Nicholas Hilliard: The Queen’s Painter




During the early years of Elizabeth’s reign, English portrait painting continued to be regarded as less accomplished than works produced by European artists. In 1560, Catherine de’ Medici said of Elizabeth, ‘After what everyone tells me of her beauty, and after the paintings that I have seen, I must declare that she did not have good painters.’

However, there was one artistic field in which the English would surpass their European counterparts, primarily due to the mastery of Nicholas Hilliard, who considered the art of creating tiny likenesses to be ‘a thing apart from all other painting or drawing’. It even went by a specific name. What we call ‘miniature painting’ was known to the Elizabethans as ‘limning’. Hilliard was the first native English artist to build a formidable reputation for his skill, not just in England but as far afield as Italy, France and the Habsburg Empire. As the courtier Sir John Harington noted, ‘We have with us this day one that for limning is comparable with any of any other country.’


The earliest known miniature painted in England is an image of Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, painted by Lucas Horenbout around 1525. The technique and materials for producing these ‘paintings in little’ remained practically unchanged from the reign of Henry VIII to that of his daughter.

The term ‘limnings’ was borrowed from the decoration of manuscripts. These tiny paintings were produced in watercolour on fine animal hide, usually calf. The preferred vellum was ‘abertive’: skin that came from an unborn animal, as it was particularly smooth and had no hair follicles to hold the paint. The vellum was stretched and primed by being rubbed with an animal tooth – usually a dog’s tooth – before being stuck to a support with starch paste. Playing cards provided an ideal backing for portrait miniatures because, generally, they were only printed on one side.

The vellum was prepared for painting prior to the arrival of the sitter with ‘carnation’: a flesh-coloured mix of pigments that covered the area where the face and neck were to be painted. Pigments were ground to a fine powder and mixed with water in a mussel or oyster shell, the ideal disposable container for small quantities of paint. Hilliard advised that the grinding of the pigments was to be carried out ‘in a place where there is neither dust nor smoke’. If an opaque result was required, more pigment was added, mixed with gum Arabic or glair (egg white). The fine brushes (known as ‘pencils’) required to paint such minute detail were usually manufactured from squirrel or ermine hair. It was advised that artists should wear silk and not even breathe over their work for fear of damaging it with fibres or spittle.

A first sitting would last around two to four hours and the second four to six hours so, to pass the time, Hilliard recommended ‘discreet talk or reading, quiet mirth and music’. A third and final sitting would finish the portrait. Commissioning a miniature portrait in sixteenth-century England was the domain of the elite and, in courtly Elizabethan fashion, each sitting would be carried out with discreet gentility and exquisite manners. Documentation exists to indicate that most sitters would have come to the artist’s studio to be painted, with only the royal family and highest-ranking courtiers warranting a visit from the painter.

The completed portrait was intended to be held in the hand and admired. It could be embellished, by wealthy owners, to the point where the setting was more valuable than the painting. Jewels were not just valued for their monetary worth; they were also esteemed on a mystical and symbolic level. There was a belief that certain precious stones possessed spiritual qualities that would fend off evil, drive away fear and overcome sorrow. The size of these miniature portraits allowed them to be worn close to the body, thereby increasing their potency. Such was the skill in painting them that despite their small size they retained their impact. Ideally, they were to have all the qualities of fine art but on a diminutive scale.

Today, almost 200 miniatures attributed to Nicholas Hilliard survive, but there is no telling how many have been lost to us. It is frustrating to the art historian that documentation is sadly lacking and in most instances the painting itself is our only primary source.


Nicholas Hilliard was born in 1547, in Exeter, Devon, during the reign of Edward VI. The city was a thriving centre for one of the richest shires in England but also religiously divided. Nicholas’s father, Richard, and his maternal grandfather were both staunch Protestants and successful goldsmiths. A signed, gold, seal-topped spoon and a silver gilt standing bowl by Hilliard’s father are today in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Goldsmiths enjoyed a higher status and earned more than artists, whose standing had not increased significantly since the reign of Henry VIII. Artists rarely left their mark on a painting, whereas goldsmiths, just like silversmiths, signed their work with distinctive designs, usually featuring their initials. In 1515, the Lord Mayor of London listed forty-eight livery companies of the City in order of economic and political power. In first position stood the company of mercers, or cloth dealers, the goldsmiths’ company ranked in fifth place, while the painter-stainers held the twenty-eighth position. Paintings remained a low-cost item during the beginning of the Elizabethan period and Hilliard lamented that – due to patrons who refused to pay a decent price for a picture – painting was a profession that made ‘poor men poorer’. However, during his lifetime the status of the artist would rise, partly due to the success of Nicholas Hilliard himself.

