Elizabethan Treasures, National Portrait Gallery
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It’s not every day that we are handed a magnifying glass when entering an exhibition…in fact, this has never happened before, and we went many of exhibitions. But it’s necessary to spot the finer details in the works of two Elizabethan miniature painters, now on display at the National Portrait Gallery.
Nicholas Hilliard and his student Isaac Oliver created incredibly detailed miniature portraits of high society and royalty, works that are featured in this suitably small but perfectly formed exhibit.
An overview of the creation of these works is presented in the form of a film. They were created on the back of playing cards with very delicately applied watercolors, usually taking three sittings to complete a piece.
The works are really a who’s who of society with lots of nobles and women, as well as Sir Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake. The then monarch, Elizabeth I, is well represented with an entire section of the show dedicated to her, including a miniature gold coin impressively depicting her likeness. Another coin shows her flanked by three goddesses – monarchs were rarely humble at this time.
The downside of a miniature – for their subjects, at least – is that it is difficult to assert the same royal status that would be easily achieved by a massive portrait. However, Henry III of France manages to do this by housing his likeness in a chunky frame with a heraldic crest – there is still that regal modesty.
Alongside royalty are miniatures of very cherubic children and the bling ornate cases that the miniature paintings have kept there.
Our favorite part of the show features a young man with his shirt open, flames in the background representing his passionate love. Did we just stumble upon the predecessor to sexting? Once gifted, we imagine that he made the heart of the object of his attention throb.
These aren’t all thumbnails though; Hilliard and Oliver also produced full-length portraits, illustrated documents and drawings which are also on display. But ultimately we’re here for the thumbnails, and they’re lovely.
Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver is at the National Portrait Gallery until 19 May 2019. Tickets cost £10 for adults. The works are very small, so we recommend visiting at the quietest time possible to be able to see all the works clearly.
Last updated on February 21, 2019