Nicholas Hilliard was born in Exeter in 1547. His father was a goldsmith and Hilliard trained to be one (goldsmith/painters same guilds). Throughout his career, he was plagued with financial difficulties, partly because Elizabeth I was really bad at paying people. To help with this, Hilliard looked outside the royal circle for patrons, leading to the diversity of his sitters, from merchant to aristocrat. He accompanied Bodley on his return to London in 1559; his relationship with Bodley is indicative of the elite, educated circles Hilliard travelled in.
Hilliard is best known for his small portraits that are defined by their jewel tones, clear lighting, and elegant lines. He was also responsible for many, if not most or all, of the precious settings for his miniatures.
A lot of his exact working methods and thoughts on art more generally come from his treatise, On Limning. The treatise was copied and published shortly after its completion. The earliest hand-written/manuscript copy is held in Edinburgh and dates to March 1624, as recorded by the scribe; the copy includes annotations and guides that we know Hilliard included in his own copy.
It also gives insight into Hilliard’s working method. He describes how it is best to paint on vellum (preferably hairless vellum, likely referencing the hair or flesh side of vellum) and then mount the vellum on something within in the setting. He also claims that “The best to show oneselfe needeth no shadow of place but rather the open light,” highlighting his own style of not obscuring features with shadow, something that was imitated and admired by his contemporaries and patrons for its naturalism.
The importance of jewels and jewel tones to Hilliard is seen throughout the treatise. At one point, he describes the importance of making “rubies or other stones” seem life-like rather than the more common (or so he implies) renderings that make them look artificial:
A word, I pray you, touching the making of those beautiful rubies or other stones, how you so artificially do them, that being never so little they seem precious stones, natural, clear and perspicuous; so that (by your favour) is no part of limning, wherefore require it not. It appertaineth merely to another art; and though I use it in my limning, it is but as a mason or joiner, when he hath done his work, and can also paint or gild his friezes and needful parts thereof.
Shadow of Night utilises two of Hilliard’s miniatures, which ultimately provide evidence of where Diana & Matthew went in the present & help set up the introduction of Phoebe Taylor. The book’s description of the historical miniatures that inspired Matthew & Diana’s portraits could easily be a catalog description:
I cupped the miniature in my hand, tilting it this way and that. Matthew was painted as he looked at home when he was working late at night in his study off the bedroom. His shirt was open at the neck and trimmed with lace, he met the viewer’s gaze with a lift of his right eyebrow in a familiar combination of seriousness and mocking humor. Black hair was swept back from his forehead in its typically disordered fashion, and the long fingers of his left hand held a locket. It was a surprisingly frank and erotic image for the time.
– Shadow of Night, Chapter 19
The miniature within was more respectable, but startling nonetheless in its informality. I was rearing the russet gown trimmed with black velvet. A delicate ruff framed my face without covering the shining pearls at my throat. But it was the arrangement of my hair that signaled that this was an intimate gift appropriate for a new husband. It flowed freely over my shoulders and down my back in a wild riot of red-gold curls.
– Shadow of Night, Chapter 19
The Yale portrait features an inscription that credits the work to Isaac Oliver and identifies the sitter as Elizabeth, “Queen of Bohemia and daughter of James 1st of England.” In the 1940s, the attribution was changed to Hilliard based on comparison to Oliver’s other imagery of Elizabeth.
X-rays of his works as above are also important for our understanding of his working method and confirming his own references to them. We can see the use of white lead and how he built up the pearls’ textures in this image, too. Hilliard would paint a hemisphere using white lead before he crowned it with a touch of silver paint. He then punished the silver to give its his characteristic shine.
Colleen Madden’s renderings of the miniatures in The World of All Souls also capture the spirit of Hilliard’s originals while referencing the book’s adaptation of them to fit into the universe. Madden’s style combines with Hilliard’s compositions first brought the miniatures to visual life, creating the perfect modern adaptation of the works to translate them from image to text back to image.
Selected Bibliography & Further Reading:
Hilliard, Nicholas. A treatise concerning the arte of limning, trans. RKR Thornton & TGS Cain. University of California, 1992.
Hilliard, Nicholas. “Portrait of a Lady,” c. 1600-1615. Yale Center for British Art.
Hilliard, Nicholas. “An Unknown Man,” c. 1600. Victoria & Albert Museum.
Leonhard, Karin. “Painted Gems. The Color Worlds of Portrait Miniature Painting in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Britain” in Early Modern Color Worlds, ed. Tawrin Barker, Sven Dupré, Sachiko Kusukawa, & Karin Leonhard. 2016: Brill, 140-169.
Strong, Roy. “Young Man Among Roses’ by Nicholas Hilliard (1547–1619),” Revised 2006. Victoria & Albert Museum.