Collecting paintings was a largely alien concept to the average Elizabethan family but, owing to the connections of his father, the young Hilliard was brought up with an awareness of great art. Sir Gawen Carew, a member of Elizabeth’s first Parliament, and his wife Mary were friends of Hilliard’s father and both had been painted by Holbein. Mary’s previous husband, Sir Henry Guildford, had been one of Holbein’s most important patrons and his portrait can still be seen today in the Royal Collection.

The accession of the Catholic Queen Mary, in 1553, resulted in a Counter-Reformation in England and many Protestants, who wished to continue in their religion without fear of persecution, left to live on the continent, principally in Germany and Switzerland. Hilliard spent four and a half years abroad, in the household of the Protestant radical John Bodley, initially in Wesel – a German town around the size of Exeter with a strong tradition of painting. It had a marked effect on him, although he was not yet 10 years old. He later wrote that ‘it breedeth or might breed more than a hundred painters for every one bred in England’.

After a year in Wesel, Hilliard moved with the Bodley family to Frankfurt, where he saw a drawing by Albrecht Dürer for the first time. He found this German artist to be an inspiration and later used Dürer as an example in his book The Arte of Limning. Written when Hilliard was in his early fifties, it combines an account of his life with a treatise on painting and is considered one of the most important documents in the history of English art.

In May 1557, the family travelled to Geneva, where Hilliard became proficient in French, a language that was to prove useful almost twenty years later when he was employed as painter to the Parisian court of François, Duke of Anjou. When Queen Mary died in November 1558, Hilliard and the Bodley family returned to England, along with many other exiled Protestants.

A month or so after his son’s return, Hilliard’s father travelled to London as a representative of the Goldsmiths’ guild and, while there, met Robert Brandon, one of the new Queen’s royal goldsmiths. Hilliard Senior was able to secure a prestigious appointment for his son, as an apprentice to Brandon, beginning in November 1562, when Nicholas was 15. The master paid a fee to the Goldsmiths Company at the ‘binding’ of the apprentice, who was then fed, housed and clothed by his employer, as well as being taught English and Latin, during his indenture. In Europe, the period of ‘binding’ could be between ten and fourteen years, but in London it was usually seven.

Hilliard moved with Brandon and his family into premises in Cheapside, London. The area became known as ‘Goldsmiths Row’ because of the number of jewellers on its south side. As early as 1500, the Venetian ambassador, Andrea Trevisano, mentioned fifty-two goldsmiths’ shops in a single street. Cheapside was one of the most prestigious areas in the city and at the centre of Elizabethan trade. After remaining in Brandon’s service for almost seven years, Hilliard qualified and gained his ‘freedom’ from the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths on 29 July 1569, at Goldsmiths Hall, London.

Between 1566 and 1568, there are records of sixty émigré goldsmiths applying to work in London, bringing with them superior skills in jewellery making. Hilliard’s training with Brandon appears to have been focussed on plate, but he also worked alongside émigré craftsmen and, after finishing his indenture, he and his brother John were making and selling gold rings. It is likely that he came across miniature paintings during his training because the pictures were often enclosed in gold settings, but it is a complete mystery how, by 1571, Hilliard had managed to become such a talented painter of miniature portraits – indeed, so talented that he could enjoy patronage at the highest level, including the Queen herself.

Hilliard claims to have taught himself to limn by copying the works of Dürer but, given the exceptional quality of Hilliard’s work, many art historians doubt that he had no formal training. Instead, it has been suggested that he learned the art from the female limner at the Tudor court, Levina Teerlinc, but there is no firm evidence that they ever met. A further suggestion is John Bettes the Elder (who had been instructed by Holbein) or Lucas de Heere from Ghent (who taught John de Critz, future Serjeant Painter to James I). Interestingly, de Heere is known to have owned a collection of drawings by Dürer, a rare possession in Elizabethan London. Fourteen miniatures by Hilliard are known to have been produced between 1571 and 1576 and even amongst these earliest examples, it is clear that he is unusually accomplished.

