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Art review: Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver, at the National Portrait Gallery

03 May 2019

Nicholas Cranfield sees art by Isaac Oliver and Nicholas Hilliard


© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Unknown Girl Aged 5, 1590, and Unknown Girl Aged 4, 1590, by Isaac Oliver

Unknown Girl Aged 5, 1590, and Unknown Girl Aged 4, 1590, by Isaac Oliver

THIS delightfully formed exhibition leads us into the Elizabethan world with the confidence of two highly talented painters who depicted the world in miniature, painting portraits on the back of playing cards and vellum.

The oft married Isaac Oliver died at the age of 52 or 53 in 1617, and then Nicholas Hilliard died two years later; so this exhibition in part is a celebration of his quatercentenary, as is the excellent life of him by Elizabeth Goldring which I had read before I went.

Both artists, therefore, are contemporaries of Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare (d.1616). Although there is no recorded image of either playwright by these artists, the exhibition includes Oliver’s portrait of the newly ordained Anglican clergyman and poet John Donne (Her Majesty the Queen). Donne had celebrated Hilliard’s skills in his 1597 poem “The Storme”.

At the outset, we are made aware that there is nothing small-scale about the works on show (90 in all), however diminutively painted the watercolours may be. There are also two larger portraits in oils by Hilliard, of Elizabeth I and her French ambassador, Sir Amias Paulet (Rothschild collection, on loan to Waddesdon Manor), painted as if they were a married couple, and Isaac Oliver’s later “Italian” drawings.

© National Portrait Gallery, LondonQueen Elizabeth I by Nicholas Hilliard, 1572

But, apart from a couple of etchings, some presentation medals, and the foundation charter for a Cambridge College, the exhibition rests on miniature paintings; so take a magnifying glass as the gallery’s magnifiers run out in busy periods.

In the first cabinet are three Hilliard family portraits from the Victoria and Albert Museum; a self-portrait, his wife, Alice Brandon, and his father, the Devon goldsmith. These were painted when the family lived in France (1576-78) when Hilliard accompanied Paulet’s embassy to France and became an in-house painter for the French monarch.

Next to them is a self-portrait of Isaac Oliver (NPG) and a miniature of his third wife, Elizabeth Harding, one of several exceptional loans by the Duke of Portland from Welbeck Abbey.

Hilliard’s self-portrait measures a mere 41mm in diameter, and yet we can see his tousled hair erupting from beneath his cap with its favour of an acorn between two oak leaves.

Film critics recently commented on a celebrated British actor for playing Hercule Poirot for the first time on screen with two squirrels stuffed up his nostrils. The 30-year-old Hilliard gives Sir Kenneth a run for his money in the moustachio stakes, all incidentally painted with just a few single squirrel hairs.

Less than ten years later, Sir Walter Raleigh is captured in an image that is not much larger, and the unusual depiction of Elizabeth, painted ad vivum, sitting on her throne and playing the lute (Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire), measures only 48x39mm, but carries the daring suggestion of England’s potent sovereign at play as if it was intended as a lover’s token.

On occasion, the setting of the actual image was clearly seen as being as important as the portrait itself; the newly recovered Valois portrait of Henri III of France and Poland (now Djanogly Collection) is set in a complex frame that underscores both majesty and dynasty.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, LondonSelf-portrait by Nicholas Hilliard, 1577 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Bequeathed by George Salting)

Hilliard’s father was a goldsmith in Exeter, and the Devon connection may explain the link to the wealthy Tavistock merchant Leonard Darr (1554-1615), a presumed family friend who was a later Mayor of Totnes (1593) and a serving MP in Elizabeth I’s last Parliament (1601). Earlier Marian exile may have brought Hilliard into contact with Sir Thomas Bodley (the Fellow of Merton College of library fame), whom he also depicted in 1598.

Hilliard’s key patrons include the kings and queens of France; he had served the Duke of Alençon and Anjou as well as Henri III and Catherine de Medici. In England, he was Elizabeth I’s court painter (“limner”) for 32 years, a post renewed by James VI and I when he came to London in 1603. He also worked for a succession of Elizabeth I’s royal favourites and ministers: Leicester and Essex, Sir Philip Sidney, and the Cecils.

I found the most intriguing part of the exhibition to be where miniatures of the same sitter by the two artists were displayed side by side, particularly those of the family of King James, allowing us to see the very different range of textures and emotions evoked by both.

This is the first such show in nearly 35 years and offers a real invitation to look at the world in which Anglicanism took a hold through the eyes of two exceptional painters.


“Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver” is at the National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, London WC2, until 19 May. Phone 020 7306 0055.


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