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  Nicholas Hilliard (1547?–1619), self-portrait, 1577 Nicholas Hilliard (1547?–1619), self-portrait, 1577
Hilliard, Nicholas (1547?–1619), miniature painter, was the eldest of the four sons and four daughters of Richard Hilliard (d. 1594), leading citizen and goldsmith of Exeter in Devon, and his wife, Laurence, daughter of Richard's former master, John Wall. Nicholas was probably born in 1547, the year of the death of Henry VIII and the accession of his son, Edward VI.

Early years

Richard Hilliard and the ‘princely merchant’ John Bodley were zealous supporters of the Reformed religion and in 1549 became involved in the siege of Exeter by west-country Roman Catholics—then in the majority—who were violently opposed to the young king's protestant prayer book. At Edward's death in 1553, and the accession of his Roman Catholic half-sister, Mary I, many English protestants fled to the continent to escape persecution. Among them was John Bodley, who went first to Wesel and Frankfurt in Germany and then to Switzerland. At some point Bodley summoned his entire household to join him, and on 7 June 1557 they were admitted to the English congregation in the Calvinist stronghold of Geneva, of which John Knox was a minister. In the party was Nicholas Hilliard, then aged about ten, a little younger than Bodley's son Thomas (later founder of the great Bodleian Library at Oxford). Richard Hilliard no doubt allowed his eldest son to go abroad for his own safety, perhaps paying for the privilege. This gave the boy an unexpectedly early chance to learn French and to get his first look at the works of continental artists.

Large numbers of goldsmiths were arriving in Geneva at this time, most of them Huguenot refugees from Paris and Rouen. Among a group admitted on 15 October 1557 was Pierre Olivyer from Rouen, presumed to be the father of Isaac Oliver, future pupil and then rival of Nicholas Hilliard. Elizabeth I acceded to the English throne at the death of her half-sister, Mary, on 17 November 1558, and this, together with the church settlement of 1559, allowed the protestant exiles to return home. John Bodley received permission to leave Geneva on 5 September 1559; he settled in London and young Hilliard probably remained in the household. He was now able to study the miniatures of Hans Holbein the younger, who had fallen victim to an outbreak of plague in London at the end of 1543. Later he was to express profound admiration for the German master: ‘the most excellent [easel] painter and limner … after the life that ever was’ (Hilliard, Arte of Limning, 69).

Apprenticeship, 1562–1569

Nicholas Hilliard and his younger brother John were both apprenticed to, and lodged with, leading goldsmiths in Cheapside, the most famous street in the city of London. (The third and fourth brothers, who remained in Devon, were Jeremy, who died in 1631/2, an Exeter goldsmith with their father, and Ezekiel, a clergyman). Goldsmiths' Hall was, and the present one still is, on the north side of Westcheap, near St Paul's and in the parish of St Vedast, Foster Lane, and Goldsmiths' Row was the particular glory of the south side. John Stow, in his Survey of London (1598), describes the row, built in 1491, as ‘the most beautiful frame of fayre houses and shoppes … within the Walles of London, or else where in England’—ten houses and fourteen shops within the frame, all four storeys high (1.345). Hilliard's master, Robert Brandon, a wealthy man who had become a freeman of the Goldsmiths' Company by redemption (purchase) in 1548, had his establishment at the sign of the Gilt Lion, and from 1583 until his death in 1591 he was chamberlain of London—in effect chief executive. John Hilliard's master, Edward Gylbert, at the sign of The Ship, was an alderman in the early 1560s.

Robert Brandon had married his first wife, Katherine Barber, on 13 June 1548 at the church of St Mary Woolnoth in Lombard Street, so it was she who kept a motherly eye on young Hilliard when he joined the household on 13 November 1562. Of the couple's seven children who survived to adulthood the third, Alice, was baptized at St Peter Westcheap (adjoining St Vedast to the east) on 11 May 1556. At the age of twenty she became Hilliard's wife and, subsequently, the mother of his children. Brandon played an important part in Hilliard's career: he was a leading goldsmith and jeweller to Queen Elizabeth, and taught those arts—so closely allied to limning—to his apprentice.

Most of the artists in London at the time were foreigners, as Hilliard notes in his treatise: ‘generally they are the best, and most in number’ (Hilliard, Arte of Limning, 69). Henry VIII had secured the services of members of two of the leading Ghent–Bruges families, the Horneboltes and the Bennincks, to enhance the lustre of the Tudor dynasty. Gerard Hornebolte of Ghent, court painter to Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands, and renowned for his miniatures in illuminated manuscripts, travelled to London with his family about 1525. He probably returned to the continent later, but his son Lucas and daughter Susanna stayed on, and Lucas appears in the royal household accounts as king's painter, and was granted a property in the parish of St Margaret's, Westminster, where he would have had his home and studio. He is said to have taught Holbein the techniques of limning, and he died very shortly after him, in the spring of 1544. Susanna, also a painter, died while Hilliard was still a boy but he would have seen work by her when he eventually reached London. Simon Benninck, born in Ghent but buried in Bruges, was regarded as the best illuminator in Europe. His eldest daughter, Levina, who certainly became a miniaturist, married George Teerlinc of Blankenbergh, and was appointed ‘paintrix’ to the Tudor court, with an annuity of £40, in 1546. Although a rather shadowy figure, of modest talent, she remained in office until her death thirty years later. She and/or others may have given Hilliard some advice, and he probably had her partly in mind when he wrote in the treatise of ‘an excellent white … made of quicksilver which draweth a very fine line; this white the women painters use’ (ibid., 91). It was a subject of particular interest to him; exquisite renderings of the Elizabethan ruff are a feature of many of his limnings.