On 22 July 1571, a now lost miniature of Queen Elizabeth was sent to the French court. No other contemporary Englishman was capable of producing this portrait, described as being of very high quality. It was most likely painted by the young Hilliard, who only two years before had finished his apprenticeship as a goldsmith.

In The Arte of Limning, Hilliard looks back to 1571 when he was 24 and when first I came in her Highnes presence to draw’. Their meeting took place, most likely at the Queen’s request, in ‘the open ally of a goodly garden’, where she found the light more flattering to her complexion. In summer, the court would usually leave on progress to travel the country, but the year of 1571 was spent around London. From July, Elizabeth was at Hampton Court Palace – her Privy Council is known to have met there on 10 July – and this is where the now lost portrait was probably painted.

Hilliard’s earliest surviving miniature of the Queen dates to 1572 and is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London. Intentionally or not, he painted it on a playing card with a queen on the reverse. The introduction to his royal patron had come through Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and the link was Robert Brandon, Hilliard’s former master, who had acted as a money lender and a banker for the Earl. Through this fortunate connection, Hilliard found the greatest possible patron in Elizabethan England, for Dudley was both the Queen’s favourite and a serious art collector.

During the early years, Elizabeth and Dudley were the only sitters that Hilliard painted twice and in 1575 he painted miniatures of them measuring 18 x 15mm – smaller than usual and slightly oval, indicating the influence of Clouet at the French court. They are not a true pair because the couple face in the same direction, but the implied message is clear. Robert Dudley had ambitions to marry Elizabeth and this is the only known example of a courtier – albeit a privileged one – commissioning a portrait of himself to be displayed beside one of the Queen.

In July 1576, Hilliard married Robert Brandon’s daughter Alice at the Church of St Vedast in London. Soon afterwards he accepted employment at the court of Catherine de’ Medici’s youngest son, François, Duke of Anjou, where Hilliard was described as ‘Nicolas Leyliar, Peintre Anglois’. He was awarded the position of ‘Valet de Garderobe’ to the duke, on a salary of 600 livres, and travelled to France in the train of Elizabeth’s ambassador, Sir Amias Paulet, a West Countryman like himself and a firm Protestant.

Marriage negotiations between Queen Elizabeth and Anjou prompted her to request his portrait from Hilliard. However, aware of her father’s experience of marrying Anne of Cleves on the strength of a portrait by Holbein, she always claimed that she would never marry anyone without first seeing him in the flesh. And, in this instance, there was an additional precaution.

Anjou had contracted smallpox in childhood, which led to dramatic tales about his supposed deformities. A portrait of him had been sent to Elizabeth in 1572, by his mother, but it revealed no sign of disfigurement. The French ambassador asked for the Queen’s opinion of the painting and – hinting at the problem – Dudley queried that perhaps the portrait did not look exactly like the duke? When pushed further, the Earl related that Elizabeth was hoping ‘the accident with his face’ would fade in time. The Queen was much more tactful and replied simply that the portrait had made her want to know more about her suitor’s appearance and his disposition.

Hilliard spent much of his two years in Paris working as a goldsmith, aligned with the French goldsmiths’ company, the Orfèvrerie. His miniature self-portrait of 1577, the only certain image of the artist and today in the collection of the V&A, shows an exceptionally well dressed and attractive man, brimming with confidence. Before leaving the French capital, in 1578, he painted the 18-year-old Francis Bacon. Both young men had arrived in Paris with Sir Amias Paulet two years previously, with Bacon acting as the ambassador’s administrator.

Clearly, Hilliard had not made his fortune in France because he appears to have been short of funds in July 1579, when he borrowed £70 from Robert Brandon, using his parents’ house in Exeter as collateral. Rather worryingly, should the loan not be repaid within a year, the family home was to be forfeited. Happily, Nicholas Hilliard paid just in time and their home was spared.

He then established a studio in Gutter Lane, London, and employed Isaac Oliver, most likely as a casual student rather than an indentured apprentice. The agreement was probably informal, meaning that Hilliard would not have to pay Oliver’s board and lodging, nor the fees to the Goldsmiths Company. It is also unlikely the arrangement was for seven years. In engaging and training Oliver, Hilliard was no doubt unaware that he was helping to create his greatest rival.

