NICHOLAS HILLIARD: The Master of Miniatures

'Man against a Background of Flames' and 'Sir Walter Ralegh' by Nicholas Hilliard - photo by Times Literary Supplement

Nicholas Hilliard was born in Exeter, Devon in England in 1547 to Richard Hilliard and Laurence Wall. They met when Richard was apprenticed to goldsmith John Wall of London. He and his wife bore another three sons; John and Jeremy, both became goldsmiths; the other, Ezechial, became rector of the Stoke Climsland church in Cornwall.  After their father died in 1594, Nicholas would visit Jeremy in Exeter where the latter had set up business.  

Earliest self-portrait of Nicholas Hilliard, 1577 – photo by Wikipedia

Richard Hilliard worked with Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540) who served King Henry VIII from 1532-until Cromwell’s beheading on 28 July 1540. He fell out with the king, partly due to his championing of Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves when the King wanted the marriage annulled in order to marry Catherine Howard. Cromwell had been appointed to collect the assets of religious institutions when these were dissolved on the King’s orders to fund his military campaigns. Hilliard was in turn appointed to evaluate the gold and silver thus collected. 

It was conventional for children of middle-class families to be placed with wealthier families of rank; when he was ten, Nicholas was sent to live with Richard’s fellow Protestant reformer John Bodley and his family. John was one of the first publishers of the Geneva Bible, which preceded the King James Bible by half a century, and which was widely used by such luminaries as Shakespeare, Oliver Cromwell, John Knox, John Donne and John Bunyan. 

Young Man among Roses, Nicholas Hilliard, 1587 – photo by Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The family fled to Germany and then Switzerland when Queen Mary I, (1516-1558) known as Mary Tudor or ‘Bloody Mary’ came to the throne in 1553. She was Henry’s only living child by Catherine of Aragon. Mary’s half-brother, Edward VI, died at age 15 in 1553 and was Henry’s son by Jane Seymour; her half-sister, Queen Elizabeth I (the Virgin Queen) (1533-1603), was born to Anne Boleyn. A committed Catholic, Mary attempted to reverse the outcomes of the Protestant Reformation; she had almost 300 dissenters burnt at the stake.  

Whilst in exile in Europe with the Bodleys, Nicholas is recorded as having attended a service presented by the Calvinist, John Knox. Thomas Bodley, who was two years older than Nicholas, is known to have received a classical education in Geneva, including learning Hebrew and Greek, but this may not have been extended to Nicholas. The latter was, however, able to learn fluent French, and met principal French goldsmith Pierre Olivier, father of his future pupil, and later rival in miniature painting, Isaac Olivier.  

In 1598, Thomas donated significant funds to re-establish the Bodleian Library, Oxford University’s first library originally established c. 1320. The contents were wiped out in 1550 under King Edward VI when he ordered the destruction of all traces of Roman Catholic literature. 

Hilliard’s wife Alice, an example of the influence from French art in his work, 1578 – photo by Wikiwand

Queen Mary’s death in 1558 allowed the Bodleys and Nicholas Hilliard to return to England when Protestant Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne. Nicholas was apprenticed to goldsmith Robert Brandon, jeweller to the Queen. Hilliard served seven years under the master before going into business with his brother John in 1569. Besides being trained as a goldsmith, Hilliard was a limner – a painter of miniatures. In 1573, Nicholas married Alice Brandon, Robert’s daughter. They had seven children: three sons – Lawrence, Anthony and Robert, and four daughters – Elizabeth, Lettice, Penelope and Francis. 

He worked in Queen Elizabeth I’s court from the time he was accepted as a member of the Goldsmiths’ Company in 1570 on completion of his apprenticeship. His specialty was portraits created in watercolour on vellum (calfskin), which he would paste to a firm support such as a playing card. He would lay down the base colours before using a fine brush to add details using the technique of hatching. 

Portrait of a Young Man, Probably Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex, by Nicholas Hilliard, 1588 – photo by Metropolitan Museum of Art

Hilliard was by no means the first artist to practice the genre of miniature art for Royalty; he was preceded by Lucas Horenbout (or Hornebolte) (c. 1490-1544), employed as the ‘King’s Painter’ for Henry VIII from 1525 until his death. One of Horenbout’s pupils was Hans Holbein the Younger (c. 1497 – 1543). Born in Germany, he lived in England where he learnt the art of miniature painting, and was also as ‘King’s Painter’ for Henry VIII. He was also patronised by Thomas More, Henry VIII’s Chancellor. Cromwell’s beheading in 1540 was the beginning of the end of Holbein’s career, and he died of the plague in London in 1543.  

