portrait miniature

Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619)

Nicholas Hilliard 1577 (Copyright V&A Museum, London. 41mm dia)

We know little about Nicholas Hilliard.  The bare facts are that he was born in Exeter in about 1547, to Richard and Laurance Hilliard and was their eldest child.  Richard Hilliard was a goldsmith and, together with John Bodley, was a leading light in Exeter society.   In 1555 Nicholas went to Europe with the Bodley family and was with the other English Protestant exiles in Geneva where John Calvin and John Knox were also.  Nicholas was aged eight.  In Geneva he would have mixed with the other English Protestant exiles, including the Knollys family.

In 1559 the Bodley’s returned to England and at this point our knowledge of Nicholas’s whereabouts is hazy.  It is probable he remained in the Bodley household because in 1562 he was apprenticed to Robert Brandon, goldsmith to the Queens Mary & Elizabeth and became a Master of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths in 1569.

At some point Hilliard learned the art of limning, (which is the correct term for painting watercolour images on parchment or vellum) and it is now generally accepted that his teacher was Levina Teerlinc (née Bening).  He would have had to be able to draw and design as this is a requisite talent for a goldsmith and from the sparse evidence we have, it seems he was a gifted draughtsman.

Teerlinc died in June 1576 and Hilliard married Alice, the daughter of Robert Brandon in the July.  Later that year Nicholas and his new wife left for Paris with loose links to the new English ambassador to the French Court, Sir Amyas Paulet.

Hilliard painted his self portrait (above) in 1577, and a portrait of his father, Richard Hilliard in the same year.  It is thought that Alice returned to London in 1578 in the company of her father-in-law and may have well had the self-portrait of her husband in a locket of his making, but if so, this locket has not survived.  Alice had fallen pregnant, which is probably why she returned home before May 1578 when it is recorded she gave birth to a son named Daniel in London.

These two exquisite Hilliard family portraits are well worth having a look at and if you are in London, are held at the Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington.

Richard Hilliard (Copyright of V&A Museum. 41mm dia.)

Alice Hilliard, (née Brandon) (Copyright V&A Museum. Ht 59mm x 57.5 wide)

We know that at some point in 1578 Nicholas left Paris, but it is not known by which routed he returned to London.  This is the period of the French Wars of Religion and this may have had a bearing on why the Hilliards returned to England in 1578.  It may be that his presence was required by his royal mistress, the queen.

Hilliard painted Mary Queen of Scots several times and this portrait of the Scottish queen is in the Royal Collection. From his draft treatise he says how a portrait miniature has to be painted from life, but it is unlikely that he would have had access to Mary for each successive portrait.  It is far more likely that he did make sketches in order to replicate her features if required.  What is debatable is the date he first paints the Scottish queen.  Was he sent to The Earl of Shrewsbury’s Sheffield Castle prior to his leaving for France, or is it possible that he painted this portrait on his return in 1578? The ruff might look odd and clearly Hilliard has attempted to portray it from a foreshortened angle.  Painting from life would not allow correction.

Mary Queen of Scots: courtesy of the Royal Collection

By 1581 Hilliard and family are settled in The Maydenhead, 30 Gutter Lane, London which he had leased from the Goldsmith’s Company and Rowland Lockey (1565-1616) joined the workshop as an apprentice goldsmith, but is better known as a painter. At some point Lockey must have had access to Holbein’s sketch of The Family of Thomas More because he recreates a painted version in 1592 (National Trust, Nostell Priory, W Yorkshire, England) .  He also painted a post-morten portrait of Lady Margaret Beaufort that now hangs in St John’s College, Cambridge and presented to the college in 1598.   He does not pay his dues to the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths until 1600, so we have to assume he remained within the Hilliard workshop until then, using his master’s privileged position to gain access to Holbein’s sketch and images of Lady Margaret Beaufort.

Another apprentice, but this time only as a limner and miniature portrait painter, was Isaac Oliver (c1565-1617). The Oliver’s moved to London from Rouen in 1568 and it is thought that they came to England to escape persecution during the French Wars of Religion.  When Oliver joined the workshop is unknown and learning to be a limner may not have taken as long as learning to be a goldsmith.

Learning the preparation of certain pigments for an apprentice limner would have been just as hazardous as learning both the art of gilding metal and the use of acids necessary in goldsmithing.  The preparation of certain greens using malachite would result in a blue green colour and if the preparation was not done correctly, this could become a corrosive pigment eating into the painted surface.  Vermillion could be created from naturally occurring cinnabar, but was also manufactured by heating sulphur and mercury in the right proportions.  This process gives off extremely poisonous fumes and is highly dangerous.

Hilliard’s draft treatise on painting is dated 1598 and much of it contains the same information as the  Book on Limning (by Anon) that was published in 1573.  However, on page 70 of Thornton & Cain’s transcription of his draft, Hilliard makes a curious reference to a white pigment made from quicksilver [mercury[ “as the women artists use”.  Thornton & Cain have suggested in a footnote that this is an oblique reference to Levina Teerlinc.

