Visitors attending a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London will have to resist the urge to press their noses to the glass vitrines. Nicholas Hilliard, the 16th-century English artist who painted the minuscule portraits contained within these display cabinets, wrote that they should be viewed “of necessity in hand near unto the eye”. That is impossible here, but the gallery has wisely supplied magnifying glasses so that viewers can get a proper look at the tiny locks, ruffs of lace and wisps of beard of Hilliard’s subjects. Born in Devon in 1547, Hilliard was a master miniaturist whose career coincided with the height of the English Renaissance, which he both mirrored and shaped in his depictions of Queen Elizabeth’s courtiers. “Elizabethan Treasures” displays his work alongside that of his student, Isaac Oliver, a Huguenot refugee. Oliver’s miniatures imported a hazy, chiaroscuro style from the continent but they are just as intricate as Hilliard’s, and for the most part equally tiny – little bigger than coins or postage stamps.
Like coins and stamps, miniature portraits were tokens imbued with cultural value. Wearing one in a locket could signal political allegiance; giving one as a gift could be a declaration of love. As with all Renaissance portraiture, eye-popping jewellery and expensive clothes take centre-stage in this ornate, symbolic pageant of an exhibition. The careful management of one’s public image wasn’t just vain preening (or, at least, not only that). During this period England was in thrall to the idea of “self-fashioning”, which held that one’s appearance and personality ought to be carefully presented, like an artwork. To have your portrait painted by Oliver and Hilliard was not just a matter of having your likeness taken, it was also a way of forging your identity.
The self-fashioning cut both ways. By making miniatures, or “limning” as it was then called, Hilliard and Oliver claimed a status that was several notches above the average painter who was, at the time, viewed as a mere craftsman. Much of what we know about Hilliard’s trade comes from his “Treatise on the Arte of Limning” (1600), a manuscript copy of which is on display in the exhibition. In it, Hilliard is relentlessly keen to emphasise that limning is “a kind of gentle painting” – gentle as in genteel and reserved for a select few artists.
That Hilliard could get away with such posturing is partly due to the illustrious heritage of his craft. Limners were the artistic descendants of medieval manuscript illuminators (both “limning” and “illuminate” derive from “luminare”, a Latin word meaning “to emit light”). By Hilliard’s day, when the printing press had squeezed the market for hand-made books, those skilled in illumination turned their skills to stand-alone portraits, which were painted on to the same calf-skin vellum bookmakers used for parchment. Limners’ other claim to special status was their mind-boggling technical skill. Armed with a rag-tag miscellany of tools including squirrel-hair brushes and dog-tooth burnishers, they produced artworks so precisely wrought that, according to Hilliard, a stray speck of dandruff or fleck of spittle could ruin them.
Self-portrait by Nicholas Hilliard (1577)
Framed by a thicket of hair and lace, Hilliard’s eyes boldly dart out from the frame. Artist’s self-portraits were rare in the 16th century, so this one makes a statement as confident as its maker’s glance. Perhaps influenced by Hilliard’s time in France, where painters enjoyed considerably more cachet than in England, the painting is an audacious expression of his most persistent ambition: to attain the prestige of a gentleman, rather than a craftsman. The ornate inscription is a reminder of the roots of miniature painting in manuscript illumination, and Hilliard’s skill for textual as well as visual art. But his swagger is not without a measure of pathos. Even though he held a royal warrant, formally recognising his status as official limner to the queen, Hilliard would never be offered a salaried role in her court. Instead, he plied his trade from a more humble location – his workshop on Gutter Lane – painting anyone who would pay.
“Unknown man against a background of flames” by Nicholas Hilliard (c.1600)
Hilliard’s usual customers were peacocking, jaw-jutting, jewel-toting nobles. Conversely, this anonymous sitter wears nothing except his shirt – effectively, his underwear – and seems almost audibly to sigh. Listlessly, he toys with his locket, which may itself contain a miniature depiction of the object of his fervour, creating a mise-en-abyme which hints that this painting may have been intended as a gift for a lover. Perhaps he turns it towards his heart. In any case, the towering flames are a not-so-subtle confirmation of what we already knew from the man’s face: he is in the grip of a burning passion. Bewitchingly, the flames are highlighted with powdered gold which flickers and gleams as we pass – and, one assumes, as the sitter’s lover turned the portrait in her hand.
Self-portrait by Isaac Oliver (c. 1595)
Horace Walpole, the 18th-century antiquarian and once-owner of this self-portrait, said that the “art of the master and the imitation of nature are so great in [this painting] that the largest magnifying glass only calls out new beauties”. Oliver’s mastery of stippling – a technique in which countless miniscule dots form shadows and curves – rewards close attention, creating as it does a vivid impression of lifelike flesh. In this self-portrait, there is even a hint of a blue vein above the artist’s right eye, as if his skin were translucent. In his rich clothing, he conforms to Hilliard’s recommendation in the “Treatise”: “Let your apparel be silk, such as sheddeth least dust or hairs.”
“Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount St Alban” by Nicholas Hilliard (1578)
The enduring image of Francis Bacon, one of the great intellectuals of the English Renaissance, is of a sage, bearded statesman. Here, he is depicted at 17, the very image of the young man of letters. His hair is tousled as if by a scholarly clutching at his brow or some kind of athletic exertion – or perhaps, true to the humanist ideal of masculinity, both. In place of the familiar beard, a few subtle strokes of black above his lip suggest an incipient moustache. Even at this tender age, the inscription confirms the intellectual precocity written on his face: “A worthier painting would present his mind”.
“Queen Elizabeth I” by Nicholas Hilliard (1572)
Despite his failure to gain tenure at court, Hilliard produced so many miniatures of the queen that, by the end of his life, he was reputedly able to paint her face from memory. This one, with its diaphanous gossamer cloth, lends an ethereality to its subject that is enhanced by the slightly faded colour of her skin. It’s possible that this is the portrait Hilliard recounts painting in the “Treatise”, in which she sits in “the open alley of a goodly garden, where no tree was near” – that is, in direct natural light. Oliver had less success with his paintings of Elizabeth. Only one of these features in this exhibition, an unflinching depiction of the queen aged 56, wrinkles and all (little wonder that Oliver’s was not a repeat commission).
“Sir Walter Ralegh (Raleigh)” by Nicholas Hilliard (c.1585)
His ruff pushing intrepidly towards the boundaries of the frame, England’s first explorer (who was also a courtier, poet and spy) projects in his half-sneer the temerity which so characterised the court, the country and him. He had reason to be self-assured: the portrait was painted at roughly the time that he received permission to colonise America. Raleigh was the ultimate court celebrity, a true member of the Elizabethan in-crowd. For all Nicholas Hilliard’s talent, Raleigh’s was a world in which Hilliard would always remain an outsider, looking in enviously.
Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver National Portrait Gallery, London, until May 19th