Artists of Northern Europe, Illuminated manuscripts, Illumination of legal documents, portrait miniature, Portraiture, Renaissance, Royal Portraits, Symbols and emblems, Tudor portraiture

The origins of the Tudor portrait miniature

For those not familiar with the genre of the portrait miniature, let us first consider why and when these portraits became popular in England, and the various artists creating these images for the Tudor court.

The half millennium saw a marked change from the religious themes of the medieval period to secular subjects inspired by the humanist teachings of classical texts.  This change included the new idea of portraying people in stand-alone portraits.   Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528) was the first artistic genius to use his own image both to record how he looked at significant times in his life, and to promote his talents as an artist. When Dürer painted his third self-portrait early in 1500, anyone seeing it would have understood that the artist was not committing the sin of hubris, which we might well think today, but that he was paying tribute to the Divine for the gift of his (Dürer’s) supreme talent. 

Albrecht Durer (1471 – 1528) Self portrait. 1500 Munich.

If you are interested in this artist, his link will take you to my 2018 article on Dürer.

As the century progressed, the portrait became popular not only with the aristocracy, but all those who were keen to be remembered for posterity and could afford to pay the price.  The cost of a large (table) portrait depended on how much of the person was revealed.  That is to say, was it just to be of the sitter’s head and shoulders, or was the artist asked to incorporate arms, legs, torso or even full length as in the portrait of Henry VIII that Holbein painted on the wall of the king’s private apartments in Whitehall.  Today we know this portrait only from the original cartoon that survived the fire of 1698.

Henry VIII cartoon. Hans Holbein the Younger (1497 – 1543). NPG Ref 4027, London.

A much smaller copy of the whole mural made by Remgius van Leemput (d1675) prior to the fire (RCIN405750) now hangs in the Great Watching Chamber of Hampton Court.    The finished portraits of the Tudors were more often than not, painted on wood panel and in northern Europe the wood of choice was Baltic oak due to the straightness of grain and durability.  When van Leemput was painting in the 17th century, canvas had become the preferred surface of choice.

Having your portrait painted ‘in large’ was a public statement that you had reached a certain level in society.  If you commissioned a leading artist of the day, such as Hans Holbein the Younger (c1497 – 1543), this added to the allure for those privileged enough to be invited into the room in which the painting hung.  The original school of Holbein full length portrait of Henry VIII painted c1537 the now hangs in the Walker Gallery, Liverpool and is based on the Whitehall cartoon,  The reason why it is attributed to the school of Holbein is because this is a copy of the lost original. It has been described by David Starkey as the first portrait of a fat man.  Clearly painted after Henry had dined unwisely and far too well too often for far too long, Holbein was faced with the daunting task of portraying the portly king as a majestic figure.  

Holbein’s answer to this conundrum? Put the king in his best clothes, with all the trappings of wealth and status, get him to stand with his legs apart and hands of hips and looking straight at us.  Brilliant!  We, as humble bystanders, are awed by the power and majesty exuding from this image.  When it came to a smaller, but more intense portrayal of the king, Holbein gives us a close-up view of the king’s facial features.

Henry VIII 1537. Hans Holbein the Younger, (1497 – 1543). Thyssen Bornemisz Museum, Spain.

This much smaller half-length portrait now hangs in the Thyssen Bornemisza in Spain.  Here is yet the king clad another splendid set of clothes, with blackwork embroidery, gold tissue and sumptuous firs, but the slight lift of the king’s eyebrow over those piggy eyes, and the set of the tight lips gives the king a disdainful expression.  The Walker Gallery portrait measures 239 cm x 134.5 cms unframed (94 x 53.3 inches), while the portrait in Spain is a mere 28 x 20 cms (11 x 7.8 inches).  The former is life size, while the latter can almost be classed as a miniature.  While not quite small enough to hold in your hand, it was definitely not intended to show the king’s image to a very large audience.

Miniature portraits were less expensive than portraits that hung on walls.  While the larger portraits were usually hidden behind a curtain that was drawn back when someone was invited to view it. The function of a miniature portrait was the polar opposite to that of the table portrait. It was small enough to hold in your hand and painted in watercolour on vellum  To ensure the tiny work of art laid flat it was mounted on to a playing card or sometimes just plain card.  To protect it, it might have been wrapped in tissue, or if funds allowed, in a purpose made locket.  Looking at both of the last two paintings (above) of Henry VIII we see he wears a locket around his neck.  Since these two portraits were executed in around 1537/38 we can only speculate whether or not this held an image of Queen Jane.  If so, did Holbein paint this miniature portrait of Henry’s dead queen? If so, then it has been lost.  

