Nicholas Hilliard by Elizabeth Goldring — portrait of an artist

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Nicholas Hilliard was Britain’s first born visual genius. Inspired by Holbein and Dürer, he painted oil portraits, “large”, as wall paintings were called in the 16th and 17th centuries. But the remarkable Hilliards are all miniature portraits. A pre-photographic era meant that these remained in high demand as gifts from one important person to another. Especially kings and queens and their courtiers commanded them. Skill sets were available as the print was less than 100 years old and the manuscripts had always been beautifully illustrated.

Painted in watercolors on vellum, then stretched on round or oval panels, the small likenesses were often set among jewels or precious metals. They could be worn or, in the case of lovers, kept under the pillow. It is said that Elizabeth I kept a Hilliard of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, the first favorite of her reign and Hilliard’s first patron, under her own.

Elizabeth Goldring was led to Hilliard by her own Leicester study, a patron and art collector as well as the man who hoped and expected to marry the Queen. Accompanied by the National Portrait Gallery exhibition on the 400th anniversary of Hilliard’s death, his book, Nicolas Hilliard, allows not only to study the artist and his gifts. It also vibrates with the strong conviction found in the study of Walpole by JH Plumb or that of Pepys by Claire Tomalin.

Hilliard was the official court ‘limner’, as watercolourists were known, throughout Elizabeth’s long reign. It was maintained by his chosen successor, King Stuart of Scotland, until Hilliard’s own death in 1619 at the age of 72. Born in the last year of Henry VIII’s reign, Hilliard was a West Countryman, a Dick Whittington. But his hometown, Exeter, was too close to the sea to be truly provincial. The ships brought trade and cultural exchanges with France. Hilliard’s father, Richard, was a goldsmith, a guildsman. Goldring’s book reads like a British version, with art instead of music, by Wagner Die Meistersinger von Nürnbergthis masterpiece of political infighting between guilds.

‘Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester’ (1576) © National Portrait Gallery

Some objects made by Hilliard have survived. He saved a greater goldsmith, Robert Brandon, from scandal. This enabled him to place two of his sons in first class apprenticeships at Brandon’s workshop in the City of London. Indeed, Brandon became Nicholas’ stepfather and grandfather to his many children. As purveyors of goldsmithery to social elites, goldsmiths were more than artisans. As they prospered, they delegated and supervised. They themselves became money men or bankers so to speak.

Hilliard’s limning gifts were spectacular and recognized early on. As a man of money, he struggled all his long life with debt. Failed speculation, demanding employees, customers too big to pay on time were always troublesome. Big patrons like Leicester, Essex and Robert Cecil as well as his father-in-law bailed him out. Since he survived them all, he spent time in a debtors’ prison at the age of 70. Goldring understands the psychology of upward mobility. If you always paint people much richer than you, you are inclined to imitate their habits. This is easier to achieve if you are a financier rather than an artist.

Nicolas Hilliard

Despite recurring material difficulties, Hilliard rose to prominence early on by rendering likenesses and maintained it throughout his life. This does not mean that he ever abandoned the practices instilled by his training as an artisan and his guild diploma. He was for the rest of his life the owner of a workshop and engaged to paint in large as well as in miniature, or design a frame, or execute heraldic flags and coats of arms, or supply engravings and frontispieces for printed books.

His studio was at Gutter Lane, Cheapside; an expensive part of town as many great craftsmen lived and worked there. Plague outbreaks were regular occurrences. Employers, and anyone else who could afford it, fled the busy, congested streets for the countryside during the periods. It was relatively easy to do if, like Hilliard, you had aristocratic patrons with their own palaces or if the Queen herself wanted you to paint her at Hampton Court. Daily life in Elizabethan and Jacobean times is vividly rendered here. Goldring hones our ability to look beyond the glossy magazine analogues of court painting and decipher, as with the poet Webster’s TS Eliot vignette, the skull beneath the skin. She is also good at placing Protestant Hilliard and his family in the context of the religious wars that have threatened Britain for almost a century and ravaged Europe for more than two years. Hilliard had to flee England for Geneva as a child. It was no longer safe to return until Elizabeth ascended the throne and the mass persecution ended.

Glossy magazines, in our culture, are about celebrities. Hilliard too. He was often broke but still a star. Shakespeare’s Mr WH sonnet is believed to contain a reference to him. He painted and befriended fellow westerner Francis Drake. He knew John Donne and painted Walter Raleigh and Francis Bacon. The latter, then Lord Chancellor under James I, tried to help him. Elizabeth herself enjoyed her company. Fairly early in his reign, he painted it en plein air. The slow, precise work of the limning meant there was time for conversation. It seems that the painter and the royal guardian discussed chiaroscuro, the art of rendering shadows.

An image of Elizabeth so enchanted France’s Queen Mother, the great Italian art collector Catherine de’ Medici, that Elizabeth and Leicester thought it politic to loan the young master to the French court. A possible dynastic marriage between Elizabeth and a younger brother of the King of France was briefly considered. Indeed, Hilliard was delivered to court to spy on behalf of the Queen and Leicester. Sometimes Goldring’s book reads like an Elizabethan version of a John le Carré novel.

Art books are heavy and expensive. They tend to be browsed for artwork, not read. It would be a shame if Goldring Nicolas Hilliard suffer this fate. Despite informed and scrupulous scholarship, the author always distinguishing what is known from what can reasonably be inferred, the narrative is undeniable. I happen to have had the chance to look at many Hilliard miniatures. His story kept me up all night.

Nicholas Hilliard: The Life of an Artistby Elizabeth Goldring, Yale University Press RRP£40, 352 pages

Gray Gowrie is Chairman of the Fine Art Group and former Minister of the Arts

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