The only woman to work in Henry VIII’s court, including for Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I, was Flemish painter Levina Teerlinc (c. 1510 – 1576), and who immediately preceded Nicholas Hilliard as the court miniaturist, and whom she may have trained. 

The Heneage Jewel; The Armada Jewel, Nicholas Hilliard, 1595 – photo by Google Arts & Culture

At the age of thirteen Hilliard painted a self-portrait. When he was twenty-four, he was appointed to Queen Elizabeth I’s court as a limner and goldsmith. In 1595, he painted a miniature of the Queen that was used in a jewelled locket, known as the Heneage Jewel or Armada Jewel (7 x 5.1 cm). The locket was fashioned using enamelled gold, diamonds, Burmese rubies, with a gold bust of her Majesty under rock crystal on the front. Also depicted is the inscription Elizabetha D.G. Ang. Fra. Et. Hib. Regina (Elizabeth, by the grace of God Queen of England, France and Ireland). The inside is enamelled and contains the portrait painted by Hilliard and surrounded by the inscription Hei mihi quod tanto virtus perfusa decore non habet eternos inviolata dies (Alas, that so much virtue suffused with beauty should not last forever inviolate). The hinged back cover depicts a boat on a stormy sea, representing the Church of England being steered through religious turbulence and includes the inscription Saevas Tranquilla Per Vndas (Peaceful through the fierce waves). The locket is held in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.  

Mary, Queen of Scots, Nicholas Hilliard, 1578-9 – photo by Royal Collection Trust

The Queen gave the locket, or possibly only the painting of herself contained therein, to Sir Thomas Heneage (1532-1595), her loyal Privy Counsellor and Vice-Chamberlain of the Royal Household. Sir Thomas may have commissioned the priceless locket himself. The piece remained in the Heneage family until 1902 when it was given to the V&A Museum by the Rt. Hon. Viscount Wakefield CBE with assistance from the Art Fund which ‘provides museums and curators with funding for acquisitions; training and development; and the display of art through tours and exhibitions’.  

Whilst in the employ of Elizabeth I, Hilliard was commissioned by her cousin Mary, who came to the Scottish throne at six days old when her father King James V died in December 1542. One of Hilliard’s most significant works was the miniature he painted c. 1578-9; Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587) (watercolour on vellum. 4.5 x 3.7 cm), held by the Royal Collection Trust. This version was painted with an ultramarine background, at the time an expensive pigment. A second version exists, held by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, in which the background is painted with either azurite or bice. Both have approximately the same chemical composition, but the latter is an artificial composition of the former, which was referenced in Pliny the Elder’s (AD 23-79) Natural History. 

Queen Elizabeth I, associated with Nicholas Hilliard, oil on panel, 1575 – photo by National Portrait Gallery

Both renderings of the work were held by the Royal Collection during the Stuart period (1603-1714). The Victoria and Albert version was taken by King James II of England and Ireland (James VII of Scotland) when he escaped to France in 1688. The second piece may have been owned by King Charles I of England, Scotland and Ireland (1600-1649). 

Hilliard did not limit himself to miniatures; he also painted full-length portraits. One of these is Queen Elizabeth I (c. 1575, oil on panel, 78.7 x 61 cm). It was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery, London in 1865, where it remains. Another is of Christopher Wise, who is the mayor of Totnes in Devon, England between 1621-1622. The painting, oil on canvas, 112.5 x 87cm, is held in the Totnes Elizabethan House Museum. 

On Queen Mary’s death, her son James Stuart (1566-1625) inherited her crown and ruled as King James VI of Scotland and King James I of England and Ireland. He too commissioned Nicholas Hilliard to paint numerous miniatures and medals. A painting of the King, James I (1566-1625) (c. 1609-15, watercolour on vellum on a playing card, 4.6 x 3.8 cm) is held by the Royal Collection Trust. 

