Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist 
by Elizabeth Goldring.
Yale, 337 pp., £40, February 2019, 978 0 300 24142 6
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The house​ was ‘at the sign of the Maidenhead’ in an alley off Cheapside called Gutter Lane. The address sounds disreputable but those who visited were not in search of bawdy pleasures: they came to have their portraits painted ‘in little’ by the Elizabethan miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard, who lived and worked on Gutter Lane for 35 years. If you were very posh or very rich Hilliard came to you, but his bread and butter was what he called ‘common’ work – in other words, doing portraits of commoners – and this more middling clientele of gentlemen, ladies, merchants, gallants and lower-rung courtiers generally sat for him at the Maidenhead. He leased the house from the Goldsmiths’ Company, of which he was a freeman, and we have a partial record of its layout. His ‘shop’ or studio was at street level, and on the first floor were ‘three chambers, whereof two have chimneys, with a privy’. There must been further storeys to accommodate a household that included his wife, Alice, their six children and an ever-changing team of apprentices and assistants.


Self-portrait by Nicholas Hilliard (1577)

Self-portrait by Nicholas Hilliard (1577)

We call Hilliard a miniaturist, but in Elizabethan parlance he was a ‘limner’ (with the first syllable as in ‘limb’). The word is an eroded form of ‘luminer’ and points to the evolution of the portrait miniature from the medieval art of manuscript illumination. Some of the secrets of the craft are disclosed in Hilliard’s treatise The Art of Limning, drafted around 1599 but left unfinished, and now preserved in a unique scribal copy in Edinburgh University Library. In it he describes the ideal studio as having a northerly or north-easterly aspect, with light from a ‘great and fair’ window without ‘impeachment or reflections of walls or trees’. The crowded inner city setting of Gutter Lane may not have offered this luxury – in 1600 he complained that ‘the lights thereof [were] darkened by the annoyance of one of the next neighbours’ building.’ The scrupulous cleanliness of the studio, ‘where neither dust, smoke, noise nor stench may offend’, was as important as good light. This was partly for the benefit of his genteel clients, who expected ‘seemly attendance’; and partly for his own benefit, for ‘a good painter hath tender sense’; but most of all it was to protect the fragile delicacy of the miniature itself. There was no preparatory drawing involved: the portrait was painted ad vivum, in layers of watercolour on vellum, and the paint surface was extremely vulnerable while wet. The limner, Hilliard advises, should wear silk, which ‘sheddeth least dust or hairs’. He should avoid talking too much, for ‘the least sparkling of spettel’ can cause damage, and on a cold day he should even be careful with his breath. He must also ‘take heed of the dandrawe of the head’. In short, he must be ‘precisely pure and cleanly in all his doings’.

A portrait typically involved three sittings, the longest lasting up to six hours. ‘Quiet mirth or music’ was on hand to counter any signs of strain or boredom in the sitter. The eyes which now stare out at us spent a lot of time staring at Hilliard, who stood just ‘two yards’ away, a spruce figure with curly brown hair and a lofty manner not quite fitting for a picture-maker. His courtesies, delivered in an accent bearing traces of broad Devonshire, gave way to long discomfiting silences as he worked his magic with the ‘pencil’, a superfine paintbrush of squirrel’s tail fur. In painting from life, he said, the most important thing is ‘the truth of the line’. Other equipment the sitters would have noticed included mussel shells, in which dainty quantities of pigment were mixed with water and gum arabic before being transferred to the palette; a ‘pretty little tooth of some ferret or stoat’, used to burnish the gold leaf of inscriptions; and a white feather to brush away any troublesome particles. The vellum he favoured was not just top-quality calfskin. It was ‘virgin parchment, such as never bore hair’: the skin of ‘young things found in the dam’s belly’ – Hilliard called it ‘abortive’ vellum. It was carefully stretched and smoothed, then pasted onto card. Many of his miniatures are backed with playing cards: sometimes the face of the card is left visible so a picture of a court lady or melancholy lover has a couple of hearts on the reverse – a little secret between the limner and his sitter.

Hilliard’s standard fee for a portrait miniature was £3 (around £500 in modern money), though a fancy locket, jewelled setting or ivory case would be extra. The price sounds reasonable, as long as you don’t try to compute the cost per square inch. He produced various formats and sizes, but the classic Hilliard model was a round or oval portrait a couple of inches wide. The diminutiveness, of course, is part of its power. A miniature exemplifies the compositional ideal of multum in parvo, a lot in a little: ‘A hand or eye/By Hilliard drawn is worth an history/By a worse painter made,’ John Donne wrote in 1597. By a ‘history’ he means one of those big, populous, often Italian paintings much in demand among Elizabethan collectors – paintings you stand back from to see the drama of some mythological or biblical episode unfold. No one stands back from a Hilliard miniature. It’s made to be viewed close up; it invites you to peer.