Dr Strong suggests the portrait miniature did not reach England until Louise de Savoie, then Regent of France, apparently sent Henry VIII a locket with the portraits of her two grandsons with a plea to use his influence with Emperor Charles V to release the two boys who were being held as hostages.  Her son, Francis I, had been taken prisoner by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, at the battle of Pavia in February 1525.  Francis signed the Treaty of Madrid in January 1526 and was released in March of the same year.   However, there is visual evidence that portrait miniatures of the English king were being used in the decoration of illuminated manuscripts and as stand-alone portraits long before the battle of Pavia and the capture of King Francis by the Holy Roman Emperor. 

An illuminated patent dated 28th April, 1524, contains a miniature portrait of Henry VIII granting various properties in the Parish of St Michael, Cornhill, London to Thomas Forster (d1528), embroiderer by Henry VIII.

Illuminated H on patent granted to Thomas Forster (d1528), 1524. Ref. V&A collection, London.

 The portrait roundel measure 49mm x 47mm, which is just under two inches. This link will take you to the V&A page for this manuscript. 

The National Portrait Gallery holds a miniature portrait (ref NPG 6453 Princes Mary aged nine ) painted on the occasion of her engagement to her cousin, Charles V.

Princess Mary, aged nine. Horenbout workshop, c1524/5 (Julian calendar). NPG, London.

This is the earliest portrayal of Princess Mary and she has clearly inherited the Tudor red hair. The portrait measures 35mm (13/8 inches). If Mary were nine when this portrait was created, this means the miniature, as well as the illuminated patent, were both painted a full year prior to the battle of Pavia.  Clearly the portrait miniature was already known in England at least a year prior to the battle of Pavia (25th February 1525). This being the case, the next question is who was capable of painting these exquisite images?

Gerard Horenbout, a leading Flemish illuminator previously holding an official position as court artist and valet de chamber at the court of Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands, brought his family to England prior to the battle of Pavia.  The reason for the move is not clear, but we know from the royal accounts that his son Lucas entered the employ of Henry VIII and it is thought he was very ably assisted by his sister, Susannah.  Both Horenbout children had been taught by their father.  In a time when women were rarely credited with having any form of talent, a condescending accolade regarding Susannah’s talents was made by Albrecht Dürer in 1521 when he visited the Horenbout workshop in Bruges, and bought her image of Christ as Saviour of the World for a guilder – the same price he would have paid had it been painted by a master artist.  Thanks to the talent of the Horenbout siblings, we have some candid small portraits of Henry VIII, Katharine of Aragon and their daughter Princess Mary in the happy times before the infamous divorce.  

Lucas’s name regularly appears in the royal accounts, and the illuminations of manuscripts, such as the Liber Niger, being Henry VIII’s commission for a new book for the Order of the Garter to replace the Bruges Garter Book, British library Ref. Stowe Ms 594 created in the 1430s.  This illumination was painted by an unknown artist and shows the patron saint of the Order, St George, and his dragon while a knight kneels before him. It is thought this is William Bruges who commissioned this armorial. Bruges appears to be wearing the uniform of a herald, and St George has three ostrich feathers in his cap, similar to those worn by the Prince of Wales. The banner is blank suggesting the artist may have planned to include some words. Likewise, the very recognisable leather garters do not include the motto of the order. Perhaps the artist was to receive some wise words for the banner, and to write the motto in gold, but the words were never delivered. This type of omission drives art historians mad.

folio 7 of the Bruges Garter Book, 1430. Anon. Stowe Ms 594, British Library, London.

There were Ladies of the Garter, but it was not until 1987 that any woman (other than a queen regnant) was made a Companion who was Lady Thatcher, the first woman prime minister of England.  Henry VII (1447 – 1509) dropped the practice of having Ladies of the Order in 1488, when the last woman to be created a Lady of the Order was his mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort.  The next woman to be appointed as such was Queen Alexandra (1844 – 1925) consort of Edward VII, in the early 20th century.  Therefore, the woman being the inspiration of the Order in Horenbout’s illumination is more likely to be Queen Philippa of Hainault, wife of Edward III or, knowing the Tudor love of medieval chivalric tales, the Duchess of Salisbury who is said to have lost her garter during a court celebration.  The story of the duchess losing her garter and the king retrieving it with the words ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’ (shame on him who thinks evil of it) did not appear in writing until the 1460s, some one hundred and twenty years or so after the Order was founded.  I have seen a suggestion that Horenbout’s document of the 1530s depicting a single female is a ‘lost’ portrait of Anne Boleyn.  However, there is no credible argument based on solid research of original documents and this claim appears to be a case of someone wishing it were the case, as opposed to being a genuine find. 

