire, one of the few luxurious buildings not taken over by Parliament during the civil war. Despite his costly attempts to rebuild the palace as “His Majestys house at Havering”, the project was never completed and became vacant after 1686.

By 1740, Havering Palace was beyond repair and left to gradually weather away. In 1828, no walls were visible above ground, and the remains of the land were sold at public auction. The winning bidder was Hugh McIntosh (1768-1840), a Scottish engineer who made his fortune excavating the East India and London Docks. McIntosh also worked on the British Museum, Buckingham Palace, and the London and Greenwich Railway.

Whilst Havering Palace no longer exists, some of the land and buildings in the London Borough of Havering still bear its history. Bower House, a Grade I listed Palladian mansion, was built in 1729 by Henry Flitcroft (1697-1769) from some of the remains of the palace. In 1878, Hugh McIntosh’s son constructed the church of St John The Evangelist to replace the chapel that originated in Havering Palace.

Havering Palace stood roughly where the village green outside St. John the Evangelist Church is situated today. Havering Country Park, including the 100 acres of woodland, is all that remains of the palace’s surrounding land. The land was purchased by the Greater London Council and opened to the public in 1975.

The layout of the palace is uncertain, but the Romford Historical Society has built a model of Havering Palace based on a plan from 1578. The plan described a gatehouse that allowed access to a series of connected buildings, including a great chamber, the royal apartments, two chapels and accommodation for the Lord Chamberlain and Lord High Treasurer. Separate from the main rooms included kitchens, a buttery, a scullery, a salthouse, a larder and stables. To view the model, visit Havering Museum.


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Elizabethan Treasures

“Small wonders from Elizabethan giants” is how The Telegraph describes the National Portrait Gallery’s major exhibition Elizabethan Treasures. Focusing on two of the most celebrated artists working in England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the exhibition explores the art of portrait miniatures, which are reportedly some of the greatest works to have been produced in the British Isles. Although small, these highly detailed artworks provide insight into identity, society and visual culture of the Elizabethan era.

Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619) and his pupil Isaac Oliver (1565-1617) are two of the central artistic figures of the Elizabethan age. Not only were they excellent painters, but they were also able to produce minuscule portraits that equalled or even surpassed full sized versions. At a time when miniatures were becoming increasingly popular, firstly with royalty and then with the middle class, Hilliard and Oliver led extremely successful careers and were much sought after by a number of patrons.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, miniatures were known as “limning” and their delicate process was recorded by Nicholas Hilliard in his manuscript A Treatise Concerning the Arte of Limning (c1600). Only a copy made by unknown copyists remains in existence making it a rare but significant source of information about the technique of limning. Hilliard asserted that only gentlemen could be “limners” because miniature paintings needed to be tackled with a “gentle” hand. Despite this misogynistic view, Hilliard provided fascinating details about the preparation of materials and the essential tools.

The majority of the miniatures displayed in the exhibition were painted on vellum, a fine piece of animal skin with a smooth surface. To make the vellum sturdier, it was pasted onto a piece of card. Interestingly, artists often used playing cards due to their ready availability. The paint, known as bodycolour, was a mix of various pigments and water combined with a gum extracted from the sap of the acacia tree. Unlike today where paint can be bought ready-made in tubes, artists had to purchase special ingredients and make the paints themselves. The colour white, for example, was made using flakes of lead carbonate, the colour yellow from lead oxide and blue from azurite.

Naturally, to make tiny paintings artists needed tiny brushes. The handles were wooden, not dissimilar to paintbrushes today, but the brush itself was made from squirrel hair. Another important tool was a burnisher formed by a stoat’s tooth on the end of a wooden stick. This was used to add gold and silver elements to the picture, which had been created by grinding gold and silver leaf and mixing it with gum and water.

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Hilliard’s wife Alice, 1578

Nicholas Hilliard was born into a family of goldsmiths in Exeter, Devon, although he spent a considerable amount of his childhood in Germany and Switzerland with the Bodley family, who later founded the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Back in London, Hilliard was apprenticed to the Queen’s jeweller Robert Brandon (d. 1591), a well-known goldsmith in the city. During this time, Hilliard must have received some training in the art of limning but it remains a mystery as to who his teacher was. After seven years of training, Hilliard was made a freeman of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths and set up a workshop with his younger brother John. He also married Brandon’s daughter Alice (1556–1611) with whom he had seven children.

