A sonnet is the visual equivalent of a portrait miniature.
Hilliard’s lovely portrait of his beloved Alice now in the V&A, London has a puzzling written statement around the edge. The words on the portrait above Alice’s head translate literally as “Year of our Lord 1578/ At the age of 22“. This gives us a date of 1556 as the date of Alice Hillyard’s birth. Their initials are entwined as NA& H either side of her head with gold stars surmounting them.
There is a tiny ear of corn painted just where the black ribbon is tied as a bow, and a small pink rosebud. We know that Alice was pregnant with their first child in 1578 and from 1576 to 1578 the Hilliards were living in Paris. Their son Daniel was born in London in May of 1578, so it is likely that this image was painted as a momento for Nicholas to have after his wife had returned to London so their child would be born in England. Nicholas’s father, Richard Hilliard, was also immortalised by his son in a miniature during this time, so logically we have to assume he too was in Paris. He would have been the perfect person to bring the pregnant Alice back to London. The Hilliards went on to have seven children. Only Laurence followed in his father’s footsteps as a portrait painter.
The elaborate painted surround was added later, perhaps after Alice’s death; we do not know. These words translate as “Alice Brandon. Nicholas Hilyard who Painted by his own hand his first wife.” All those who want to stick to the literal translation can, but words ‘first wife’ seem cold and arrogant and is as if Hilliard is keeping a tally on the number of wives he has had. This would have been the only image Hilliard would have of his wife until he returned to London sometime later in 1578. Is it not more likely that the words Uxor Prima are more a statement that Alice is the “best of wives” in the same way as we refer to a prima ballerina or prima donna as those being the best in their profession?
These portrait miniatures, like Shakespeare’s sonnets, were, after all, often tokens of love. Sonnett XXIV in the previous post seems to be a tribute to the skill of Nicholas Hilliard and his one time pupil, Isaac Oliver.
Alice Hillyard (nee Brandon) Uxor Prima
Sonnet CXVI (first published in 1609) is one of the greatest of the sonnets and one of my favourite pieces of poetry.
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love,
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! It is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
For me it sums up Hilliard’s love for his wife, who was clearly a beautiful woman as seen in this exquisite miniature.