The first great English artist – the life and art of Nicholas Hilliard

23 February 2019

9:00 AM

23 February 2019

9:00 AM

When Henry VIII died in 1547, he left a religiously divided country to a young iconoclast who erased a large part of its visual culture. In a brief six years the government of Edward VI effectively whitewashed over England’s native heritage of sacred art, leaving a country already reliant on foreign painters for its royal portraits bereft of an artistic identity. Artistically speaking, Tudor England was the sick man of Europe — and the signs of recovery, when they first appeared, were tiny.

Nicholas Hilliard, born in the year of Henry VIII’s death, paradoxically owed his art education to his family’s Protestantism. The son of an Exeter goldsmith swept up in Wyatt’s Rebellion, an eight-year-old Hilliard spent four formative years, from 1555, among Marian exiles in northern Europe, where he made the discovery that ‘Germany breedeth or might breed more than a hundred’ painters for every one bred in England.

Returning home after the death of Mary I and winning an apprenticeship with a London goldsmith, he branched out into miniature painting, turning a sideline of the goldsmith’s trade into a speciality. By the age of 25 he was ensconced ‘in the open ally of a goodly garden’ painting a miniature of Queen Elizabeth I while engaging her majesty in a discussion of the art of shadows which, he flatteringly claimed in his treatise-cum-autobiography The Arte of Limning, ‘hath greatly bettered my Iugement’. The queen disliked shadows, which is why she chose the garden. The social-climbing Hilliard saw the art of conversation as crucial to success in his profession. He wished ‘that none should meddle with limning, but gentlemen alone, for that it is a kind of gentle painting… and tendeth not to common men’s use.’

In nearly 50 years at the heart of court life, Hilliard held up a compact mirror to one of the most colourful periods in British history. Within its tiny compass we see reflected the faces of royal favourite ‘Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester’ (c.1571–74); explorers ‘Sir Walter Ralegh’ (c.1585) and ‘Sir Francis Drake’ (1581) — the first dashingly handsome, the second with a florid complexion suggesting a lifetime’s overconsumption of navy grog; and an 18-year-old, swan-necked ‘Francis Bacon’ (1578) encased in a ruff that looks as constricting as African neck rings.

These are just some of the figures represented in the National Portrait Gallery’s major new show of miniatures by Hilliard and his pupil Isaac Oliver. Whether commissioned as portraits of prospective royal spouses, diplomatic gifts, mementoes or love tokens, miniatures needed to be good likenesses, and so these tiny images were all painted from life. Hilliard demanded three sessions of his sitters lasting from two to six hours and recommended ‘discreet talk or reading, quiet mirth or music’ to stave off boredom and help the artist capture ‘those lovely graces, witty smilings, and those stolen glances which suddenly like lightning pass’. He also gave practical tips — beware of smoke, dust, dandruff and ‘sparkling of spittle’ — but one trade secret he wouldn’t divulge was how he made the jewels in his royal portraits sparkle: that, he insisted, was ‘no part of limning, so require it not’. He did, however, pass on his secrets to Oliver, who in some departments — though not royal bling — would outshine him.

The son of another Protestant goldsmith, Oliver had the artistic advantage of being French. His Huguenot father had fled Catholic persecution in the reverse direction from Hilliard, taking refuge among the émigré artist community in London. With an eye educated in continental art, Oliver disagreed with the queen about shadows; chiaroscuro fleshes out his figures, giving them a three-dimensionality Hilliard’s lack. This would win him the patronage of the Queen Consort, Anne of Denmark, and Henry, Prince of Wales, but quickly lose him the favour of Queen Elizabeth, who took one look at the haggard woman in his unfinished portrait of 1589 and reverted to Hilliard’s tried and tested ‘mask of youth’ formula which, by a liberal application of pancake make-up, turned an ageing spinster into a Virgin Queen.

The show includes some marvellously vivid portraits by Oliver, of the dangerously handsome ‘Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton’ (c.1596), with his rock-star haircut and sanpaku eyes; of ‘The Browne Brothers’ (1598), posed like a Tudor boy band, and two adorable ‘Unknown Girls aged five and four’ (1590). But although these portraits glow with life and are as convincingly modelled as any European painting of the period, they are less original than Hilliard’s precisely because they are less English. Hilliard’s cabinet miniature of ‘Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland’ (1590/3), playing the natural philosopher in a geometric garden with a feather and a weight hanging in perfect balance above his outstretched body, seems to lead straight to the English surrealism of Paul Nash, while his famous ‘Young Man among Roses’ (c.1587), affecting melancholy by mooching in a briar patch in a pair of highly impractical lilywhite tights, sired a long line of British moochers in the landscape that only ended with the neo-romantics. But his most memorable image is ‘Unknown Man against a Background of Flames’ (c.1600), depicting its ardent subject, shirt open to the waist, on the back of an ace of hearts (see p29). How much more tasteful a love token than a Bezos dick pic — though if Hilliard had been commissioned to paint one, it would have had exquisite curls of pubic hair.

This, the 400th anniversary of Hilliard’s death, also sees the publication of a new biography. Elizabeth Goldring’s scholarly book reveals a less savoury side to Hilliard ‘marked by litigation, disputes and a pattern of unattractive conduct’. As is often the way with artists, his prodigious talent went hand in hand with prodigality; he was constantly in debt and evading creditors. In 1599 the stingy queen was finally persuaded to give her royal limner an annuity, but that didn’t save him from being thrown into debtors’ prison in 1617 at the age of 70. On his death and burial in St Martin-in-the-Fields in 1619, his loyal son Laurence blew the then vast sum of 52 shillings sending his father off in the style to which he would like to have been accustomed: an artist and a would-be gentleman to the last.

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