Scholars who have researched the history of the Order demonstrate that Edward III founded a group of twenty-five knights at Windsor in 1348. The Complete Peerage states that this group of the king’s companions had its beginning some four years earlier in 1344, and lists the original 25 Companions knighted by Edward III.  The group of loyal knights was formed just at the time when Edward III’s claim to the French throne was at its height, therefore rather than some romantic tale of a woman’s garter slipping to the floor, the reference to a garter is more likely to be to the leather straps used to attach the various bits of armour to the wearer and the group’s loyalty to the king for his claim to the throne of France.  The document dating from the 1530s has been the subject of much academic research and, while the enthusiasm for the claim this included a portrait of Henry VIII’s second wife has to be admired, it will require a great deal more research to convince scholars of English illuminated documents of this period.

As another example of the use of royal portraiture, an illuminated letter containing the narrative of Henry VIII seated on his throne surrounded by his advisors, appears at the beginning of the Valor Ecclesiasticus (National Archives reference E344/22), the valuation of the monastic lands undertaken in the 1530s.  Stylistically this illuminated letter is similar to the various vignettes included in the Liber Niger.  Like the images in the second book of statutes of the Knights of the Garter, the rendition of each of the faces surrounding Henry VIII on his throne are only millimetres across.

What little we do know about the personal details of Lucas is that he married a woman called Margaret Houselwyther, the daughter of a goldsmith.  Lucas received a patent for life from the king on 22nd June 1534, approximately ten years after arriving in England, and took out denization papers the same year.  We know he was allowed to have four journeymen in his service and lived in the Parish of St Margaret’s Westminster, so was near the royal palace.  Susan James has identified a Jacomyne Horenbout as being Lucas’s daughter and that she also practised as a portrait miniaturist.  Her mother, Margaret Houselwyther, is listed in the queen’s royal accounts as being paid for paintings ‘in little’ during the time Katharine Parr was married to Henry VIII. Whether or not Houselwyther was an artist in her own right is not proven. The single reference in the accounts might have been a payment for work done by her daughter, Jacomyne.

When it comes to any possible illumination carried out by Gerard we are even less able to identify works from his brush.  The name ‘Gerard’ appears in the accounts of Thomas Cromwell for the expenses of Cardinal Wolsey’s college at Oxford, but equally the name could be a reference to a scrivener who is mentioned in a subsidy roll of the same period. It is more likely that another reference to a Gerard, who was paid 16s & 8d, is the illuminator Gerard Horenbout, as this was a large sum of money.  The names of father and son first appear in the treasurer of the chamber accounts of 1528.  The artist(s) behind Wolsey manuscripts are hotly debated, but they are the treasures of Christchurch and Magdalen colleges, Oxford. They are well worth a closer look and this link will take you to them. This is the level and type of work that Gerard was known for, and 16s & 8d was not sufficient to pay for the standard of illumination of either of these manuscripts.

The patents for Cardinal College, Oxford of both May 1526 and May 1529 show Henry VIII seated on his throne in a similar way as the monarch is portrayed on the front of the various front sheets of the Coram Rege rolls, these being the record of the proceedings of the King’s Bench.  Surviving patents are beautifully executed and a similar one exists for Cardinal College, Ipswich also dated May 1529. These complex monochrome illuminated letters demonstrate the importance of the patents, but being black and white and only a small part of the first page of the document, they would not have been as expensive as the Wolsey manuscripts. All these documents add another important name to the list of those who patronised the royal limners – that of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, a man of humble origins who appreciated the finer things in life.

 The illumination of patents as well as legal documents, breviaries and books of hours is the sort of work that would be carried out by an illuminator of the calibre of the Horenbout family of artists.  In addition, the surviving patent for Thomas Forster demonstrates that the Horenbouts were sought after and took on work from those outside immediate royal circle. As an embroiderer employed by the king, Forster was of a similar social position to Lucas and the goldsmith, Houselwyther, father of Lucas’s wife, Margaret. 

Gerard Horenbout returned to Bruges in 1531, two years after the death of his wife.  His name does not appear in English accounts again, but his son Lucas’s name continues to appear being paid a monthly salary of 55s 6d from 1528 until his death in March 1544. This is an equivalent labour value of today of £19,090.00 per month, thus demonstrating the high value placed on his work.  In the Book of the Court of Augmentations, where the grant to Lucas is recorded, there is the following passage (translated from the Latin) “For a long time I have been acquainted not only by reports from others but also from personal knowledge with the science and experience in the pictorial art of Lucas Harnbolte [Horenbout] and I nominate, constitute, and declare him by these present letters patent to be my painter.” This is the voice of the king and evidence that Henry VIII held Lucas in high esteem.  Furthermore, it is the only patent granted to an artist of this period that contains such a glowing account of their work.  