No doubt Robert Brandon often took his apprentice to help when he was working at court, and presumably he presented Hilliard to the queen when his skill in limning became apparent. Hilliard himself does not disclose who may have given him instruction in any art: inscriptions in gold are a feature of some of his finest miniatures, and he would presumably have sought some instruction from a master calligrapher. Hilliard states, more than once, his conviction that in painting or drawing from the life the most important part is ‘the truth of the line’ (Hilliard, Arte of Limning, 85), and that in limning the face should usually be done without shadowing. If shadowing really is required it must be done ‘with the point of the pencil [tip of the brush] by little light touches’ (ibid., 101). He strongly advises the aspiring limner to begin by repeatedly copying the hatching (shadowing) in Dürer's small engraved pieces with the pen until the print is so accurately copied that ‘one shall not know the one from the other’; then, when the tip of the brush can be used in the same way, he may begin to limn. ‘This is the true order and principal secret in limning’ (ibid.).

Most of the artists mentioned in the treatise were, like Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), the sons of master goldsmiths and were better known at the time of writing as engravers rather than painters. Hilliard considers Dürer the most perfect engraver on copper ‘since the world began’, although his rules for painting and engraving are for the most part hard to remember and tedious to follow (Hilliard, Arte of Limning, 69). There were plenty of works of all kinds by the ‘strangers’ in London for Hilliard to study, and Graham Reynolds takes the view that in limning Hilliard was largely self-taught.

The treatise

This exists, so far as is known, only as the first part of a manuscript now in Edinburgh University Library. It is dated ‘the 18 of March 1624 Londres’ (Hilliard, Arte of Limning, 115) and is in the hand of an unknown copyist. It was not published in full, as a book on its own, until 1981, and the editors, R. K. R. Thornton and T. G. S. Cain, gave it the short title The Arte of Limning. A long title preceding the text at Edinburgh is in the hand not of Hilliard but of the eighteenth-century antiquary George Vertue, who owned the manuscript for a time. They do not consider the copyist to have been very intelligent or careful (ibid., 33–4) and provide an exact transcript with a facing text (quoted in this article) with modernized spelling and several emendations. In 1598 Dr Richard Haydocke of New College, Oxford, had published a translation of Paolo Lomazzo's treatise on the arts (Milan, 1584), of which the first part is on easel painting. He then, by his own account, persuaded Hilliard—so famous at home and abroad—to write something similar on limning. The result is thought to date to about 1600 and sets out the author's beliefs, experiences, and accumulated knowledge at the end of the greatest period of his career. It seems to be an early draft, which perhaps partly accounts for its freshness and spontaneity. It is one of the most important documents in the history of English art and, unusually, includes insights into the mind and character of the author.

Hilliard emphatically declares that limning is the highest form of art, and the perfection of it ‘to imitate the face of mankind’ (Hilliard, Arte of Limning, 75). It is most properly practised by gentlemen and ‘for the service of noble persons very meet’, since it requires the presence of the sitter for most of the time: the limner must be a gentleman ‘of good parts and ingenuity’, able to provide ‘seemly attendance’ (ibid., 65). Hilliard has sometimes been derided for making unjustified claims to gentility but this charge is not borne out by the evidence. He spent his whole professional life at the higher levels of society; he is nearly always referred to in contemporary records as Master Hilliard; and it is an undoubted gentleman who appears in the celebrated self-portrait miniature of 1577 (V&A), dressed in black with an elegant ruff and a black bonnet—embellished with ornaments no doubt fashioned by himself—set on the curly hair inherited from his father. In a declaration signed by his son , provided in 1634 in response to an official inquiry into arms and pedigrees, the head of the family (and grandfather of Nicholas) is entered as John Hylliard, a gentleman of Cornwall the south-western tip of England adjoining Devon.

Hilliard writes as a perfectionist in love with his art: it breeds delight, removes melancholy, avoids ‘evil occasions’ and cures rage (Hilliard, Arte of Limning, 67). Near the start there is an outburst against ‘botchers’ and ‘bunglers’ who increase so fast that good artists tend to abandon their best skill, ‘for all men carry one price’ (ibid., 63). His indignation erupts again later on, sandwiched between The Sapphire and The Emerald, in a long passage about colours and precious stones (ibid., 107). The best practitioners—of whatever art—are usually poorer than the bunglers, because their work takes them longer. They prefer to demonstrate their art in a single piece, while the others turn out six or seven, pleasing most people, since time is of the essence and a lower price all-important. This time the main target is the bungling jeweller, who often spoils a precious stone, while the expert improves on nature in the cutting, polishing, and setting, thereby doubling its value.

