Nicholas Hilliard portrait miniature art
Nicholas Hilliard, son of a citizen of Exeter, founded the school of English miniature art, not only among courtiers ostentatiously vying with one another for the “Queen’s picture in little” at “forty, fifty or a hundred ducats apiece”, but among all who desired mementoes of their family or friends. Miniature painting went on at high level in England until the era of Cosway (Richard Cosway (1742 – 1821) – eminent English miniature painter, who portrayed all the beauty and fashion of his day) at the end of George III’s reign, and indeed it was only killed by photography. (G.M. Trevelyan. Illustrated English Social History)
The work of Hilliard was mainly confined to small scale portraiture. None the less he was a complete artist. In the Elizabethan, as in succeeding periods, portraiture was the only branch of art in Britain in which a painter could find a sure subsistence. The demand for miniatures, or liming, was a specialized section of this demand for portraiture. It had grown up in England in the 16th century and drew a part of its strength from the development of interest in jewellery and articles of personal adornment, chains, lockets, fans, engraved stones and so forth.
There are many anecdotes which testify to the important place miniature held in the Court life of intrigue and flattery of the Queen. One quoted from a letter of the period will serve as an example: “Lady Derby wore about her neck and in her bosom a portrait. The Queen, espying it, inquired about it, but her ladyship was anxious to conceal it. The Queen insisted of having it, and discovering it to be the portrait of young Cecil, she snatched it away, and tying it upon her shoe, walked long with it, afterwards she pinned it on her elbow, and wore some time there. Secretary Cecil hearing this, composed some verses and got them set to music. In his verses Cecil sang that he contended himself with the favor she had given him, by wearing his portrait on her feet and her elbow!”
The place of miniature in by-play of such subtlety is dependent as much on its setting and its portability as on the features it represents. Hilliard and Oliver (Isaac Oliver, eminent miniature painter, d.1617), grown up in the atmosphere of the goldsmith’s craft, understood perfectly the demands of their art. Their limnings were jewels, portraits and gems at the same time. Hilliard specifically refers to his miniatures as “small pictures, which are to be viewed in hand”.
The miniatures of Hilliard and Oliver bring all the excellences that portraiture can hold into a portable compass-combining likeness of feature and harmony of coloring with spirited handling and the ability to transmit the diverse characters of their sitters through the representation of their features.
Hilliard is essentially a British painter. To say this is to define his position vis-a-vis the painting of his time, and to emphasize his real originality. We know that he modelled himself on the style of Holbein, but he is not for one moment to be mistaken for a French or German painter. (Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) – eminent German painter who lived in England in 1526 – 1528 and in 1532 – 1543).
Hilliard’s active career was at least fifty-six years. A series of splendid works dated 1572 testify to his fully acquired certainly at the age of 25. From then almost to the close of the century he produced a dazzling series of exquisitely studied and characterized portraits, besides ringing innumerable changes on the Queen’s counterfeit.
Perhaps the most striking of all are the portraits of youths and young men assignable to circa 1585 – 90. n those, at the very years when Shakespeare was composing his sonnets, Hilliard mirrors one characteristic aspect of the Elizabethan age – its admiration of the male virtues.
The miniatures of any period are one of our most important sources of knowledge for its costume. Full-scale portraiture is often suspected of dressing the sitters in stock clothes, showing them as they want to be shown rather than as they are. Miniatures are a more accurate index of dress and its changes. In the Elizabethan age English countrymen were renowned for borrowing fashions of attire from the most far-fetched and discordant sources, making the whole characteristic, bizarre mixture of styles.
There is a detailed evidence of the forms of ruffs and collars. At the beginnings of Hilliard’s career the ruff was a small frill of convoluted linen appearing modestly at the neck; a sumptuary law controlling the sizes had been promulgated in 1562. Soon it began to grow vigorously, and delicate ornamentation of lace was added, until it became the great cart-wheel ruff typical of the year of the Armada.
(from the article Graham Reynolds, Nicholas Hilliard &Isaac Oliver)
from the book “Glimpses of British Art”