Nicholas Hilliard and Portrait Miniatures

Nicholas Hilliard, the first Limner (Miniaturist) born in England.





 Earliest self portrait of Nicholas Hilliard, miniature dated 1577,   watercolour on vellum, mounted on card. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Source Wikipedia.


Nicholas Hilliard was born in Exeter, Devon, in 1547. ( The same year that Edward VI ascended to the throne).










Young Man among Roses, large miniature by Nicholas Hilliard, 13.7 x 7 cm. c1585-1595, believed to be Robert Deveraux , 2nd Earl of Essex (1566-1601). Collection Victoria & Albert Museum. Source Wikipedia.


He was the son of Richard Hilliard and his wife Laurence Hilliard (nee Wall). Richard was a goldsmith of renown,  who eventually in 1562  was appointed sheriff of Exeter.






Portrait of Richard Hilliard, the artist's father, dated 1577, miniature in  watercolour on vellum, Victoria & Albert Museum. Source The Yorck project (2002). Wikipedia.              


Arranged by his father, the young Nicholas Hilliard moved to Europe in 1553 with a wealthy protestant family from Exeter, "The Bodley Family".  He was only six years old. 







Miniature portrait of an unknown youth, circa 1585-1590, watercolour on vellum  mounted on card, 5x4.1 cm. Victoria & Albert Museum.   Source The Yorck project (2002). Wikipedia .


Richard, also a protestant, was a good friend of John Bodley, they were among many others, afraid of persecution due to the religious problems in England at the time of Mary Tudor reign, 1553-1558.







Large miniature of George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland, c.1590, after his appointment as the Queen's Champion, in tilting attire (which survives) with the Queen's glove as her favour pinned to his hat 25.2 x 17.5 cm. Source The Yorck project (2002) . Wikipedia.


First of all the Bodley family lived in Wesel, North West Germany, moving later on to Frankfurt and in summer 1557 they made another move, this time to Geneva, Switzerland. ( Hilliard most probably learned to speak German and French).








Miniature portrait of a woman, date 1597, watercolour on vellum, 4.7 x 3.9 cm  Metropolitan Museum of Art . Source  Wikipedia.


In 1558 Elizabeth I became Queen and so the Bodley family and Hilliard were safe to return to England, Hilliard was then eleven years old.








Portrait of Elizabeth I of England. Miniature, watercolour on vellum, 6.2 x 4.7 cm, circa 1600. Victoria & Albert Museum . Source  Wikipedia

Hilliard  was first trained together with his younger brother John as a goldsmith by their father Richard, then in 1562 they were apprentices in London  to a very wealthy man  that  was working for the Queen, and eventually became Chamberlain of the City of London, and a Prime  Warden of his Company, his name was  Robert Brandon.







Portrait of Sir Christopher Hatton c.1588 -1591, miniature  in watercolour, measuring 5.7 x 4.5cm, he became Lord Chancellor in 1587 and Knight of the Garter in 1588. Victoria & Albert Museum. The Yorck project (2002) . Wikipedia.


After 7 years of training Hilliard became a Freeman of the Goldsmith Company, he was very skillful at making jewellery under Mr. Brandon's guidance. Hilliard was most probably introduced to the Queen by his future father in law, Mr. Robert Brandon, as in 1576 Hilliard married his beautiful daughter Alice.






Portrait of Hilliard's wife, Alice Brandon,

Miniature c.1578, watercolour on vellum.Collection Victoria and Albert

Museum. Source the Yorck project

(2002) Wikipedia.






Apart from being a goldsmith and jeweller Hilliard become  also a prominent artist ,  at the age of 13 he painted a self portrait, in 1565 at the age of 18 he executed a portrait of Mary Queen of Scots, he very early demonstrated  notable  skills at the Art of Limning . ( 16c-17c  word for miniature  painting).







Portrait of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, , dated between 1578-1579, watercolour on vellum, collection Victoria and Albert Museum. Source Wikipedia.


The first miniature portrait that Hilliard painted of Queen Elizabeth I is dated 1572,  is housed at the National Gallery in London, and it is believe to be the earliest dated portrait of the Queen .