The treatise sets out strict rules for the conduct of the limner: moderation in eating and sleeping, and no ‘violent exercise in sports’, although a little dancing or a game of bowls is permissible; everything must be scrupulously clean, with no dust, smoke, noise, or stench (Hilliard, Arte of Limning, 73, 75). This must have been difficult when Hilliard was working at home in one of the small alleys off Westcheap. The aspect of the workplace should be ‘northward, somewhat toward the east, commonly without sun shining in’. ‘Discreet talk or reading, quiet mirth or music, offend not’—they ‘quicken the spirit’ in limner and sitter. In an apparent tribute to his father Hilliard says that a wise man finds out the natural inclinations of his children early and sets them on the right course. But natural ability is not enough and he urges the limner to be ‘diligent, yea ever diligent … to excel all others’ (ibid., 65).

The limner must use only the finest vellum (parchment), ‘from young things found in the dam's belly’ (Hilliard, Arte of Limning, 97), ‘dressed as smooth as any satin’ (ibid., 99), and stuck onto card. Hilliard was extremely innovative technically and, with the specialized knowledge of a jeweller, he writes much of the importance of ‘giving the true lustre to pearl and precious stone’ and ‘working gold and silver with themselves’ (ibid., 63). He ground leaves of the metals to powder, mixed them with a little gum water, and burnished them with ‘a pretty little tooth of some ferret or stoat or other wild little beast’ (ibid., 99). Of the sitters he writes with delight of ‘those lovely graces, witty smilings, and those stolen glances which suddenly like lightning pass’ (ibid., 77); and with disgust of know-all sitters and studio visitors who try to instruct the limner. He has no space to recount all the ‘ridiculous, absurd speeches’ he has had to endure. His advice to the limner is to keep his temper, proceed with his work, and ‘pity their ignorance’ (ibid., 97, 99).

Instant renown, 1570–1576

Nicholas Hilliard completed his apprenticeship, and became a freeman of the Goldsmiths' Company, on 29 July 1569. He entered the new decade a complete and versatile artist, at the age of about twenty-two—goldsmith, limner, jeweller, calligrapher, and designer for engravings. (The editors of The Arte of Limning use a woodcut border dating to the 1570s, with an NH monogram centre top and probably designed by Hilliard, for the title-page of their book; the border was used for several different titles in the sixteenth century.) Queen Elizabeth had been alarmed in the early years of her reign by the poor quality of royal representations, and she was no doubt much relieved that an artist of distinction was now free to serve her. She was just as much aware of the importance of ‘the image’ as any public figure in our own times.

Hilliard's first known adult miniature is dated 1571, when his sitter was A Man Aged 35 (priv. coll.); the next, dated 1572, is of A Man Aged 24 (V&A) and shows the full excellence of Hilliard's developed style. Sadly both have to be described as ‘Unknown’. All researchers would echo the words of John Aubrey (1626–1697), author of Brief Lives, who once lamented, ‘'Tis pity that in noblemen's galleries [and elsewhere] the names are not writ on or behind the pictures’.

Hilliard took a number of apprentices, both English and foreign, during his career; the first was John Cobbold, who was transferred to him in 1570 by the widow of Cobbold's former master on payment by Hilliard of 40s. for her goodwill, with the promise of a further 20s. in a year's time. In 1571 a foreign goldsmith called Gualter Reynolds (born in Brunswick and attending the Dutch church), who had come to England to increase his knowledge of his art, was probably being supervised by Hilliard, on his company's orders, to ensure that Reynolds did not try to usurp any privileges enjoyed by native-born goldsmiths. On 13 March 1573 William Smythe was apprenticed to Hilliard; on the following 20 July, William Franke (probably a German), who had begun an apprenticeship with Edward Gylbert, former master of Hilliard's brother John, was transferred to Hilliard and entered his household, replacing Cobbold, who had been freed the month before. John Pickering was apprenticed to Hilliard on 21 March 1575.

Years later, in a letter dated 28 July 1601 to his loyal patron Sir Robert Cecil (then the queen's chief secretary), Hilliard recalled that the original intention in taking apprentices had been ‘to provide for the Queen's better service’ (Hilliard, MS letter, Hatfield House, CP 87/25). The apprentices—it is possible to find clues to about nine in all—had ‘pleased the common sorte exceding well’ (by ‘common’ he means people of good but not noble birth: ‘commoners’, as we would say); but he too had been forced to do ‘common woorkes for other persons’ in addition to his royal duties, since they were ‘more proffitable’ (ibid., 69). In the treatise he pointedly refers to Henry VIII's ‘royal bounty’ to his artists, implicitly criticizing the parsimony of his daughter (Hilliard, Arte of Limning, 69). In other countries, he maintains, artists are by ‘pension or reward of princes … competently maintained’, but not in England, ‘the more is the pity’ (ibid., 109). In defence of Queen Elizabeth, she had acceded to the throne of a country encumbered by debts, inflation, and a debased currency, and was determined to practise extreme thrift and caution in the manner of her grandfather Henry VII. But although in private she was a woman of frugal habits, no expense was spared on her public appearances, which were designed for the greater glory of her realm.