Hilliard’s apprenticeship ended in 1569 and his earliest known miniature was produced in 1571. What occurred between these years is uncertain but one thing is for sure, he had an exceptional talent in limning. At some point, Hilliard drew the attention of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (1532-88) who was a favourite statesman of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) and began producing miniatures for him in 1571. The following year, Hilliard was appointed limner to the queen.

Due to his royal connections, the first few years of Hilliard’s career as a painter of miniatures involved producing limnings for numerous wealthy courtiers and prosperous members of the middle class. Each miniature is either circular or ovular and averages between 44mm and 66mm in height. The National Portrait Gallery provides visitors with magnifying glasses for a closer study of each exhibit and it can only be assumed the artists used something similar in order to see what they were painting, particularly the caligraphy stating the sitter’s age and the year of production.

Many works are of unidentified men and women, however, some have been identified as important historical figures, beginning with his patron, Robert Dudley. As mentioned, Dudley was one of the Queen’s favourites and remained so for the first thirty years of her reign. He was the only serious contender for Elizabeth’s hand in marriage, however, he died without gaining her acceptance. Although Dudley wears black in Hilliard’s portrait, the jewelled chain around his neck emphasises his status.

From 1576 until 1578, Hilliard travelled to France in the retinue of Elizabeth I’s ambassador, Sir Amias Paulet (1532-88), the Governor of Jersey. It is thought that the queen sent Hilliard to produce a miniature of her French suitor François, Duc d’Anjou (1555-88), the younger brother of Henri III (1551-89). Whilst in France, Hilliard was employed as the valet-de-chambre (royal household painter) by François and set up a miniature and goldsmith workshop in Paris. It was at this time that Hilliard produced the recently discovered miniature of Henri III.

Another of Hilliard’s portraits during this period was of the teenage Francis Bacon (1561-1626) who had also been sent to accompany Paulet. Bacon’s fame came later when he was appointed Lord Chancellor to James I (1566-1625), however, he was already recognised for his advanced intelligence, emphasised by the miniature’s inscription: “If a worthy portrait were granted, I would prefer the mind.”

The highlight of Hilliard’s career was no doubt working for the queen herself. The exhibition displays a number of miniature portraits of Elizabeth I produced by Hilliard, including the only portrait of her playing an instrument (lute). The first miniature of the queen Hilliard produced was at the beginning of his career in 1572. For this, the queen sat for Hilliard but, later in his career, he was so familiar with Elizabeth’s face, he could paint her from memory.

Despite a brief sojourn in France, Hilliard continued to pick up new patrons. Hilliard’s miniatures became a fashionable part of court life and many people wished to have their face painted by him. Amongst these folk was Sir Christopher Hatton (1540-91), another favourite of Elizabeth I. This miniature was produced after Hatton had been appointed both Lord Chancellor (1587) and Knight of the Garter (1588), of which Hatton is wearing the collar and garter in his portrait.

Sir Walter Ralegh (1554-1618), yet another favourite of the queen, also had his miniature portrait painted by Hilliard. At the time, he was at the height of favour and often wrote poetry for Elizabeth I. Unfortunately, Ralegh was prone to rash behaviour and spent a lot of time imprisoned in the Tower of London and was eventually executed by James I for disobeying orders.

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Detail of a self-portrait of Isaac Oliver

Whilst the 1580s and 90s were Hilliard’s busiest decades in terms of commissions, he also trained a number of apprentices and assistants, including Isaac Oliver. Unlike Hilliard, Oliver did not immediately fall on his feet and his portraits of Elizabeth I were not admired as much as those of his teacher.

Oliver was born in Rouen, France but moved to England at the age of three when his Huguenot parents, Peter and Epiphany Oliver, fled from the Wars of Religion. Little is known about his life, except that he had three wives: Elizabeth (d.1599), Sara and Susannah de Critz. The latter was the daughter of Troilus de Critz, a goldsmith from Antwerp, and a close relative to the queen’s Serjeant-Painter.

Isaac Oliver’s career was slow starting but this changed with the patronage of Robert Devereux (1565-1601), 2nd Earl of Essex, the final favourite of Elizabeth I. As well as painting Devereux, Oliver painted the friends within his patron’s circle and began to rise in popularity in court. Oliver produced the first miniature from a sitting, however, often produced replicas later in his studio. Of all his non-royal sitters, there are more miniature’s of Devereux than any other.