Portrait of Elizabeth I, 1572. Hilliard earliest miniature of  the Queen executed when she was 38 years old. Watercolour on vellum. National Portrait Gallery, London. Source Wikipedia.


 Hilliard was 25 years old when he was officially appointed Royal Limner and Goldsmith to the Queen, he held this position for 30 years until the Queen died. At the age of 30 he had achieved great international reputation as a Limner.








Portrait of Marguerite of Valois, Queen of Navarre, oval miniature, watercolour  on vellum, mounted on card, c.1577.  Berger collection, Denver Art Museum, Colorado. Source Wikipedia.


In 1576 he married 22- year- old Alice Brandon, two months later Nicholas and Alice moved to France, probably commanded  by the Queen, with a commission to paint  a portrait of one of her prospective husbands, "the Duke d' Alencon" brother of king Henry III of France, who was at the time a candidate.








Portrait miniature of the Duke d'Alencon, watercolour on parchment, c.1577. Victoria & Albert Museum. Source The Yorck project (2002) Wikipedia.


The young couple stayed in France for two years, Hilliard had the opportunity to get to know, and to paint some portraits of very interesting and important people at the French Court ,and indeed to study and admire the work of the great miniaturist Jean Clouet, who had recently passed away.







Portrait of Henri III of France, watercolour on vellum, mounted on board,  c. 1576.  Djanogly collection.  https:/philipmould.com/gallery/edit/henry-III- nicholas-hilliard-burlington-Feb2019. Wikipedia.


In 1578 the couple returned to England probably at the Queen's request, they settle in the city in a  house in Gutter Lane, it had only three bedrooms and a shop.  Hilliard's wife was pregnant at the time. Nicholas and Alice had 8 children in a matter of ten years, they all survived but one.








Miniature portrait of Elizabeth I of England with a crescent moon jewel in her hair, circa 1595-1600. Source Wikipedia


 To work for the Queen was a great honour and Hilliard was very famous, but money was little, in reality all his life he experienced economic difficulty, and it   probably didn't help that he was of a very generous nature and impulsive, he was a perfectionist in his highly detailed work , and above all he was avid for fame.







Miniature portrait of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex (1565-1601, he was a Queen's favourite until he was executed for treason. Watercolour on vellum, 1588 .  Source Wikipedia.


In 1617 he was briefly imprisoned in Ludgate prison, as he signed for a debt surety for a friend or relative, he was let down, and unfortunately he was not able to procure the amount of money needed.   








Portrait of a woman, circa 1590, watercolour on vellum laid on card. Collection Metropolitan Museum of Art. AN32.100.311. Source Wikipedia.


Hilliard taught the Art of Limning to his son Laurence, whom in 1613 took over his father's workshop in Gutter Lane. Hilliard also took on apprentices and pupils among them Isaac Oliver who joined his workshop in 1580. Eventually the two of  them  became great rivals.






Portrait of Sir Francis Drake (1549-1596) circular watercolour  miniature, date 1581, Vice Admiral of the Elizabethan era, he was born in Tavistock, grew up in Kent. Source Wikipedia.


In 1590 he took on the demanding project to design the Seal of Her Majesty the Queen, although it was apparently never used, eventually he designed a second Great Seal, which Queen Elizabeth used from 1586 until just before her death in 1603.







Portrait of Elizabeth I of England a recently discovered miniature by Hilliard, 1595-1600. Auctioned by Christie's, London. in June 2007 for £276.000. Source http://wwwartdaly.com. Wikipedia.


Hilliard wrote and published the Treatise regarding The Arte of Limning, this was the first such handbook to be written by an English author, he was not officially trained as a Limner,  he apparently studied the work of some artist   specially  Holbein and  Durer.






Portrait of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (1532-1588), (The Queen's  favourite). Miniature in watercolour on vellum c.1571-1574. Victoria & Albert Museum, London. - Wikipedia.


Following Queen Elizabeth's death, James I succeeded to the throne and he reappointed Nicholas Hilliard as The King's Limner.