The first of Hilliard's many limnings of the queen (NPG) is dated 1572. He had met members of the Knollys family during the period of English protestant exile in Geneva, and it is likely that Sir Francis, the queen's first cousin by marriage, who had become treasurer of the royal household on 13 July 1572, actually commissioned the artist. During the first sitting, by his account, Elizabeth asked about shadowing, and Hilliard replied that while ‘great pictures’, displayed high up or far off, required ‘hard shadows’, these were not necessary for small ones, which had to be ‘viewed … in hand near unto the eye’ (ibid., 85, 87). Shakespeare mentions the art of limning several times; both Hamlet and the treatise are supposed to have been written about 1600, and in the former the prince, confronting his mother in her bedchamber, invites her to:
Look here upon this picture, and on this,
The counterfeit presentment of two brothers.
(Hamlet, III. iv)
Hilliard, in his advice to the queen, advocated ‘open light’ for a limning and he reports that it was she who ‘chose … to sit in the open alley of a goodly garden, where no tree was near’ (Hilliard, Arte of Limning, 87). The artist, in his mid-twenties, was about 6 feet (his recommended distance for a portrait miniature) from the queen, in her late thirties, and they may well have sat in the privy garden of the palace of Whitehall. Hilliard concludes that it would take ‘some better clerk’ to speak or write about later conversations with the queen, which probably were spread over the years.

At some time in the 1570s Hilliard became involved in a typical Elizabethan ‘adventure’—one of his frequent over-optimistic attempts to make some money. This one was to promote goldmining in Scotland. A Dutch fellow artist and lapidary, Cornelius Devosse, persuaded Hilliard to take part in the scheme, no doubt believing that his powerful connections would be helpful. Another friend, Arthur Van Brounckhorst, acting as their agent, would ‘set sundry workmen to work’ at Crawford Moor in Lanarkshire, as Stephen Atkinson, in The Discoverie and Historie of the Gold Mynes in Scotland (written 1619; ed. G. L. Meason, 1825), recorded. Not surprisingly, ‘Mr Hilliard and Cornelius Devosse lost all their charges, and never since got any recompense’ (Atkinson, 35).

Hilliard notes that artists are ‘generally given to travel, and to confer with wise men’ (Hilliard, Arte of Limning, 109). By 1576 he must have decided that he would do well to follow suit. In that year he painted a limning of the queen's favourite Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, then aged forty-four (NPG). On 25 June he may have ridden out to the then fashionable village of Stepney for the funeral of Levina Teerlinc—if indeed she had helped him during his youth. Three weeks later, on 15 July, he married Alice Brandon at the church of St Vedast, Foster Lane, and in the following month they sailed for France.

In France, 1576–1578

The newly appointed English ambassador to France was Sir Amyas Paulet, a prominent puritan and a faithful servant to the queen who, like so many Elizabethan Englishmen, incurred much personal expense in the performance of public duties. He landed at Calais on 25 September 1576, en route for Paris. By December, sending his latest expense account to the exchequer in London, he complained that his train had been greatly enlarged by ‘divers gentlemen’ recommended by the queen, including ‘Mr Helyer’ (Edmond, 61). Elizabeth had presumably instructed her limner to provide likenesses (which he did) of François, duc d'Alençon, the subject of her last and longest matrimonial ploy (examples in the Musée de Condé, Chantilly; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; and BM). Alençon was the third son of Catherine de' Medici and brother of Henri III of France, and for a time both women had wanted an alliance. In 1577 the words ‘Nicolas Béliart, peintre anglois’ appear in Alençon's household accounts.

Hilliard's fluent French, acquired during his time in Geneva as a boy, allowed him to fit easily into French society, and there is considerable evidence of his friendship with leading artists and others. One of his greatest admirers was Blaise de Vigenère, philosopher and man of letters, who negotiated with him to provide wood-engravings of the duc and duchesse de Nevers. Hilliard seems to have stayed with the goldsmith and medallist Germain Pilon and to have met Jacques Gaultier the painter and Léonard Gaultier the engraver, and the poet Ronsard.

Queen Elizabeth became restive at the continuing absence of her gifted limner, and on 19 February 1578 Ambassador Paulet wrote to Sir Francis Walsingham to give an assurance that ‘Helyar’ had no intention of leaving her service. He had gone to France simply ‘to increase his knowledge … and upon hope [apparently unfulfilled] to get a piece of money of the lords and ladies here for his better maintenance in England at his return’ (Edmond, 65). He intended to return ‘very shortly’, bringing his wife with him; he was understandably anxious to do so since Alice was in the later stages of her first pregnancy. But on 16 June the ambassador wrote from Paris to tell the earl of Hertford that Hilliard had been ill. He now hoped to finish a promised jewel ‘within three weeks’ and would then send or deliver it. It had been supposed that Richard Hilliard went over to France to collect his daughter-in-law in 1577, since that is the date on his son's miniature of him (V&A), but recent rigorous re-examination, using the most advanced techniques, suggests that the last figure had flaked away and been repainted at some stage, so perhaps the date should read 1578, for Alice's baby was baptized (Daniel) at St Vedast, Foster Lane, on 16 May of that year.

In London, on 22 August, Hilliard's apprentice William Franke sought to be admitted to the Goldsmiths' Company, but his master was still ‘beyond the seas’, and he was told to wait for six weeks, while Master Warden Robert Brandon wrote to his son-in-law. A master was required to present his young man to the company's court in person, and in fact Franke had to wait more than six weeks. He finally became a freeman on 3 November 1578.