Commissions were plentiful and Hilliard was painting ‘in great’ and ‘in little’, producing seals, designs for prints, decorative work and medals, but despite all this output, he never seems to have earned enough to satisfy his needs. He retained the patronage of Anjou and produced several portraits of Elizabeth and the Duke, but in 1584 Anjou died. Worse was to come when Dudley secretly married Lettice, Dowager Countess of Essex. Hilliard realised that his best patron might no longer be in favour with the Queen (although the estrangement turned out to be temporary) and he began casting around for new support. He had received no payments from the parsimonious Elizabeth for around two years and petitioned Dudley for help in the matter. The exact amount owed to Hilliard by the Crown is difficult to discern, but a subsequent plea to the Chancellor of the Exchequer resulted in Hilliard receiving the lease on Yelvertoft, a village in the Daventry district of Northamptonshire, which was valued at more than £23 a year.

During the 1580s, Hilliard’s portraits of Elizabeth become noticeably less personal. Her last suitor had died, her greatest love was now married and Elizabeth withdrew from the royal marriage market. But demand for her portraits as diplomatic gifts, and for the walls of loyal subjects, grew, particularly in response to threats from Catholic Spain. Showing the Queen’s portrait demonstrated patriotism and Protestant credentials. Hilliard also had commissions from fashionable patrons wishing to enhance their position at court by seeking him to paint them ‘in little’.

In the mid-1580s, Hilliard was charging £3 for a miniature painting – a large sum to the average Elizabethan, when most people earned less than that a year. The Queen was often in his debt, but this seems unlikely to have been the primary reason for Hilliard’s financial worries. He and Alice had a large family of children to feed and he enjoyed an extravagant lifestyle that included opulent clothes, enabling him to present himself as the equal of high-ranking courtiers such as Dudley. In 1585, he borrowed £50 from an orphan fund administered by his father-in-law, Robert Brandon.

When Robert Dudley died in 1588, following a brief illness, it was the end of an era for Hilliard. In addition, Isaac Oliver now began to emerge as a talented competitor. His first work was a miniature of 1587 signed ‘I O’ in imitation of the goldsmith’s mark employed by Hilliard. This was followed in 1588 by several more accomplished works. Oval in form, with gold inscriptions informing the viewer of the year and age of the sitter, they clearly borrow from his teacher. Two years later, Oliver produced a self-portrait depicting a confident young man, hand on hip, gazing unflinchingly at the viewer. Hilliard’s principal competitor had come of age.

In what must have been an enormous blow for Hilliard, the Queen chose Oliver to produce a new pattern of her face to be copied for miniatures. But the older artist’s relief, on seeing the result, must have been palpable. With blunt and misguided realism, Oliver had painted the Queen with a wrinkled forehead, an auburn wig, sunken eyes and a long hooked nose. Oliver’s pattern was almost certainly sketched from life in 1590/92. Produced in watercolour on vellum, it is now part of the V&A collection.

It was so unflattering that Elizabeth immediately returned to Hilliard who, in response to her horrified reaction, now created his comforting ‘mask of youth’. Soft and flattering, it cast the Queen as an ageless beauty. This mask of youth also had its equivalent in poetry and literature, transforming the Virgin Queen into an icon, very much apart from ordinary women.

In 1596, the Privy Council decreed that no new portraits of Elizabeth were to be produced without the approval of her Serjeant Painter, George Gower. A native Englishman, Gower was a gentleman by birth whose work was very fashionable at the time. The task of censorship, set for him by the Queen, was not solely due to her vanity. It was believed that images of an ageing monarch, without an heir, would hint at instability and so henceforth those that did not conform were destroyed.


Nicholas Hilliard, c. 1595–1600, watercolour on vellum laid on plain card, Royal Collection Trust

Here Elizabeth is ‘Astraea’, described by the Roman poet Virgil as a goddess whose qualities included eternal youth, virginity, justice, purity and innocence. In the sixteenth century, this allusion to the classics would have been much more readily understood than today. There are sixteen miniatures of this type by Hilliard, reinforcing the image of Elizabeth as the Virgin Queen.


Nicholas Hilliard was portraitist to the Queen for thirty-two years. Most of the works left to us are miniatures, known as portraits ‘in little’.

It is painted in watercolour on vellum measuring just 5.4 x 4.5cm. In this small area, Hilliard has practically filled the frame with a magnificent lace collar produced by dripping a thick white pigment onto the vellum. The thickness of the dribbled paint (rather like the icing on a cake) means the ruff stands higher than the rest of the painting and, when viewed in directional light, it cleverly casts a shadow that imitates real lace.

