Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver

It’s a small world at the National Portrait Gallery, reports John Westbrooke

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When you go to look at the works of England’s greatest 16th-century painter at the National Portrait Gallery, they give you a magnifying glass.

Nicholas Hilliard’s specialty was miniatures – portraits measuring only 5cm or so, shorter than your finger. It was a rare skill, and he became a court favourite, painting Queen Elizabeth among many others; she made him official “limner”, a post he kept under King James I. You can only wonder how many courtiers had eyes sharp enough to appreciate his work without magnifying glasses.

Modern galleries can take us even closer, with photos that zoom in on faces and clothing, sometimes blown up to life-size or larger. And still the level of detail is astonishing. Ruffs whose lace threads are less than a millimetre wide are still crisp and clear; jewels sparkle. How did he do it?

Hilliard was born in Devon in about 1547, to a family of goldsmiths, an equally painstaking trade that also brought him royal favour. He seems to have been attached to the Protestant Bodley family (the ones who founded the Bodleian Library) and gone to Europe with them while the Catholic Mary I was queen. Back in London he worked as a goldsmith and remained one; nobody knows how or when he turned to painting as well (he just claimed it was a divine gift), but he might have been trained by a manuscript illuminator, yet another business requiring small-scale work.

He even wrote a book on how to do it, The Art of Limning; the exhibition features the only manuscript copy of it. You attach a layer of vellum to a card – usually a playing card – mix your paints, use a squirrel hair brush, wear silk (it doesn’t shed) and watch out for your dandruff too. For jewels, put a tiny drop of coloured resin on silver backing with a hot needle. Don’t paint much shadow: Elizabeth herself preferred to sit for him in the garden, away from trees. He doesn’t mention whether he used a magnifying glass, but he must have; some of the finer points are simply invisible to the naked eye. His usual price was £3.

The queen used portraiture as part of a branding exercise, so her subjects would know her by sight. Miniatures weren’t so widely circulated – typically, they’d be kept inside an elaborate little case, for the recipient’s eyes only – but he painted her much as regular portraitists did: white-skinned, inscrutable, richly clad. But he also painted the other great swells of the famous Elizabethan court. The commoner Shakespeare unfortunately isn’t among them, but Walter Raleigh is there, his winkle-picker beard counterpointing the circular ruff that takes up half the picture.

The queen’s long-time favourite Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, has a smaller ruff and a sly look to his eyes accentuated by a coat-hanger moustache hiding much of his mouth. Does he look like a man who might push his wife downstairs to her death so he’d be free to marry Elizabeth? You can see why people might have thought so.

Hilliard also painted himself, an unusual thing for artists in those days. But you would never guess from it that he was one: no brush, no easel, just another gentleman with a sharp eye for the main chance. Limning, he insisted, was strictly a skill for gentlemen, and he saw himself as one, even while muttering how slow real gentlemen were to pay their bills; the middle classes, for whom he also worked, were more reliable. He needed money, having lost a lot of his own in a gold-mining venture in Scotland.

Some of his sitters remain unidentified. The most dramatic is “Unknown Man Against a Background of Flames” from about 1600: a young man in an open white shirt holding a locket on a chain – probably another miniature, perhaps of the young lady who was to receive this one – while flames fill the field behind him; they were speckled with gold powder, so they would have flickered in the light as she turned them in her hand. He is, we can safely assume, in love.

Hilliard shares the exhibition with Isaac Oliver, his pupil. Like his master, he’d been exposed to continental trends in art: he was a Huguenot who had come with his family when young to escape religious oppression in France.

He doubtless read Hilliard’s book, but he modelled faces with more chiaroscuro. He painted Elizabeth just once, her face more shadowy and lined than Hilliard showed, and wasn’t invited back. (This might have been on purely artistic grounds: he’s made her oddly pop-eyed and slope-shouldered.)

Oliver did however get work from King James and his queen, Anne of Denmark, whose every strand of hair he seems to have portrayed. One of the most striking of his miniatures depicts Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, to whom Shakespeare dedicated poems: only the face has been completed, but he’s quite the 1970s rock god, with long, curly hair cascading over one shoulder, topped by a sort of mullet. Oliver’s own self-portrait is altogether more modest.

Surprisingly, both men on occasion produced larger works. Hilliard’s portrayal of the Earl of Northumberland reclining in a garden doesn’t work: he’s stretched out along the bottom of the frame while trees grow straight above him. Oliver painted Sir Edward Herbert in a similar melancholy pose, but much more successfully integrated with the background; so is the unknown subject of perhaps his best known work, “Young Man Seated under a Tree”.

Of the miniatures, you could say Hilliard’s are more decorative and more two-dimensional, harking back to the dying tradition of manuscript illustration. Oliver’s work looks more modern in its illusionistic handling of light and shade.

But miniature painting is almost unknown now, having lingered on until the age of photography overtook it in the 19th century and you could suddenly have dozens of cartes de visite printed at a fraction of the cost of a single mini-portrait. That might leave us asking if it was really an art at all, or just a gimmick. But pick up a magnifying glass and the extraordinary artistry of Hilliard and Oliver leaps out. Rare gems, but gems indeed.

Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver is at the National Portrait Gallery until 19 May 2019. Tickets £10; concessions £8.50.