Back home: supremacy

Shortly after Hilliard's return from France the family settled into a tenement at the sign of The Maidenhead, owned by the Goldsmiths' Company and close to their hall. The exact date of the move is not known. The Maidenhead was on the west side of Gutter Lane and just within the parish of St Vedast, Foster Lane, where the rest of the Hilliard children were baptized: Elizabeth (1579), Francis (1580), Laurence (1582), Lettice (1583), Penelope (1586), and Robert (1588). The queen herself may have been godmother to Elizabeth; it was not unknown for a Tudor monarch to oblige when a baby was born to a member of the household or, like Hilliard, a close servant. The godfather of Francis was probably Sir Francis Knollys; Laurence took his name from his paternal grandmother; the names of the last three powerfully suggest godparents from the circle of the queen's principal favourite, Lord Leicester, and his successor, the second earl of Essex. Lettice was the name of the eldest daughter of Knollys, wife of the first earl of Essex and mother of their eldest daughter, Penelope (b. 1562?), and a brother, Robert (b. 1566). Leicester had become stepfather to the pair by secretly marrying Lettice in 1578, and he did much to promote the advancement at court of the young earl. No likeness is known to survive of the formidable Penelope, but in 1581 she was married off to Robert, third Baron Rich, and about eight years later the poet Henry Constable wrote a sonnet addressed to ‘Mr Hilliard, upon occasion of a picture he made of the Ladie Rich’. This includes a reference to Hilliard's universally admired method of portraying jewels. Before him:
no man knew aright,
To give to stones and pearls true dye and light.
(The Poems and Sonnets of Henry Constable, ed. J. Gray, 1897, cited in Edmond, 94)
The original employment of limners had been to provide small, private portraits for ‘noble persons’, as Hilliard explains—for themselves and their peers (Hilliard, Arte of Limning, 65)—but inevitably, as time went on, the range of sitters widened to include men of achievement, such as Hilliard's fellow Devonians Ralegh (NPG) and Drake, and indeed anyone who could pay. In addition to the men Hilliard limned a number of beautiful but often sadly ‘Unknown’ ladies. He was convinced that ‘rare beauties are … more commonly found in this isle of England than elsewhere’ (ibid., 73).

In the 1580s and earlier part of the 1590s Hilliard continued to paint many of his finest miniatures. A draft warrant dated 1584 states his monopoly right to paint limnings of the queen but it has sometimes been misinterpreted to mean a diminution of his duties in relation to those of the then serjeant-painter, George Gower. In fact the serjeant-painter's court office was in the realm of painters and decorators rather than of art: the holder of the office headed a department responsible for the maintenance and embellishment of the royal palaces and other residences. The activities of successive serjeant-painters are more often than not to be found in the works accounts (Exchequer E 351 series, TNA: PRO).

In 1584 Hilliard's responsibilities increased: he secured the important, but costly and time-consuming, commission to design the second great seal of the realm, the first being more or less worn out. This probably caused some resentment among engravers. The actual engraving, or most of it, seems to have been done by Derick Anthony, of an immigrant family originally from Germany, and the seal came into use in 1586. On 8 November of that year Hilliard delivered a letter from Sir Francis Walsingham to the chancellor of the exchequer, saying that the queen ‘was pleased to bestow’ on her limner ‘a lease in reversion’ of £40 a year for his work on the seal and ‘divers other services’, for which he had received no recompense or allowance (Blakiston, 103). This was but one of a number of dubious royal promises, several involving small properties, leases, and tithes, which did not benefit Hilliard in any way; they were a device for avoiding spending real money. ‘In reversion’ usually meant ‘after someone else’—in practice, ‘never’. The main benefit of the office of royal limner was undoubtedly the prestige it conferred—the value of being ‘spoken of’, as Hilliard once said (Hilliard, Arte of Limning, 109).

A rival emerges: late 1580s

From the 1580s, for a short period from about 1587 to 1595, Hilliard began to produce a few limnings, larger than his customary small oval ones, known as cabinet miniatures, all full-lengths of men, and all but one rectangular. (The word miniature did not necessarily mean something very small; like limning and illumination it derived from the Latin minium, the red lead used by medieval illuminators to embellish their manuscripts.) It is surely more than mere chance that Hilliard's decision to do something different coincided with the emergence of his former pupil as a serious rival. Oliver's first known miniature, dated 1587, is of a young, middle-class woman (priv. coll.), three-quarter length—perhaps an experiment—but it is immediately followed, in 1588, by assured and accomplished limnings of a youth of nineteen (priv. coll.) and a bearded man of seventy-one, both unidentified, and of a fifty-nine-year-old Dutchman (Dutch royal collection, The Hague). Their sober, naturalistic style is in complete contrast to Hilliard's enigmatic man raising his right hand to clasp one emerging from a cloud—also dated 1588 (V&A)—but reverting to the small oval shape. The significance of the Latin inscription ‘Attici amoris ergo’ defeats all scholars.