The illusion of gold jewellery is created by applying an ochre-coloured ground that is then overlaid with finely ground gold powder, named ‘shell gold’ after the mussel or oyster shells in which it was mixed with gum or glue. For the numerous pearls, white pigment is overlaid with silver, creating a realistic sheen.

In these stylised portraits of the Queen, it is the magnificence of Elizabeth’s dress and jewellery that become the primary focus. Their splendour is intended to represent the divine glory and majesty of monarchy, representing it as a body apart from the physical being of an ageing queen.

Hilliard was portraitist to the Queen for thirty-two years. She first sat for him in 1571 and he was still creating images of her until her death in 1603. Most of the works left to us are portraits ‘in little’, but Hilliard also painted her in oils ‘in great’.


Nicholas Hilliard, c. 1573/75, oil on panel, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, and (The Phoenix Portrait) 1573/75, oil on panel, National Portrait Gallery, London (on display at Tate Britain since 1965)

The titles given to these paintings refer to the jewelled pendants at Elizabeth’s breast, a phoenix in one and a pelican in the other. The phoenix is a mythological bird that never dies. It was believed to live for 500 years before being consumed by fire and then reborn. According to mythology, only one phoenix can live at any one time and so, for Elizabeth, this portrait represented the hereditary monarchy, her individuality, uniqueness and longevity. It was regarded as a symbol of the Resurrection and eternal life, offering the Elizabethan viewer reassurance that the Tudor dynasty would be regenerated. In reality, of course, there were no political plans in place for her successor.

The Pelican Portrait references the ancient belief that in times of hardship, a pelican would peck its chest and feed the blood to its hungry young. The pelican symbolises the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and implies that Elizabeth cares for the Church of England in the same fashion as Christ nurtured his Church. She is depicted as the loving mother of her people and protector of the English nation. A crowned rose to the top left of the picture represents the Tudor dynasty and, to the right, the fleur de lys confirms England’s long-standing claim to the throne of France.

The sleeves of Elizabeth’s dress are decorated with Tudor roses, produced by a method known as blackwork: embroidery in black thread on a white background creating lace-like patterns. Few examples survive today because the iron oxide used in dyeing the thread was particularly corrosive and rotted the fabric, and so paintings such as this are valuable evidence of the skill of Tudor needlewomen.


The Phoenix Portrait suggests Elizabeth’s individuality, uniqueness and longevity, for, according to mythology, only one phoenix can live at any one time.


The Pelican Portrait references the ancient belief that the bird would feed its own blood to its hungry young, so it symbolises Elizabeth’s selfless love.

The blue background in the Pelican panel is an underlayer, the original colour being a deep reddish purple, better complementing the red and white colours of Elizabeth’s gown and headdress. The deep background has not been restored because opinion today leans towards conservation and not restoration – in other words, to acknowledge the painting’s age and to aim to preserve what is left. In this case, that means preserving the original sixteenth-century underpainting of the background in preference to repainting it the deep purple colour most likely seen by the Elizabethan viewer. Conservation also aims to be reversable, recognising that techniques change and improve with time, so that in the future, conservation applied today can be undone and updated using more advanced techniques.

Attribution of these two portraits of Elizabeth I to Nicholas Hilliard is based on similarities with other Hilliard paintings, particularly a miniature of 1572, which seems to have been copied from the same face pattern of the Queen, produced when she was in her early forties.

Likely evidence of Hilliard’s hand in the Phoenix and Pelican panels includes his typical linear painting technique, the distinctive brushwork, particularly in the painting of the hair, and the extremely fine and confident brushstrokes deployed in the depiction of the jewellery, for which Hilliard was justly renowned.

However, the ruffs and cuffs in each of the portraits have been completed using an obviously different technique. In the Pelican Portrait, we can see how delicately clear and crisp they are, painted as fastidiously as Hilliard would have painted them in a miniature. In the Phoenix Portrait, the brushwork is softer, with less detail, and less ‘Hilliard’.

Although he refers in his treatise, The Arte of Limning, to the technique of painting in oil, there is little firm evidence that Hilliard did so himself. These panels are the work of more than one hand, and so the possibility should be acknowledged that they were produced to Hilliard’s design and likely laid out by him, but completed in his studio by an artist more accomplished in oils.