James I (1566-1625), Nicholas Hilliard, Inscribed 1614 – photo by Royal Collection Trust

In 1576, Hilliard travelled to France, before returning to England in 1578. A letter was written to Louis de Gonzague, Duke of Nevers, by Sir Amyas Poulet in 1577, who was Keeper to Mary, Queen of Scots when she was imprisoned by Elizabeth I at Tutbury. Sir Poulet had been attempting to trace Hilliard’s whereabouts, after he left the home of Master Herman, a fellow goldsmith, who believed Hilliard had gone to the French court. Hilliard, however, was discovered to be living with Master Georges de Gand, the Queen’s painter. The Duke had commissioned Hilliard to paint himself and the Duchess, ‘to engrave their portraits on the title-page of a small quarto volume in honour of a charity they had founded’. [Erna Auerbach, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 91, No. 555 (Jun. 1949), pp. 164+166-168]. These were to replace two previous panels on boxwood created by two other artists which the Duke had rejected as being inferior.  

Hilliard returned to London without having received the recognition or work that he had anticipated. Throughout his life, he was inept in dealing with his personal finances. He made bad investments; for example, losing capital on a gold mine he had bought into with fellow painter Cornelius de Vos. Hillard did not demand payment from neglectful clients who were of high standing. He was assisted financially by amongst others, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester KG, PC; Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex KG, PC and Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury KG, PC.  

Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, Nicholas Hilliard, 1576 – photo by National Portrait Gallery

Hilliard painted miniatures of two of his patrons; Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester (1576, watercolour on vellum, 4.4cm diameter, held in the National Portrait Gallery, London); Portrait of a Young Man (1588, vellum laid on card, 4 x 3.3 cm, held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art,  New York) which is accepted as being a portrait of Robert Devereux. Another full-length miniature, A Young Man Leaning Against a Tree Among Roses (c. 1587, watercolour on vellum stuck on card, 13.5 x 7.3cm). It includes the inscription Dat / poenas laudata fides (A praised faith), from De Bello Civili by the Roman poet Lucan (39AD – 65AD). The painting is believed to also be of Devereux. It is held in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. 

In 1584, Hilliard was commissioned to design the Queen’s second Great Seal which she used from 1586-1603. Made of bronze, the seal depicts the Queen holding the royal orb and sceptre. The reverse shows her riding a horse across a field of flowers, symbolising hope and prosperity. Also engraved are the Tudor Rose of England, the Harp of Ireland and the Fleur-de-lis of France as well as the inscription Elizabetha dei gracia Anglie Francie et Hibernie Regina Fidei Defensor (Elizabeth, by grace of God, Queen of England, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith). For this work, Hilliard was paid £400. Despite this generosity, Elizabeth refused Hilliard a monopoly on his paintings of her, but James I granted him this concession in 1617 for twelve years. Despite this, Hilliard was imprisoned in Ludgate Prison that same year for being unable to settle a debt that he had stood surety for.  

Great seal of Elizabeth I, Nicholas Hilliard, 1586-1603 – photo by The National Archives

Around 1600, Hilliard wrote a Treatise called The Arte of Limning, which was only published in 1911-1912. It includes technical tips to make his subjects comfortable whilst sitting for their portraits; sweet odours comfort the brain and open the understanding, augmenting the delight in limning, discreet talk or reading, quiet mirth or music offend not, but shorten the time, and quicken the spirit both in the drawer, and he which is drawn. Each painting would have required at least three sittings of several hours. He is quoted as saying: How then can the curious drawer watch, and as it were, catch these lovely graces, witty smilings, and those stolen glances which suddenly like lightning pass and another countenance taketh place, except to behold and very well note and conceit to like. He would have completed the additional details of jewellery and costumes in his studio; he developed new techniques for mimicking real gems by using a hot needle to trickle a bead of coloured resin on a drop of gold or silver. He would emphasise the translucent properties of pearls by highlighting them with silver. He stated in the Treatise that limning works the metals Gold or Silver with themselves which so enriches and ennobles the work that it seems to be the thing itself even the work of God and not of man. He believed that artists should be regarded as experts and not mere craftsmen; None should meddle with limning, but gentlemen alone. 

Nicholas Hilliard died in January 1619 at the age of 71. He is buried in St-Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square, London. He bequeathed twenty shillings to the Parish poor, fifteen shillings to each of his sisters, some effects to a servant and the remainder of his estate to his son Laurence, who continued his father’s work until the expiration of his licence granted by the King.