Of Hilliard's larger miniatures the Young Man among Roses (V&A), perhaps the first of the new-look group, is without doubt the most famous of all his works, and probably of all English miniatures of any period. It is a unique elongated oval and a supreme example of the miniature as a kind of emblem, device, or impresa. The classic definition of the impresa, ‘as the Italians call it’, is by the historian and herald William Camden: (‘a device in picture with his motto … borne by noble and learned personages, to notify some particular conceit [conception, notion] of their own’ W. Camden, Remaines of a Greater Worke Concerning Britain, 1605, 158). The motto should be in ‘some different language’. Hilliard's theme is fidelity—but to whom? The roses with their sharp thorns perhaps symbolize pleasure and pain, fidelity enduring through good times and bad. The inscription, ‘Dat poenas laudata fides’, is taken from a passage by Lucan—known in translation at the time—saying that fidelity, though praised, can carry penalties when given to people in trouble. Even at the time the significance of this privately commissioned and obviously costly work would have been known only to a small number of people; the meaning of the motto, required by Camden to be ‘neither too obscure, nor too plain’, is now—four centuries and more later—surely irretrievable. It was David Piper who suggested that the young man might be the earl of Essex (Edmond, 202, n. 16) and this has been strongly argued by Roy Strong in The English Renaissance Miniature (1983) and elsewhere. According to Strong, Hilliard must have visited Fontainebleau during his time in France; in his view the Young Man among Roses is much influenced by Italian works there.

The subjects of Hilliard's other cabinet miniatures are all well known and include George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland (NMM), Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex (priv. coll.), and Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). There are links with the accession day tilts, popular public shows held on 17 November, the date on which Elizabeth became queen.

End of the Elizabethan age

Hilliard's duties as royal limner continued. He must have known the famous face better than anyone but, as the years passed, he had the delicate task of combining something of a likeness with the need to promote the legend of the Virgin Queen. No sittings would have been required and the royal tirewomen would have produced the necessary robes and adornments. The queen's jeweller, Robert Brandon, died on 30 May 1591 and was buried at St Vedast, Foster Lane, on 8 June. His long will lists his surviving son, Edward; Alice Hilliard's four married sisters and their husbands, and a young unmarried half-sister by Brandon's second wife; also seventeen grandchildren, not including the Hilliards. Alice's sisters had all ‘married well’, as Brandon would have seen it. For Alice there was a £50 annuity, to be paid quarterly by way of the Goldsmiths' Company, towards her maintenance. Of Hilliard there is no mention. In 1579 Brandon had lent him the large sum of £70, to be repaid one year later. He wrote in the treatise of artists being ‘commonly no misers, but liberal above their little degree’; of sometimes not being in the mood (‘in humour’) to concentrate on the main work in hand; and of sometimes giving away a rare work ‘for very affection’ (Hilliard, Arte of Limning, 109). He attacked the ‘common slander’ that such men are ‘ever unthrifts’, which may hint at resentment over criticisms by an exasperated father-in-law (ibid.).

Hilliard's father, Richard, had made his will on 2 November 1586 but he did not die until the summer of 1594. He bequeathed to Nicholas property in Exeter, and his best gown and gold ring with a cornelian stone in it. In the manner of the day he lists the sons first (John was unnamed, which perhaps confirms that he had died), and then the four daughters—two married and two unmarried. Dates and order of births are unknown. Francis, son of Nicholas Hilliard, is named; his brother, Robert, had not been born when the will was made. Bequests fulfilled, the remainder of the estate went to Richard's widow and executrix, Laurence, who proved the will on 9 August.

Troubles accumulated for Hilliard towards the end of Elizabeth's reign, and his miniatures of this period lack some of his earlier assurance. One deserves mention for literary rather than artistic reasons, that of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (FM Cam.)—Shakespeare's patron—who came of age in 1594, the date of the miniature, which had presumably been specially commissioned. If the earl was indeed the ‘lovely boy’ of the sonnets, as is widely supposed, sonnet 16 would be highly significant. The poet writes of the sitter's ‘painted counterfeit’ (presumably that of 1594) and in line 10 he refers to ‘this times pencil [limner's brush] and my pupil pen’. ‘This time's pencil’ can surely mean no other than the famous portrayer of the age.

In 1591 Hilliard had been commissioned to design a third great seal; work went on for years in fruitless attempts to satisfy the queen, and in the end the second seal remained in use until her death. This time Hilliard's colleague was Charles Anthony, probably a son of Derick, and it seems that his appointment may again have caused some resentment. On 2 June 1599 Anthony delivered to Sir Robert Cecil a letter in which Hilliard denied that he was competing for Anthony's office, graver of the mint. He had indeed spoken about it at one stage to a member of the household but had learned that Anthony had a written promise from Cecil's late father, Lord Burghley. This incident serves as a reminder of how much lobbying court servants had to do on their own behalf. Hilliard went on to claim that he had missed many commissions because of the work on the projected seal, and he reported that—predictably—he had received only one instalment of the £40 annuity ‘in reversion’ promised by the queen in 1591. He was now ‘brought into great extremes’.

Probably it was thanks to Cecil that an unconditional warrant followed, on 17 August, granting a £40 annuity to her majesty's ‘goldsmith and our limner’ and making Hilliard a member of the household (warrant, letters patent, TNA: PRO). The sum represented no advance on the one granted to the royal ‘paintrix’ Levina Teerlinc more than half a century earlier. Three years later Hilliard was forced to mortgage the annuity and hand over the patent to meet debts, although the patent was restored in 1611. His father-in-law may well have feared something of the sort when he omitted Hilliard from his will; he was trying to block money intended for his daughter from being diverted to her husband's creditors. On 28 July 1601 Hilliard wrote to Cecil, seeking the queen's permission—which was of course refused—to go abroad again for a year or two. He was sure he could earn enough to pay off his debts ‘very easeilye’.