Scientific examination has confirmed that both pictures came from the same studio and were painted in the same year, on Eastern Baltic oak panels that originated from the same two trees. Prior to painting, some of the wooden panels employed in both the Pelican and the Phoenix painting may even have been cut from a single piece of wood. X-rays have revealed woodworm in the boards and dendrochronology estimates that the boards came from trees felled between 1561 and 1593. As mentioned earlier, Eastern Baltic boards came from areas close to today’s Poland and were imported into London because of their high quality.

Both paintings contain a green pigment identified as green verditer, an artificial and inexpensive copper carbonate manufactured in the sixteenth century by pouring copper nitrate onto calcium carbonate. It can be seen most clearly in the stem of the rose in the Phoenix Portrait and in the jewelled fan in the Pelican, further indicating that the two panels originated in a common workshop.

As mentioned earlier, Elizabeth’s face in both panels is a larger, reversed version of a pattern used in Hilliard’s miniature of 1572, and the line of the hands also appears to have been traced from the same design. They reveal a slight amendment to the fingers carried out at a later stage and, on close viewing, the alterations are today once again faintly visible due to the thinning of the paint.

The Phoenix Portrait has visible under-drawing. Infra-red examination has highlighted drawing lines around the face and nose and, surprisingly, revealed two sets of eyes where the face was moved higher, possibly implying that the Phoenix panel was the first to be painted. These changes took place early in the painting process and are referred to as pentimenti, an Italian word meaning ‘regrets’. The appearance of the second set of eyes is once again due to the thinning of the paint and it is a subject of discussion as to how visible the pentimenti should remain. On the one hand, these ghostly Elizabethan images are an intriguing and original component of the picture, while on the other, they can detract from appreciation of the portrait.

The Phoenix Portrait appears to have begun its life on the walls of the Deanery in Westminster Abbey, where Gabriel Goodman was Dean for more than forty years. In 1590 Goodman founded Christ’s Hospital, Ruthin, in Denbighshire, with alms-houses for twelve people. It was in one of these alms-houses in 1839 that the picture was first recorded. In 1865, it was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery from Colnaghi – one of London’s oldest and most celebrated galleries – and it has been on loan to Tate Britain since 1965.

The Pelican Portrait hung in the home of Sir Henry Knyvett in Charlton, Wiltshire. He was knighted by the Queen in 1574, the date this picture was probably begun. Knyvett was known for his quarrels and Elizabeth’s Privy Council had ordered him to cease an argument with his neighbour, Richard Moody, over the ownership of land. However, their differences continued until 1580 when it was decided to settle matters with a duel. Knyvett was gravely wounded and was forced to remain in the nearby house of Anthony Hungerford for almost a month. Elizabeth’s concern for him is clear because the mistress of the house complained that ‘the physicians and surgeons sent by the Queen had the whole house’. The portrait was passed down in the same family until 1930, when it was sold by Margaret Howard, Countess of Suffolk, via the auction house Spink & Son, to Alderman E. Peter Jones. In 1945, Jones donated it to the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.

If we accept the attribution of these two panels to Hilliard’s studio, evidence from the Pelican and the Phoenix portraits reveals that the artist was working ‘in large’ in oil by 1573 and for a period around 1575 he was the primary portrait painter to Elizabeth, both ‘in little’ and ‘in large’.


By the 1580s, Hilliard was creating a different sort of miniature from those of the previous decade. The young gallants of the day did not want to be portrayed like their fathers; he depicted them enigmatically, with a focus on male beauty and sensitivity. There is an element of poetic sensuality in the sitters, who are mostly unknown. The largest collection of this work is today in the V&A, London, and includes Young Man Among Rosesc.1585–95. The lovelorn youth portrayed here, with his hand clasped to his heart, may possibly be Elizabeth’s last favourite, the Earl of Essex.

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London houses an enigmatic image, dating to 1588/90. A young man in black reaches upwards to clasp a hand extending down through the clouds from heaven. It is not obvious if the hand is male or female, but inscribed in gold beside the sitter’s head are the words Attici amoris ergo (‘only through the love of Atticus’ – or perhaps simply ‘because of love’). Though the name may refer to Herodes Atticus, the second-century philosopher and Roman senator who claimed lineage from several mythical Greek kings, the exact meaning of the inscription is now obscure.

