First major exhibition of Tudor and Jacobean portrait miniatures in the UK

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Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver, which opened at the National Portrait Gallery in London on February 21, closes on May 19. The description of the exhibition is a bit improper. It should also read “…and Jacobean” because Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619) and Isaac Oliver (c. 1565-1617), born in France, worked at the court of Elizabeth I, and after 1603 at that of King James I.

The first major exhibition of Tudor and Jacobean portrait miniatures held in the UK since 1983, it is also the 400th anniversary of Hilliard’s death as well as that of James I’s Queen Anne of Denmark, who was to further favor Oliver with his patronage. The over 100 miniatures and other works are assembled from different sources such as the NPG’s own examples, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Royal Collection and private collections.

Still young, an unidentified young man by Hilliard c.1600. Photo: Granger Historical Image Archive

Hilliard, originally from Devon, was trained as a goldsmith, a trade he did not entirely abandon after becoming the first miniaturist not only in England but also highly regarded abroad. It is unclear how he made this transition, but he never completely abandoned it and one of the finest gold medals from the period on display in this exhibit is the 1604 Peace Medal that Hilliard designed on a commission from King James I to mark the end of the long war between England and Spain. Oliver was born into a French Huguenot family around 1565 and when he was about two years old his family moved to London as refugees and stayed there.

For a time Oliver was apprenticed to Hilliard, but in the early 1590s they parted ways. They would become the first truly famous English artists, renowned abroad for the excellence of their work. Interestingly, even in terms of the rich and powerful who frequented these two artists, it reflected what was going on in the labyrinthine corridors of power surrounding the monarchs. The intrigue and struggle for power could be dangerous if one were to be seen as too attached to one faction and not to others.

Known as limners for their mastery of illuminated MSS techniques, these artists explore what their miniatures reveal about various aspects of Elizabethan and Jacobean high society. The latter were no strangers to Italian art and they soon dubbed Hilliard and Oliver after the English Michelangelo and Raphael.

The artists themselves are seen in their own self-portraits and their work extends to the wealthy middle/merchant classes

Both depicted the queen, but that’s where the similarity ended. Hilliard chose to flatter the very vain queen as not aging and youthful. Oliver was more realistic, and his familiarity with Flemish and Italian Continental art allowed him to be more precise in his use of chiaroscuro. He didn’t flatter his models and the queen wasn’t amused but at least she didn’t send him to the tower.

On the contrary, Hilliard had the favors of the Queen and it was thus that he found himself attached to her ambassador to the Court of France, Sir Amyas Paulet, in 1575-1577. Two magnificent oils on display belong to this period.

Not so long ago these were declared very rare authentic works by Hilliard de la Reine and Paulet painted on oak wood. They were probably displayed at the British Embassy.

Around the same time, another Hilliard rarity. First considered a Victorian work (its setting certainly is), this miniature was discovered in France around three years ago and depicts King Henry III of France. While still Duke of Anjou, he had “wooed” Elizabeth rather halfheartedly. Elizabeth flirted as she later did with her younger brother (her “little frog”, she called the latter) but never had any real intention of marrying either of them.

It is said that she nearly married her longtime “Sweet Robin” – Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester, whose miniature is on display, as well as many other famous and familiar faces like Drake, Francis Bacon (the philosopher), Sir Walter Raleigh and the Earl of Essex who were to lose his head: the former under James I and the latter under Elizabeth; Shakespeare’s patron, the Earl of Southampton, with his impossibly long hair falling to one side of his face, the three Brown brothers inspired by the classic Three Graces, the Duke of Lennox and Richmond.

The miniatures of members of the family of James I have a special and poignant appeal. Queen Anne and her ultra-fine blonde hair are almost talking to someone as she looks at her miniature. The vigorous Prince Henry of Wales, so promising but whose life was cut short at 18, looks on boldly while his younger brother, the still beardless Duke of York (future King Charles) I looks on one with a face full of gentleness: a good man but a future bad king.

The artists themselves are seen in their own self-portraits and their work extends to the wealthy middle/merchant classes. That was more Oliver’s domain. It is a pair of realistically charming miniatures of obviously sisterly babysitters, anonymous like many other aristocratic and non-aristocratic women, young men delighted with love in a flowery atmosphere, or sitting under a tree in meditation. There is also a rare Hilliard pencil drawing of a 12-year-old boy.

Two things are clear: Hilliard couldn’t really handle open spaces as a background, unlike Oliver who had a better sense of perspective. In his old age, Hilliard became a rather poor man and died in obscurity, aged 72. Oliver, thrice married, died at a much younger age, around 52, and the exact date of death is not known except that he was buried in October 1617. Rather sad but their fame lives on in their superb work.

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