I am not a scientist so I approached those who are working on analysing the various pigments used in medieval and early modern illuminated manuscripts held in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, to see if they have come across any white pigments made from mercury. The manuscripts they are analysing (don’t panic – it is all by non-invasive methods) are much earlier than Hilliard’s work and I am told that so far, no such white pigment has been discovered.   If any of the Hilliard miniatures are ever examined by their non-invasive methods and reveal a white pigment created from mercury it will prove the link between Hilliard and women artists, and while it cannot be proved for certain, it would suggest his comment is referring to Levina Teerlinc.  No doubt the preparation of such a pigment involved heat and therefore was not only costly, but extremely dangerous, but as a master goldsmith he would be well aware of the dangers of using mercury.  He also refers to the ill fumes of goldsmithing in his text.  For those interested in the research being undertaken at Cambridge into these earlier manuscripts, the various papers given at the conference revealing the results of non-invasive pigment analysis held last December are due to be published in two volumes in December this year and January 2018.  Until then I shall have to refer to my notes made during the various presentations.

Is it a coincidence that 1598 is the same date of the re-establishment of the library in Oxford that his childhood companion, Thomas Bodley, undertakes and now bears his name.  One of the Bodleian treasures is a Hilliard miniature portrait of Sir Thomas also dated 1598, which is in its original turned ivory box (lid not shown).

Sir Thomas Bodley (1545-1613) painted 1598: Nicholas Hilliard, Bodleian Library, Oxford. 

Perhaps Bodley requested his childhood companion, and now famous artist and master goldsmith, Nicholas Hilliard, write a book about his methods so it could be included in the new library?  Hilliard’s talent lay not in words, but in creating portraits therefore unfortunately his treatise never got further from being a draft.

Elizabeth I died on 24th March 1603, and Hilliard continued in royal service under James I of England (VI of Scotland).  His apprentice, Isaac Oliver, was the preferred limner and if you know their work, it is possible to see how their works have often been confused.  This is Hilliard’s portrait miniature of the king, but whether it is in the original locket is unlikely. I would have thought that such a portrait may originally have been housed in a much more ornate locket of Hilliard’s design.

James I of England 1610 (Copyright V&A London. Ht 71 mm  x 41 mm inc case) 

Despite his talent, the opportunities and support from those in high office, Nicholas Hilliard died in in poverty in late January 1619, aged 72.


My grateful thanks to Dr Ricciardi and Margaret Condon, for their generosity in responding to my emails regarding Hilliard’s white pigment made from mercury and especially the advice and guidance on dangerous pigments and how to use them.

My novel, The Truth of the Line,  exploring the relationship between Hilliard and Elizabeth I is available now. Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

Selected Bibliography & Further Reading

Prime Sources

Anon; The Art of Limming; London 1573. Reprinted 1588.

Hilliard, Nicholas; A Treatise Concerning the Art of Limning; together with A More Compendious Discourse Concerning Ye Art of Liming by Edward Norgate; eds. R. K. R. Thornton & T. G. S. Cain; Mid Northumberland Arts Group, Northumberland in association with Carcanet New Press, Manchester; 1981.

Various Records 1562-1619 held by the Guild of Goldsmiths, Goldsmith’s Hall, London.

Email correspondence with Dr P Ricciardi, Cambridge University, UK. this link will take you to results of research being undertaken at Cambridge into the pigments used in certain illuminated manuscripts held by the Fitzwilliam Museum. http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/illuminated/

Email correspondence with the printmaker Margaret Condon, who has been working on the Cabot project, Bristol University. This is the link if you are interested.  http://www.bristol.ac.uk/history/research/cabot/

Secondary Sources

Auerbach, Erna; Nicholas Hilliard; Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd; Broadway House, 68-74 Carter Lane,  London, EC4; 1964.

Auerbach, Erna; Tudor Artists; University of London; The Athlone Press, Senate House, London, W.C.1; 1954

Edmond, Mary; Hilliard & Oliver:  The Lives & Works of Two Great Miniaturists; Robert Hale, London; 1983

Edmond, Mary; Hilliard & Oliver:  The Lives & Works of Two Great Miniaturists; Robert Hale, London; 1983

Murrell, Jim; The Way Howe to Lymne; Tudor Miniatures Observed; Victoria & Albert Museum; London; 1983

Strong, Roy: The English Icon: Elizabeth & Jacobean Portraiture; The Paul Mellon Foundation for British Art; 38 Bury Street London SW1 in association with Routledge & Kegan Ltd, Broadway House Carter Lane, EC4 1969

Strong, Roy; The English Renaissance Miniature: Victoria & Albert Museum; London; 1983 & revised edition 1984

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