“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.
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.
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.
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.