The Goldsmiths' Company were having difficulty during these years in extracting Hilliard's annual rent of £3 for The Maidenhead, and were refusing to renew his lease. Their minutes show that on 19 March 1599 he offered £20 for the lease plus ‘a picture’ (presumably a miniature, subject unspecified) worth 20 nobles (£6 13s. 4d.); the queen intervened on her servant's behalf by way of the privy council; on 4 July 1600 the company insisted on £30 for the lease, and the ‘picture’ had become ‘a faire picture in greate’ of the queen. A minute dated 28 November 1600 notes that Hilliard had promised to pay the money on receipt of the lease; as for the picture the winter was a ‘verie unseasonable tyme to worke’ (Goldsmiths' Company records). He would do it in the summer. There the matter seems to rest; the company probably stopped pressing for the picture at the queen's death. In any case the entries do not constitute hard evidence that Hilliard ever painted easel pictures, although it is sometimes argued that they do. Various portraits of Elizabeth, in particular the ‘Phoenix’ (NPG) and the ‘Pelican’ (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), are now often attributed to him on stylistic grounds. The queen died on 24 March 1603, and Hilliard attended the funeral in Westminster Abbey on 28 April, having received the customary allowance of 4 yards of black cloth for his livery. The lord chamberlain's book names the hundreds of people who had been serving the last of the Tudors at the end of Elizabeth's reign; Hilliard is listed as ‘picturedrawer’ (LC 2/4 (4), TNA: PRO).

Last years

Hilliard continued as limner to James I, with the £40 annuity. For the first time in fifty-six years England had a married monarch, and James's queen, Anne of Denmark, soon had her own household. Unlike her husband the queen was genuinely interested in art—as their sons, the princes Henry and Charles, would be—and in 1605 she appointed Isaac Oliver as her limner, again at £40 a year. Hilliard was kept busy for almost the whole of his remaining years, turning out presentation miniatures and gold medals of King James and members of the royal family. The lugubrious Scottish face clearly did not interest him, and he sometimes seems to devote more attention to the clothes and accessories than to the man. Occasionally Hilliard painted a more attractive and characteristic work if the sitter was to his liking. On 7 June 1605 he presented his son Laurence to the Goldsmiths' court to become a freeman of the company, and a week later his last apprentice, Richard Osbaldeston. He was assisted in his work by Laurence, by the painter Rowland Lockey, who had served an eight-year apprenticeship with him from 1581, and perhaps by others. Lockey died in 1616.

Robert Cecil was created earl of Salisbury in 1605. In an undated letter to him, endorsed ‘1606’ by a secretary, Hilliard reports that—true to form—he had sought to ‘trim’ the late queen's tomb but had been told by the serjeant-painter that that was his responsibility. If he had known, Hilliard writes, he would not have been so bold for he had once had ‘envy inoughe about a great seale, for … dooing well in other mens offices’ (Hilliard, MS letter, Hatfield House, 119/8). In his last surviving letter, dated 26 March 1610, he extols goldsmiths' skills in repairing the highways, which the ‘playne Cuntree folke and common laboring men’ cannot manage on their own (Hilliard, MS letter, TNA: PRO, SP 14/53/43).

At some unknown date Hilliard moved from London to Westminster, presumably to be nearer the court; rent and lease books of this period are notoriously misleading, and no conclusions can be drawn from the Goldsmiths' records. The present frame of Alice Hilliard's miniature (1578; V&A) bears the words ‘UXOR PRIMA’, and an Alice Hillyard, who could be the miniaturist's wife, was buried at St Margaret's, Westminster, on 16 May 1611. The loss of a homemaker usually prompted a widower and/or son to seek another quickly, and it may be significant that the bachelor Laurence Hilliard married on 4 December 1611 and settled in the parish of St Bride, Fleet Street. The date of Alice Hilliard's burial, if she is correctly identified, would rule out a Susan Gysard, married to a Nicholas Hilliard in 1608, as the supposed second wife. There were a number of Hilliards (variant spellings) in London and Westminster at the time, and more than one Nicholas.

Hilliard and Francis Bacon—now Baron Verulam and lord chancellor—had known each other since their time in France in the 1570s, and it may be that Bacon heard about Hilliard's last illness; a small account book covering ‘gifts’ and ‘rewards’ in the autumn of 1618 includes a note about £11 for ‘old Mr Hillyard’ (TNA: PRO, SP 14/99, no. 86). Hilliard died shortly afterwards and was buried at his parish church of St Martin-in-the-Fields on 7 January 1619. He bequeathed 20s. (not then a negligible sum) to the poor of the parish, money for his sister Mrs Anne Avery, and bedding and his best household stuff to his servant Elizabeth Deacon. His estate passed to Laurence Hilliard, who laid out 52s.—much more than for any other parishioner at the time—for the funeral. The estate included what must have been a handsome gold creation, which incorporated miniatures—copied from earlier portraits—of Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, and his mother, Jane Seymour. It was called the Bosworth jewel and commemorated the battle of 1485, which resulted in the death of Richard III and the start of the Tudor dynasty, and it was eventually conveyed by Laurence to Charles I. The jewel was presumably broken up and sold during the Commonwealth but the miniatures are now back in the Royal Collection.