While Lucas is identified as the King’s Pictor in written records, Susannah’s does not appear at all, therefore we are unable to either confirm, or deny whether or not his sister collaborated on the illumination of any of the official manuscripts.  What we do know is that her talents were admired by fellow artists such as Durer.

Susannah married twice, both times to minor members of the royal household.  In 1539, a mere three weeks after her second marriage to John Gwilim, Thomas Cromwell required her to be part of the entourage to go to the Duchy of Cleves and escort Henry VIII’s fourth wife, Anna, Duchess of Cleves, back to England.  The royal accounts reveal Susannah was given £40 to spend on clothes so she would be suitably attired as a lady-in-waiting to the new queen of England.  Whether this appointment was for her artistic talents or because Cromwell wanted to have a spy in her household is unknown, but both are possible.  Whether Susannah spoke the German dialect spoken by Duchess Anna is also unknown.  

We do know that Susannah remained in post until the royal marriage was annulled six months later in 1540.  The same year Susannah gave birth to a son, Henry (1540 -1593), named after his godfather the king, and therefore it is possible she could have retired to rear her family, but continued to work after her children grew past infancy. If so, then it is likely that any money would have been paid to her husband, John Gwilim, who was a Gentleman Pensioner, so also part of the royal entourage.  Perhaps a future researcher would undertake the task of trawling through the dusty membranes of annual accounts looking for the name Gwilim and analysing whether or not the amounts, if any, fluctuate from his fixed pension as a gentleman pensioner, which might indicate he was receiving money for work completed by his wife. 

A portrait known as the Yale miniature is clearly from the Horenbout atelier.  The sitter has been variously identified as being of Princess Elizabeth, Princess Mary and Lady Jane Grey. It is more likely the sitter was Amy Robsart who married Robert Dudley in 1550 when she was aged eighteen. 

The Yale Miniature c 1550. Horenbout atelier. Yale University.

This portrait has also been attributed to Levina Teerlinc (née Bening) (1520 – 1576), but this is clearly not the case.  From my extensive study of Teerlinc’s work, it is apparent her style is significantly different to this and more reminiscent of the Horenbout workshop, plus Teerlinc does not use any lettering on her stand alone portraits.  

The Dudley family had been at court since the time of Henry VII. The likelihood of Dudley wanting a portrait of his new bride, or bride to be, is quite likely.  Dudley would later commission further miniatures of himself, and later the Goldsmith archives have a record of him commissioning a book of miniatures during the early career of Nicholas Hilliard. Having grown up and been at court since a boy, Dudley would have known of Susannah’s talents.  The Yale miniature is shown to be of someone aged 18 years old and while I have the utmost respect for Dr Starkey, I do not agree with his attribution that this is of Jane Grey as her dates are 1537 – 1554 and she did not reach the age of eighteen, or that the artist is Teerlinc.  Carved cameo gems were in good supply to the jewellery trade, cowslips were a traditional Norfolk flower symbolising an engagement.  This link Amy Robsart – Possibly  will take you to my 2017 article on this specific miniature where you can read more about why I believe it is a portrait of Amy Robsart and that Susannah Horenbout was the artist.   William Cecil had doubts about the Dudley/Robsart marriage from the start, describing it as ‘carnal’, but that is another story for another time.

With the appointment of this prestigious family of illuminators to the royal workshops, Henry VIII now had serious artistic talent at his disposal to rival the artists employed at the courts of Francis I of France and the Regent of the Hapsburg Netherlands. The number of surviving miniature portraits stand testament to the popularity of this emerging genre in both aristocratic circles and by the aspiring middle classes.  Something that the German artist, Hans Holbein the Younger (1497 – 1543) was quick to take advantage on his return to England in 1531.

Holbein had first worked in England in 1526 until 1528 when he was obliged to return to his native Basel.  On his return to England in 1531 he then worked as King’s Painter and it is after this date that we see him creating miniature portraits.  There is a husband and wife pair of portraits in Vienna dated 1534 possibly by Holbein, that are thought to be portraits of Susannah Horenbout and her first husband, John Parker (c1493/4-1537) wearing his livery of Gentleman Pensioner to Henry VIII.  

Susannah Horenbout (?) (1506 – 1554) c1534. Hans Holbein the Younger (1497 – 1543), Vienna.