Portrait of James I King of England, miniature 5.4 x 4.1cm. Collection Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Source The Yorck Project (2002). Wikipedia.


There is controversy that perhaps Hilliard married twice, some records show that a lady called Susan married a Nicholas Hilliard in 1608, curiously Hilliard's  wife Alice did not died until 1611, and the name of Susan was not mention in Hilliard's will, this could perhaps indicate that she died before him, or indeed it could be just a coincidence of a lady who did married a different man, with the same name. However,  hidden by the frame in the miniature painting of his wife Alice, apparently there is an inscription saying that Alice nee Brandon was Hilliard's first wife.







Miniature portrait of an unknown Lady, circa 1585-1590, watercolour  on  vellum 4.5 x 3.8 cm. Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Source The Yorck project (2002). Wikipedia.


Hilliard died in London on the 3rd of January of 1619 at the age of 72, he was buried on the 7th in his local parish church of Saint Martin's-in-the-Fields, he moved to this area out of the city and near the Court in 1613, to an address unknown .







Portrait of Amelia Bassano Lanier c.1590, she was an English poet. Miniature in watercolour on vellum, mounted on card, 5.1 x4.3  Source The Yorck project  (2002). Wikipedia.


 Hilliard  didn't have a lot, but in his will, made on Christmas Eve 1618, he left 20 shillings to the poor people of his parish church,  £10 to his sister Anne, £10 to his maid servant Elizabeth Deacon, and  the rest of his small state was left to his much loved son Laurence,  he spent 52 shillings on saying goodbye  to his father with an opulent funeral.










Miniature portrait of James I attributed to Laurence Hilliard 1582-1648, English miniature painter and son of Nicholas Hilliard, watercolour on vellum mounted on card. (this miniature was formerly attributed to Nicholas Hilliard). Collection Mauritshuis an 1015. Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis. Wikipedia.


Thanks to Hilliard's insistent request to the king, Laurence become eventually after his father's death a Royal Limner to James I. Three years later, because of a supposed injury to his finger, (caused by a street assault) he resigned from his post at the Majesty Service. Interestingly he continued taking commissions and painting.








Nicholas Hilliard  miniature portrait of Elizabeth I of England on her coronation robes, circa 1600, after a lost original painting of c. 1559. Source http://www.elizabethan-portraits.com. Wikipedia.


Hilliard tiny miniatures meticulously painted are a remembrance of Elizabethan times, and through his wonderful brush work and purity of colour, we can still admirer in our days the sophisticated hair styles, and the exquisite and elaborated costumes of this intriguing and fascinating faraway era.





       1545- 1619















Write a comment

Comments: 3
  • #1

    Joyce Rogerson (Friday, 01 May 2020 14:09)

    Absolutely mesmerising, so much detail in the costumes, the lace and jewellery. The text is so very interesting, and so many of Hilliards miniatures together. Congratulations Rosmar.

  • #2

    Barry (Saturday, 02 May 2020 00:04)

    Interesting stuff and great portraits. Black curls certainly seemed to be the thing in that epoch.

  • #3

    Peter HILL (Thursday, 06 October 2022 08:10)

    Dear Rosmar,
    I very much enjoyed reading your article about these fascinating late 16th century Miniatures by Nicholas HILLIARD.
    I do have a beautiful painting on porcelain, of a Gentleman in a man's costume from that same late 16th century period. I would like to send you an image of this Portrait. However, this Message Box that I am writing to you, does not have an Icon that I can click on and attach the Image to this Message Box.
    So, if you could please write back to me, and I will then be able to send you the Image of this Portrait in my reply.
    In the background of this Portrait there appears the French "Fleur de Lis" --- so it is possible that this could be a Portrait of King Henry III of France.
    I would really love to get your opinion as to just WHO is the man in this Portrait.
    If you cannot assist me in identifying this Gentleman in the Portrait, then could you please refer me to someone else who will be able to assist me
    Till I hear back from you soon.
    Kind Regards,
    --- My Email Address is ---