When James I ascended the English throne in 1603, Oliver began to pick up new patrons, including Lucy Harrington (1580-1627), Countess of Bedford who he painted numerous times. Another often painted patron was Ludovick Stuart (1574-1624), a relation of James I who was the only non-royal duke in Britain at the time of the king’s ascension. Unlike Hilliard who preferred to concentrate on the finery and jewellery of his sitters, Oliver focused on facial features, particularly the beards in his portraits of men. Ludovick’s beard, when looked at through a magnifying glass, can be seen as a series of tiny curling lines in various shades of brown.

Commissions for Oliver increased rapidly during James I’s reign; the king required portraits for political and diplomatic purposes, and miniatures were often given as gifts during the peace negotiations with Spain in 1604. Unlike Elizabeth who only provided her painters with an annual salary, James I also paid for each commission as well as paying for their jewelled cases, some of which were made by Hilliard.

Whilst James may have prefered Hilliard’s portraits, his wife and queen consort Anne of Denmark (1574-1619) appointed Oliver as her “Painter for the art of limning”, paying him £40 a year, the same amount Hilliard received. As a result, both artists were commissioned to paint miniatures of Anne and the children: Henry, Prince of Wales (1594-1612); Princess Elizabeth (1596-1662); and Charles, Duke of York (1600-49).

Most of Oliver’s portraits of Anne show her seated in the same position, right hand upon her breast. This could be because Oliver used his first portrait of her as a template for others, however, the changing style of costume, hair and the contours of her face suggest that she sat for him more often than not.

Miniatures of Prince Henry show him in military wear, promising a future warrior-king. Unfortunately, Henry died from typhoid fever at the age of 18, making his younger brother Charles, whose miniatures had been less elaborate, heir to the throne.

Although the main focus of Elizabethan Treasures was the miniature art form, both Hilliard and Oliver worked on other things during their careers. They both produced a handful of full body portraits of men listlessly leaning, sitting or lying in gardens. Often with a head leaning upon a hand, these portraits represented the fashionable complaint of “Melancholy.” Melancholy was usually associated with philosophical thought but was also said to be caused by disappointment in love.

Of the two, Oliver produced more non-portraits than Hilliard, beginning with his earliest work, a drawing of Lamentation over the Dead Christ, now owned by the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Over time, Oliver produced many drawings of a religious or mythological nature, although it is not known whether these were studies for intended artworks or finished pieces. Occasionally, Oliver produced miniatures of this nature for collectors, including the head and shoulders of Jesus Christ and a portrait of the Roman goddess Diana.

PORTRAIT MINIATURE

Unknown Young Man against a Background of Flames – Hilliard, c.1600

For those lucky enough to attend the exhibition when magnifying glasses are available, it is fascinating to see the intricate details in these tiny portraits. Not only did Hilliard and Oliver produce exceptional likenesses, but they also executed them at such a small scale. Yet, a miniature is not necessarily only a portrait, they are full of symbolism.

In paintings of royalty or members of the royal court, there are clear examples of symbols, for instance, jewels, garters and crowns. Some represented promotions and triumphs and others emphasised the sitter’s status. In other miniatures, however, there are deeper, more secret symbols.

A popular form of symbol was an impresse, which combined imagery with a written motto. These words could be as simple as a name or heraldry, or as obscure as a private pun. Unfortunately, the latter makes it difficult to understand the intention of the miniature.

Yet, not all symbolic miniatures included an impresse. Of a more suggestive nature, Hilliard’s Unknown Young Man against a Background of Flames (c.1600) does not need words to explain its symbolism. The unknown man wears an unbuttoned shirt and holds a jewel whilst the burning flames of passionate love fill up the background. Needless to say, this was a very private portrait and is thought to be a gift for the man’s sweetheart. To emphasise desire and passion, Hilliard highlighted the flames in gold, so that if the portrait is twisted from side to side, the flames appear to flicker – something that is lost as it sits stationary in a display cabinet.

Compared by their contemporaries to Michelangelo and Raphael, Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver are without a doubt two of the greatest painters from the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages. For many, these two names will be unfamiliar and yet they were the leading limners in a highly admirable art genre. Elizabethan Treasures introduces the artists to a new generation and allows their work to once again be appreciated. Some of these works may not have been intended for public consumption and visitors should feel privileged to be able to view them in close up detail.

The downside about an exhibition of miniature portraits is that in order to see them, visitors must stand up close to the display cabinet, blocking the view of those behind them. As a result, it takes a while to see everything in the exhibition, especially if you want to look at items in more detail with a magnifying glass. Nonetheless, it is an exhibition of great worth.

Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver is open daily until 19th May 2019. Tickets are £10 (£8.50 concessions) and, as always, members of the National Portrait Gallery can view the exhibition for free.

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