BY Tim Smith-Laing in Reviews | 29 MAR 19

Elizabethan Portrait Miniatures

A remarkable exhibition of tiny paintings at London’s National Portrait Gallery

BY Tim Smith-Laing in Reviews | 29 MAR 19

The phrase ‘up close and personal’ could have been made for the work of Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver. Their portraits of the great and good of Elizabethan and Jacobean England are both formal items of display and startlingly intimate tokens of humanity. At some four or five centimetres across, Hilliard wrote that they had ‘to be viewed of necessity in hand near unto the eye’ – as if the viewer were going in for a kiss. One of Hilliard’s own paintings brings the point home: Unknown Young Man Against a Background of Flames (c.1600) depicts a youth stripped down to his shirt (nearly naked by Elizabethan standards) who, against a fiery background, holds a proffered miniature. ‘Here I am’, it says, ‘burning with love for you, a picture of you in my hand; and here you are, burning with love for me, a picture of me in your hand.’ 

Nicholas Hiliard, Francis Bacon, Later Baron Verulam and Viscount St Alban, 1578. Courtesy: National Portrait Gallery, London. 

Public display was never far from the mind of the Elizabethans and Jacobeans; they lived in a culture in which self-presentation reached almost unimaginable levels of filigree complexity, but Hilliard and Oliver’s portraits leap out as private objects. Hilliard described his task as trying to capture in a single image ‘those lovely graces, witty smilings, and those stolen glances which suddenly like lightning pass’. An art to find the mind’s construction in the face, as Shakespeare might put it. And, as the weight of human presence in this amazing exhibition demonstrates, Hilliard and Isaac Oliver did exactly that. You can see why, a few years into the 17th century, Sir John Ayres decided to kill the subject of a miniature he discovered in his wife’s hands. (Lady Ayres had fallen for Edward Herbert, Baron of Cherbury, and, according to Herbert himself, had clandestinely acquired a miniature of him for her private perusal. Herbert survived the attack by Ayres and his heavies only to note ‘without vanity’ that Lady Ayres was far from alone in ‘desiring my Company’.)

Size is part of the intimacy, but despite its modern meaning, the term ‘miniature’ has nothing intrinsically to do with smallness. It derives, instead, from the Latin minium for red lead or cinnabar, the major pigment for highlighting important portions of manuscripts and calendars (whence ‘red letter days’). Elizabethan portrait miniatures seem to have been a happy offshoot of the decline in manuscript illumination that accompanied the rise of printed books throughout the 16th century: the same skills that had once lent themselves to illustrating books of hours or the shaggy-dog stories of medieval romances transferred neatly to the production of intimate keepsakes. Often worn as ‘jewels’, it makes some sense that it would be two goldsmiths’ sons, Hilliard and Oliver, who would bring the art of the portrait miniature to its acme. 

Nicholas Hiliard, Queen Elizabeth I, 1572. Courtesy: National Portrait Gallery, London

Hilliard, the older of the two, was born into a family of goldsmiths in 1547 and apprenticed to royal goldsmith Robert Brandon in 1562. While this may have given him access to royal manuscripts and miniatures, it does not explain exactly how he came to the trade in which he made his name. However, he learned it, his talent as a painter was soon recognized and, by the 1570s, he was accompanying the English ambassador to France, meeting the elite of French society and painting future English luminaries such as the young Francis Bacon. Seen at 18, in 1578, the future essayist, natural philosopher and all-round eminence is cherubically supercilious above his extraordinary ruff, accompanied by a motto: 'Si tabula daretur digna Animum mallem' (approximately, ‘If a worthy portrait were given, I’d prefer the mind’). Late in his life, Bacon would record a payment of £11 for ‘old Mr Hilliard’, presumably for a less callow portrait.

Home from France, Hilliard painted the big names of the English court, including Elizabeth herself, and was eventually awarded a royal salary for his work. Despite his brilliance, however, the artist had a talent for poor investments; money seems to have been a continuous problem right up to his death in the Christmas period of 1618–19. 

Isaac Oliver, Self-Portrait, 1590. Courtesy: National Portrait Gallery, London

It is unclear whether Isaac Oliver counted among such poor investments. The young Frenchman, who was born c.1565, was a goldsmith’s son too, driven to England by the persecution of French protestants, and appears to have joined Hilliard’s workshop in the 1580s. He soon became the only real rival to Hilliard’s position, producing miniatures notable for their fine naturalism, and – even by comparison with Hilliard’s – their sense of individual personality. In one striking piece on display, Unknown Woman in Masque Costume Perhaps as Flora (c.1605), his subject is seen in a particularly revealing masque costume, smiling somewhat coyly, flowers threaded through her hair. There is a sense not just of looking at what life was like at the new Jacobean court (saucy, it seems) but at the personality beneath the costume: nervous as well as extroverted.

Taken together, the 90 pieces of Hilliard and Oliver’s work, on loan from the collections of many museums, form a once-in-a-lifetime show. A true cornucopia, especially for devotees of the period, this is a glorious and extraordinary exhibition. It is also, inevitably, a frustrating one. There is, unfortunately, no way around the fact that the miniatures cannot be displayed as they were meant to be seen. Even with the gallery’s thoughtfully provided magnifying glasses, it is impossible to experience the intimacy that the pieces demand while crowding round display cases with other viewers. Go anyway, but make sure you leave with a catalogue, so you can have them, or something like them, ‘in hand near unto the eye’ as you are meant to. 

'Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hiliard and Oliver' is on view at the National Portrait Gallery, London, until 19 May 2019.

Main image: Isaac Oliver, An Allegory, 1590-95. Courtesy: Statens Museum for Kunst, National Gallery of Denmark and National Portrait Gallery, London

Tim Smith-Laing is a writer and critic based in London, UK. He is writing a novel based on the life of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt and a biography of Lady Luck @TimSmith_Laing