A miniature was something intimate and personal – often a gift, a keepsake, a memento, a love token. With the addition of a motto, usually in Latin, it became a kind of emblem, or impresa; the image and words combine to impart a teasingly coded message. A miniature could be hung round your neck on a chain or ribbon, or tied on your sleeve, or pinned to your bodice – one sees these usages in contemporary portraits and in other miniatures – or it could be something private, hidden in a locket worn next to your heart. In his autobiography, Lord Herbert of Cherbury recounts how his admirer, Lady Ayres, had a full-size portrait of him ‘contracted into little form’, and wore it round her neck ‘so low that she hid it under her breasts’. Trouble ensued when her husband found her lying in bed, studying this amorous talisman by candlelight. Miniatures were also used as a sign or badge of political allegiance, given by a nobleman to a trusty follower or – conversely – purchased by a would-be follower in hope of patronage. Hamlet comments bitterly on the clamour for miniatures of the newly crowned Claudius: people are paying ‘a hundred ducats apiece for his picture in little’.

Eighteenth-century connoisseurs, who generally had a low opinion of Elizabethan painting, were entranced by the Lilliputian artistry of the limners. In his ‘Essay towards an English School of Painting’ (1706), Bainbrigg Buckeridge marvelled how a painting ‘not much bigger than a crown piece’ could contain such lucidity of detail – ‘the heads and beards are so well perform’d that almost each single hair is express’d’. Later in the century, Horace Walpole pored over a miniature by Isaac Oliver – Hilliard’s brilliant French-born pupil – and found that ‘the largest magnifying glass only calls out new beauties.’

The​ 400th anniversary of Hilliard’s death this year has been marked by the publication of Elizabeth Goldring’s impeccably researched new biography, and by an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, Elizabethan Treasures, featuring ninety works by Hilliard and Oliver, accompanied by an excellent catalogue by Catharine MacLeod.* Both books are full of the ‘beauties’ which Walpole’s magnifying glass revealed. Enlarged photographic details show us the dexterity of the brushwork, the glint of an eyeball, the nap of fabric, the spidery finesse of lace, the spark of light on jewellery – this was a particular speciality of Hilliard’s, who wished to give ‘the true lustre to pearl and precious stone’ so that ‘it seemeth to be the thing itself’ – but Goldring has a harder job to achieve a comparable close-up of the man himself, who is elusive in ways that go beyond the usual patchiness of evidence after the passage of centuries.

Like many of the makers and shakers of late Elizabethan culture, Hilliard was of provincial artisan stock. He was born in Exeter around 1547, the eldest of eight children of Richard Hilliard, a goldsmith, and Laurence Wall, the daughter of Richard’s former master (her name recurs in later generations of the family in the more sophisticated form of Laurentia). Much has been made of Hilliard’s Englishness, because the best-known painters of Tudor England were all foreigners – Flemish, German, Italian. He wasn’t the first English portraitist, as is sometimes stated. The shadowy John Bettes was at work a generation earlier – his portrait of an unknown man in a black hat, painted in oils in 1545, is the oldest painting in the Tate Britain collection – but Hilliard was the first to earn fame outside the confines of the court.

Hilliard had formative periods abroad, however. His family were staunchly Protestant, and during the turbulent Catholic ascendancy under Mary Tudor they sent him to the Continent. At the age of about ten he arrived in Calvinist Geneva, where he spent two years in the household of John Bodley, an Exeter merchant. From this experience he gained a good knowledge of French, an early familiarity with Continental art and a lifelong friendship with Bodley’s son Thomas, the future diplomat and founder of the Bodleian Library. On his return he was apprenticed to a leading London goldsmith, Robert Brandon, whose daughter Alice he later married. His subsidiary skills as a jeweller and engraver belong within the ambit of goldsmithery, but there is no indication of who, if anyone, trained him in portraiture. His acknowledged master was Hans Holbein the Younger, whom he called ‘the most excellent painter and limner … after the life that ever was’, though they never met (Holbein died in 1543). Hilliard’s success as a limner seems almost instantaneous: his earliest dated miniature, of an unknown black-clad man against a blue background, was produced in 1571; a year later he painted his first portrait of Queen Elizabeth. It was most likely Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, an energetic art patron and collector, who arranged the introduction. Hilliard would paint scores of images of the queen, though these prestigious commissions were not always matched with hard cash, and decades would pass before he was formally established in the royal household, as ‘our limner’, with an annuity of £40. In the mid-1570s he was abroad again, in the retinue of Sir Amias Paulet, the English ambassador in France; his tasks included limning the unlovely features of the duc d’Anjou, whom the queen was half-heartedly prospecting as a possible husband. Hilliard’s contact with the Italian-influenced artists of the Valois court added further sophistication to his portraiture, leavening the stolidity of traditional Tudor styles with the more supple and elegant Mannerist line.