Nicholas Hilliard has rarely been out of favour, and his reputation has never been higher than in the twentieth century. A major exhibition, entitled Nicholas Hilliard & Isaac Oliver, was mounted in London in 1947, marking the quatercentenary of Hilliard's supposed birth. A second exhibition, of miniatures from 1520 to 1620, followed in 1983. £3 or £4 was the standard rate for a Hilliard miniature without an elaborate setting in his day. A limning of twenty-one-year-old Jane Coningsby, Mrs Boughton (priv. coll.), which he did in 1574, sold for £75,000 at Sothebys in 1980, then an auction record for any portrait miniature. The development of colour photography and printing, and television, have enhanced Hilliard's renown. He writes in the Treatise of artists in England being mostly immigrants, although he recalls Ronsard saying that when ‘the islands’ do occasionally produce one, it is often ‘in high perfection’ (Hilliard, Arte of Limning, 69). Hilliard, never one for false modesty, continues: ‘I hope there may come out of this our land such a one, this being the greatest and most famous island of Europe’ (ibid.). It is not difficult to deduce whom he has in mind. He is one of the outstanding English artists in any medium. It is a happy accident that he was born in time to portray the leading figures of a notable period of English history.

Mary Edmond


N. Hilliard, MS letter to Cecil, 16 March 1594, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, CP 22/74 · N. Hilliard, MS letter to Cecil, 2 June 1599, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, CP 70/76 · N. Hilliard, MS letter to Cecil, 28 July 1601, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, CP 87/25 · N. Hilliard, MS letter to Cecil, 6 May 1606, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, CP 115/130 · N. Hilliard, MS letter to Cecil, [n.d.], Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, CP 119/8 [endorsed 1606] · N. Hilliard, MS letter to Cecil, 1610, TNA: PRO, state papers, SP 14/53/43, 26 March 1610 · warrant, letters patent, 17 Aug 1599, TNA: PRO, E 403/2453/316 · N. Hilliard, ‘A treatise concerning the arte of limning’, U. Edin. L., MS La 3.174 · N. Hilliard, A treatise concerning the arte of limning, ed. R. K. R. Thornton and T. G. S. Cain (1981) · Goldsmiths' Company MS records and property plans, Goldsmiths' Hall Library, London · Huguenot Society publications (quarto series): aliens' returns and denizations · The visitation of London, anno Domini 1633, 1634, and 1635, made by Sir Henry St George, 1, ed. J. J. Howard and J. L. Chester, Harleian Society, 15 (1880), 386 [Hilliard pedigree supplied by son Laurence, 1634] · Nicholas Hilliard, will, 1619, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/133/2 · Richard Helliard, will, 1594, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/84/58 · Jeremy Hilliard, will, 1632, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/161/2 · Robert Brandon, will, 1591, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/77/43 · W. A. Littledale, ed., The registers of St Vedast, Foster Lane, and of St Michael le Quern, London, 2 vols, Harleian Society, register section, 29–30 (1902–3) · parish register, St Peter Westcheap, GL, Guildhall MS 6502 · St Martin-in-the-Fields churchwardens' accounts, City Westm. AC, F.2, vol. 2 [amount spent on funeral] · G. Reynolds, Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver: an exhibition to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the birth of Nicholas Hilliard (1947) [exhibition catalogue, V&A, 1947] · G. Reynolds, Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver: an exhibition to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the birth of Nicholas Hilliard, 2nd edn (1971) [exhibition catalogue, V&A, 1947] · G. Reynolds, English portrait miniatures (1952); rev. edn (1988), 11, 17 · G. Reynolds, ‘Hilliard, Nicholas’, The dictionary of art, ed. J. Turner, 14 (1996), 545–8 · E. Auerbach, Tudor artists (1954) · E. Auerbach, Nicholas Hilliard (1961) · M. Edmond, Hilliard & Oliver (1983) · J. Murdoch and others, The English miniature (1981) · R. Strong and V. J. Murrell, Artists of the Tudor court: the portrait miniature rediscovered, 1520–1620 (1983) [exhibition catalogue, V&A, 9 July – 6 Nov 1983] · R. Strong, The English Renaissance miniature, rev. edn, 1984 (1983) · J. Murrell, The way howe to lymne: Tudor miniatures observed (1983) · K. Hearn, ed., Dynasties: painting in Tudor and Jacobean England, 1530–1630 (1995) [exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London, 12 Oct 1995 – 7 Jan 1996] · C. Lloyd and V. Remington, Masterpieces in little (1996) [exhibition catalogue, Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace, 23 July – 5 Oct 1997] · N. Blakiston, ‘Queen Elizabeth's third great seal’, Burlington Magazine, 90 (1948), 103; n. 14 · G. Reynolds, The sixteenth- and seventeenth-century miniatures in the collection of her majesty the queen (1999)


N. Hilliard, self-portrait, miniature, 1560, priv. coll. · N. Hilliard, self-portrait, miniature, 1577, V&A [see illus.]