Elizabethan portrait miniatures show reliable historical records of court fashions in a past era of wealthy court life.
Jewellers placed these minute treasures, often created as love tokens, or to show loyalty, in exquisitely crafted lockets worn on jewelled chains.
Nicholas Hilliard: The First Home-Grown Artist of International Repute
The outstanding artist in this field is master goldsmith Nicholas Hilliard (c. 1547-1619, also known as Hillyarde).
Working both as goldsmith and miniaturist, he is the first English-born artist to achieve international fame in England and on the Continent.
Hilliard is also known to have painted large-scale portraits but few, such as the Pelican and the Phoenix portraits, are reliably attributed to him.
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According to Dr. Roy Strong, writing in Nicholas Hilliard: ‘He painted with all the passionate conviction of the renaissance artist who truly believed the face was the mirror of the soul.’
Hilliard believed the English race enjoyed a fine complexion not seen in any other race.
Hilliard’s intimate miniatures have a special quality which is not achieved in large-scale Elizabethan portraits of the time.
Painted on vellum, and mounted on card, usually playing cards, this was an elite art form which the rich enjoyed.
The artist’s wealthy patrons paid anything from £3 to £5 pounds for their minute love tokens. This is about £900-£1,300 in current terms. Portrait miniatures were not cheap items!
The Art of Limning – a Treatise by Nicholas Hilliard
In his famous work, Treatise on the Art of Limning, written around 1600, but not published during his lifetime, Nicholas Hilliard describes himself as a ‘limner.’
The word ‘limner’ comes from the medieval word luminer, meaning an illuminator of manuscripts.
From the beginning of the 16th century the term usually referred to a painter of miniature portraits, although limner was often used to describe artists in general. The term became obsolete during the 19th century.
In the Treatise, Hilliard identifies the required qualities of the limner. He calls it a ‘gentle’ art, and states that it is ‘fittest for gentlemen.’ He says limning is a ‘thing apart from all other painting or drawing and tendeth not to common men’s use.’
Hilliard sets out the ideal conditions for painting:
‘…the practiser of limning be precisely pure and cleanly in all his doings.’
Good easterly light shows the sitter at his best.
Hilliard also advises: ‘…at the least let your apparel be silk, such sheddeth least dust or hairs.’
He also says: ‘…take heed the dandruff of the head shedding from the hair, and of speaking over your work for sparkling, for the least sparkling of spittle will never be holpen if it light in the face or any part of the naked.‘
As well as describing the ideal environment for painting, the artist also advises on techniques for capturing the sitter’s fleeting expressions that only the artist witnesses.
Early Portrait Miniatures by Nicholas Hilliard
Hilliard’s style was well established by the early 1570s. Miniatures dating from 1572, such as Elizabeth 1, aged 39. Inscribed in gold lettering: Ano Dni. 1572. Ætatis suæ 38, the miniature is now in the National Portrait Gallery.
On either side of the Queen’s face, the letters ‘E’ and ‘R’ appear, each topped with a delicately drawn crown.
Hilliard shows us a youthful queen with jewelled head-dress and closely fitting ruff. Her black dress with white sleeves reflects the Queen’s livery.
Also from 1572, the Unknown Man shows the artist’s supreme skill – and the style he preferred for most of his working life. This miniature portrait of a fashionable young man in black suit, against a blue background bears a gold inscription – Ætatis suæ XXIII Ano Dni. 1572.
The painting reflects the influence of French artists such as Jean and François Clouet and Anthonis Mor whose works were well-known in England.
The French influence is also explained by the rapprochement between England and France at the time, and Hilliard’s two-year stay in France from 1576-78.
Full-Length Miniatures by Nicholas Hilliard
In the 1590s Hilliard produced some full-length miniatures including the enigmatic lovelorn Unknown Young Man Leaning against a Tree Among Roses.
The eight-inch portrait shows a young man, possibly Robert Deveraux, Earl of Essex, stepson of Robert Dudley.
With hand on heart, the man wears black and white, showing his allegiance to Elizabeth. Leaning against the tree, the youth is interwoven with leafy branches and roses, the Tudor symbol.
The portrait bears the inscription: Dat poenas laudata fides, loosely translated as ‘praised faith brings sufferings or penalties.’
Presumably the inscription would have been familiar to the unknown youth’s contemporaries. The portrait shows Hilliard at the height of his powers and this portrait is widely regarded as one of the finest examples of Elizabethan art.
The Cult of the Virgin Queen
Warrant holder to Queen Elizabeth I, Hilliard is the first home-grown artist of international repute to serve the English royal family and to recognise the need for a royal ‘brand.’
Before Hilliard’s appointment, the majority of Court artists, including Hans Holbein, Rembrandt and Lucas Hornebolte (also known as Horenbout) came from the Continent.
Although Hilliard held the Royal Warrant, this was not a salaried position and necessity forced him to open a workshop in the City of London. His clients included Sir Robert Cecil; Lord Leicester, the Earl of Essex; Sir Francis Knowles, the Earl of Cumberland; the Earl of Northumberland; Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake, to mention just a few.
Hilliard was a well-known figure in royal circles. Writing in Nicholas Hilliard, art historian Erna Auerbach tells us: ‘It was a completely new phenomenon that, at the end of the sixteenth century, an English-born artist had free access to court circles where he was esteemed as the most eminent miniaturist of the age.‘
Roy Strong tells us in the latter part of Elizabeth’s reign it became fashionable, part of the cult of the Virgin Queen, to wear her portrait miniatures almost as a talisman. When not worn, owners kept the portraits in richly decorated containers such as the Drake Jewel.
Elizabeth gave the jewel as a gift to Sir Francis Drake, possibly in recognition of his role in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. The date on the jewel appears to read 1586. Inside are two portraits of Elizabeth and of her emblem, the phoenix.
The Mask of Youth Portraits
In the latter part of her reign, portraits of Elizabeth caused something of a dilemma for Hilliard.
He had to show Elizabeth without ageing her – he had to find a way to keep her young and perfect.
His response was to draw the viewer’s eye away from her ageing face by emphasising her magnificent costumes, the intricate ruffs, the beautiful jewellery and the elaborate hair styles.
Heavy make-up hid pox scars and closed lips hid black teeth. There is very little facial detail.
Portraits from this period are known as the Mask of Youth Portraits.
Although remembered mainly for portrait miniatures, Hilliard was equally eminent as a goldsmith, a craft he practised throughout his career.
Many beautiful miniatures, together with cases that Hilliard designed, survive intact, and through these items, Hilliard tells us about the fashions of the royal court and the upper echelons of society.
In the Art of Limning we see Hilliard’s attitude to his art and his patrons. He outlines his methods and processes and gives instructions for making pigments, gum, and other components of his art, and above all, he stresses that limning is a most genteel art, fit only for gentlemen.
Like all master craftsmen, Hilliard had his own workshop where his pupils included artists such as Rowland Lockey and Isaac Oliver, although art historians claim that no one has yet surpassed the supreme skill of Nicholas Hilliard in the field of miniature portraits.