His charismatic self-portrait – the only known likeness – was painted in France in 1577. He is around thirty years old, very handsome, with a plush embroidered cap tipped back raffishly to reveal his abundant curls. Goldring calls this image ‘an extraordinary act of self-fashioning’, in which Hilliard ‘presents himself in both garb and mien as barely distinguishable from his aristocratic patrons’. She places it opposite his portrait of the Earl of Leicester, painted the previous year, to prove the point. They are almost mirror images – both in half-profile, both sporting twirly moustaches that overlap their elaborate lace ruffs, both surrounded by gold-leaf inscriptions with the same lettering and curlicues. More than just social climbing, Goldring sees this as a determined elevation of the status of the artist. ‘Hilliard’s trajectory from the provinces to the court, from craftsman to self-proclaimed gentleman’, she writes, is part of a ‘larger shift in English culture’; her account of Hilliard’s ‘intellectual and artistic journey’ is also about ‘the journey of painting … from a manual art to a liberal one’.

Hilliard’s self-portrait can also be compared with one by George Gower, painted in 1579. Gower was a slightly older contemporary and to some extent a rival of Hilliard: he would be named the queen’s ‘serjeant painter’ in 1581, though the holder of this post was chiefly employed as a painterdecorator. Gower’s large oil painting has none of the glitz of Hilliard’s miniature: the clothing is sombre, the long face has a world-weary, slightly jaundiced air. He holds a palette and a paintbrush, identifying the artisan skills that Hilliard eradicates from view. An inscription celebrates his work ‘by pencil’s trade’ and the rewards it has brought him: ‘What parents bore by just renown, my skill maintains.’ The word ‘trade’ is not one you would have heard on Hilliard’s lips, let alone seen inscribed on his self-portrait. In the Art of Limning he pompously recommends that ‘none should meddle with limning but gentlemen alone … It is thing apart from all other painting or drawing, and tendeth not to common men’s use.’ Gower is the lesser artist, but his self-portrait has a wry, lugubrious charm that makes him more likeable than Hilliard, whose half-smile is almost a smirk.

The contemporary record of him is curiously muted: it offers much lauding of his brilliance as an artist but not much sense of his personality, likeable or otherwise. His surviving letters are on business matters; they address various grievances that he hopes his current patron, Sir Robert Cecil, will alleviate. His Art of Limning has at times an autobiographical tone, but reveals little beyond a tendency to moodiness and disgruntlement: we hear of his bouts of ‘mallancholy’; of his ‘passions of sorrow’; of his anger towards sitters who pester him with questions and suggestions – he endures their ‘ridiculous, absurd speeches’ and reminds himself to keep silent and ‘pity their ignorance’. A description of his female sitters, with their ‘lovely graces, witty smilings and those stolen glances which suddenly like lightning pass’, suggests his familiarity with Elizabethan love sonnets, but even here there’s a negative spin: these lively feminine charms are liable to ‘inflame the mind’ and so become another of the limner’s distractions. His finances were turbulent and debt-ridden. Goldring details the ducking and diving of a perennial defaulter. ‘Hilliard does not emerge well from these proceedings,’ she writes. His financial affairs were ‘marked by … a pattern of unattractive conduct’; on one occasion he ‘comes across as a conman’. There is a further leitmotif of ill-judged investment schemes, from a gold-mining venture in Scotland, which swallowed up his first royal payment, to a ‘suit’ of 1610 seeking a commission to repair the highways, in partnership with a goldsmith called Laborer who certainly was a conman. This rather chaotic hinterland of grumbles, anxieties, lawsuits and shenanigans seems at odds with his paintings, or rather is rigorously excluded from them.

The​ early biographer John Aubrey, prospecting for information in ‘noblemen’s galleries’, was annoyed by the paucity of labelling: ‘’Tis pity … that the names are not writ on or behind the pictures.’ Hilliard’s output is certainly a case in point. It includes famous images of monarchs and aristocrats, and definitive likenesses of Elizabethan celebrities such as Walter Ralegh and Francis Drake, but many of his portraits are now catalogued under the frustrating title of ‘Unknown Man’ or ‘Woman’. Goldring’s index lists 22, and there are certainly more: their number has grown over the years, as earlier identifications have proved untenable. Now these anonymous sitters are distinguished only by some particularity of costume or composition – ‘Unknown Woman with a Thistle’ or ‘a Cherry’, ‘a Jewelled Hat’, ‘a Lace Cap’, ‘Standing in a Room’, ‘in Bed’ or simply ‘Unfinished’.