The Elizabethans were intrigued by signs and symbols; they could be employed as a pun on a name or perhaps to reference a recent event or family heraldry. The impressa was a device taken from Italian art and refers to a motto or a symbol of a private nature that could generally only be read by close friends. It was ideally suited to miniature paintings, which were by nature small and intimate. In Young Man Among Roses, the sitter wears black and white, colours associated with Elizabeth, and the roses are symbolic of her dynasty, signs that he wishes to declare his love for the Queen.

From around 1588, Hilliard used the innovative new concept of a free-standing picture showing the sitter full-length, which could also be displayed in a cabinet. A portrait of Lady Rich, for example, painted in 1589, is part of the Royal Collection at Windsor. It measures 57 x 46mm. The full-length court portrait has been reduced from life-size to the size and shape of a miniature, and this represents an important development in the history of miniature painting.

Hilliard’s fortunes saw a downturn by 1589, when he once again owed money to the orphans’ fund – this time £200. On another occasion, he would almost certainly have been sent to debtors’ prison over an arrears of £20 had he not been rescued by a member of the Cecil family. In 1591, Robert Brandon, Hilliard’s father-in-law and former master, died, as did John Bodley, with whom he had travelled the continent in his youth. Brandon left a £50 annuity to his daughter, but nothing to Hilliard. Three years later, Hilliard Senior died, leaving Nicholas the house in Exeter.

By July 1601, Hilliard was living, rent-free, with friends in the country, reduced to teaching drawing and the art of limning, for which his position of ‘Queen’s Limner’ made him an attractive proposition. He also wrote his book The Arte of Limning, perhaps as a technical manual for his students.

By the end of Elizabeth’s reign, Hilliard had retained his reputation as court painter. He provided the Queen with a comforting continuity of her image and he had responded to the next generation of courtiers who demanded something different in portrait miniatures. In 1600, he was commissioned by the Wardens of the Goldsmiths Company to paint ‘a faire picture in greate of her Majestie’, to hang in Goldsmiths Hall. It is not known if the work was ever completed, but part of the reason for its commissioning was typical of Hilliard: he owed the Company money, and the painting was to be taken partly in lieu of the debt. When Elizabeth died in 1603, he attended her funeral at Westminster Abbey and was awarded four yards of black cloth for his livery.

In his final years, he continued to produce his trademark oval miniatures, painting pretty women as well as men, and he began to experiment with light and shade – probably to keep abreast of younger rivals. Importantly, he continued to paint images of Elizabeth, whose popularity increased a few years after her death. It wasn’t long before a disaffection with the new regime caused the English to look back with nostalgia to the days of ‘Good Queen Bess’.

Hilliard was employed by the new monarch, King James I (who paid well and on time), but he continued to struggle financially. The death of his chief patron, Secretary of State Robert Cecil, was a huge financial loss and he never managed to achieve the same relationship with Jacobean courtiers as he had done in the previous reign.

With his bills mounting again, the ageing Hilliard was forced to give up the lease on his Gutter Lane premises. He pawned a miniature portrait of the King to repay a debt of £2 and it soon became clear that he no longer had powerful patrons to provide lucrative work. In 1617, Hilliard was sued in the Court of Common Pleas for the recovery of £40 (a considerable sum). His plea that the debt had never existed was thrown out of court and the septuagenarian artist was imprisoned in Ludgate, though released the following January. In August 1618, Frances Bacon, Lord Chancellor, whose portrait Hilliard had painted in Paris when the sitter was 18, came to his aid with a gift of £11 to ‘old Hilliard’.

But his health was failing and, in January 1619, Hilliard was laid to rest at St Martin-in-the-Fields parish church, at the age of 72. His wife, Alice, and his greatest competitor, Isaac Oliver, had both died before him. He left legacies in his will to those close to him, including £10 to his servant Elizabeth Deacon, ‘my attendant in this my sickness’. The money he left to Elizabeth was to be raised by the sale of his ‘bedding and best househould stuffe’.

Perhaps unsurprisingly – and in typical Hilliard fashion – there were no funds to pay the legacies to those mentioned in his will and one of England’s greatest painters lies today in an unmarked grave in central London. A sad end to the goldsmith who, through his remarkable ability, became the first great English portraitist. His exquisite images of Elizabeth I and her courtiers came to define the Elizabethan elite throughout sixteenth-century Europe and for posterity.

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