These mystery paintings include one described in the Elizabethan Treasures catalogue as ‘perhaps the most famous miniature of the Elizabethan period’ – the oval full-length portrait generally known as Young Man among Roses (c.1587). He has all the attributes of the melancholy lover: he stands in the soothing seclusion of the greenwood with an air of languid reverie, his hand slipped under the cloak to rest on his lovesick heart. The white briar roses are one of Queen Elizabeth’s many symbolic devices, and the young man entangled by them is often identified as Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. But what is the significance of the Latin motto Dat poenas laudata fides – ‘Fidelity, though praised, brings penalties’ – inscribed above his artfully tousled hair? In a courtly love reading of the portrait this might mean that being faithful to a disdainful mistress brings the punishment of melancholy. But these mottos were made to be unravelled like a cryptic crossword clue. The cognoscenti would recognise that the words are taken from De Bello Civili by the Roman poet Lucan: their context is a debate about assassinating the triumvir Pompey and the ‘penalties’ are said to be particularly severe when one is loyal to ‘those whom fortune crushes’ (quos fortuna premit). These other meanings hidden in the penumbra of the motto are – as Mary Edmond pointed out in Hilliard and Oliver (1983) – ‘not at all appropriate to Queen Elizabeth’, who ‘would certainly not have thanked anyone who applied them to her’. The identity of this sad Elizabethan dandy remains a mystery. If the portrait was painted around 1587, as proposed, one might speculate that he was a Catholic, and that his dangerous loyalty to a leader crushed by fortune refers to Mary Queen of Scots, who was executed that year.

Another ‘Unknown Man’, with a gingery beard and a small spray of feathers in his hatband, is depicted clasping a hand descending from a cloud. The painting, dated 1588, has a curious motto – Attici amoris ergo – for which no source is known. Its meaning is debated, but the reference to ‘Attic [i.e. Athenian ] love’ may well have a homoerotic overtone. Leslie Hotson thought it merely referred to faithful male friendship; he also thought the man in the portrait was Shakespeare, a case he argued at length in his book Shakespeare by Hilliard (1977). Hotson was a brilliant archival detective but also at times a loose cannon, and this particular cannonade is generally discounted. But Shakespeare is perhaps not entirely absent from Hilliard’s world. The portrait miniature of the young Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, dated 1594, inevitably calls Shakespeare to mind, because in this year his narrative poem Lucrece was published with a dedication to the earl. It is widely argued, though not proved, that Southampton is also the ‘fair youth’ addressed in some of the sonnets. Is Shakespeare thinking of the Hilliard miniature when he refers, in Sonnet 16, to ‘your painted counterfeit’? And, two lines later, does he couple Hilliard and himself – the limner and the sonneteer, two different types of portraitist – when he wonders if ‘this time’s pencil or my pupil pen …/Can make you live’?

Hilliard’s portrait of Southampton, now at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, wasn’t included in Elizabethan Treasures, but a portrait of him by Oliver dated c.1596 – privately owned and seldom seen – was one of the exhibition’s revelations. The face and hair are meticulously painted in a restricted palette of pale greys and browns, but the doublet is merely sketched in, and there is no background. MacLeod notes that Oliver would usually have worked up the background before bringing the face and hair to this stage of completion, which suggests that his portrait of Southampton was deliberately left unfinished in order to focus more intensely on the face. This is a technique favoured in Italian portrait drawings, and indeed the earl’s features are given a somewhat Italianate cast. Oliver had actually been in northern Italy in the spring of 1596, as indicated by his inscription on the back of a miniature of Sir Arundel Talbot: ‘13 Magio 1596/In Venetia/Fecit m. Isacq oliviero/francese’.

If the ‘painted counterfeit’ in Sonnet 16 does refer to an actual portrait of Southampton, it could just as easily be this one by Oliver. By the mid-1590s he was in the ascendant: the former pupil was now the rival. Oliver’s tone was cooler, more sombre, his modelling more naturalistic; the best of his work made Hilliard seem stylised and over-formal. A sonneteer with his eye on artistic fashions might think of him, more than Hilliard, as ‘this time’s pencil’ – the artist who caught the current mood.

After the death of Elizabeth, in 1603, Hilliard remained famous and busy, but he was never quite at home in the Jacobean age. King James renewed his patent as the royal limner, and sat for him, but his Danish consort, Queen Anne, a more proactive patron, favoured Oliver; her passion for masques brought a new line of fantastically costumed court ladies into his repertoire. Oliver died in 1617. Hilliard spent his last years in Westminster, a widower beset by gout and debt. On Christmas Eve 1618, he drew up his will, signing it with a poignantly enfeebled version of the ‘NH’ monogram seen on some of his miniatures. He was buried at St Martin’s in the Fields on 7 January 1619. The cost of the funeral was £2 12s, which suggests it was quite lavish, but no contemporary account of his passing survives.

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