We are given the age of this lady as being 28, therefore if it is a portrait of Susannah, then she was born in 1506.  More interestingly we now know what she may have looked like.  But why did her brother not paint this pair of portraits?  Perhaps these images were a present from the great German maestro as a thank you for teaching him the art of mixing pigments for use on vellum, a highly specialised technique, or even as a wedding present – we can only speculate.  

Susannah remains a shadowy figure as an artist, unlike her brother who died in March 1544.  She is more visible as a member of the household of Anna of Cleves, and prior to this Susannah had served Jane Seymour. It is arguable that she created the various portraits of Katharine of Aragon and the nine year old Princess Mary because Susannah would not have required a chaperone and being a gentlewoman at court had access to the queen and princess.  This would have allowed her to sketch them at any time and since preparatory sketches are vital when creating portraits.   

Queen Katharine of Aragon, his wife. Horenbout atelier. Mid 1520s. (Source: Wikipedia).

This rectangular portrait of Henry VIII below is a Horenbout masterpiece on an illuminated document held in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, but which Horenbout sibling painted it is unknown. Henry and Katherine’s initials are entwined at the top and bottom, and angels hold the strings of the corsd that form love knots between the H and K at the top and bottom of the image.

Henry VIII in 1525. Horenbout atelier. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Lucas and Holbein would have required to have others present in order to preserve the ladies’ honour and we know from the 1598 draft treatise by Elizbeth I’s favourite miniature portrait painter, Nicholas Hilliard (1547 – 1619), that too many onlookers giving well meaning, but unnecessary artistic advice, was an annoying distraction for the artist.  Hilliard also tells us that he paints ad vivum (from life) in order to capture the liveliness of a sitter’s expression.  The survival of so many preliminary sketches made by Holbein, now in the Royal Collection at Windsor, demonstrates that Hilliard’s painting from life was his innovation.  To have such a wealth of preliminary sketches by an artist is rare and the Holbein collection is accessible online via the Royal Collection website.

Thanks to the Horenbout siblings and Hans Holbein the Younger, we have the most exquisite examples of miniature portraits bringing to ‘life’ the various people of the 1520s and 1530s who would have otherwise remained faceless names in dusty documents. 

Holbein died in November 1543 and Lucas in March 1544, possibly of the sweating sickness, but what it was that killed them is irrelevant.  Their demise left Susannah as the sole practioner of the genre, but she was married with a young and growing family, therefore the hunt was on to find and appoint replacements for both artists. Holbein was replaced by William Scrots (1537 – 1553?) who had previously been court painter to Mary of Hungary, Regent of the Netherlands (1505 – 1558).

Prior to moving his family to England, the illuminator Gerard Horenbout had collaborated with Simon Bening and by the 1540s, Simon Bening (1483 – 1561), was the last of the great illuminators living and was practising in Bruges.  Bening’s clientele list was of the majority of the great and the good of Europe: the emperor, kings, princes, dukes, duchesses, earls, counts, princes of the Catholic church, abbots, abbesses, priors, prioresses and wealthy merchants  – Bening’s reputation stretched from Sweden to the tip of Spain.  There is no actual proof but there is circumstantial evidence that an approach was made to the great man to come to England.  An artist of Bening’s status was just the sort of talent Henry VIII would have desired to replace Lucas, but with a client list such as this, would you give up a thriving business to go and work in England for an aging king with much ambition, but little real status on the European stage?  

Like Lucas and Susannah Horenbout, Bening was the second generation of a leading family of illuminators. Alexander Bening (d1519) had married either the sister, or niece (no-one has yet decided which) of Hugo van der Goes (1430/40 – 1482) one of the most original artists of the latter half of the 15th century.  The Grimani Breviary contains portraits of Alexander and a young Simon Bening in the full page illumination of the arrival of the queen of Sheba.

Simon Bening (left) & his father Alexander (right)

Bening sired six daughters, one went on to become a very successful book dealer, but it was his daughter Levina who would fill the position of king’s paintrix.  Levina came to England after her marriage to George Teerlinc of Blankenberg sometime in early 1545.  Her contemporary, Ludovico Guicciardini (1521 – 1589) described her skills in painting portraits in miniature as being every bit as good as her father’s.

When George and Levina arrived in England in either March 1545 at the behest of Katharine Parr, or perhaps in 1546 at the direct invitation of Henry VIII, George Teerlinc was made a gentleman pensioner and as well as her position as king’s paintrix, Levina became a gentlewoman to the queen.  Henry granted her an annuity of 40per annum ‘at his pleasure’ to be paid unto her husband.  Very much later in 1559, Elizabeth I changed the terms of this annuity to be for life in recognition of Levina’s loyal service to the Crown.  The annual sum was far greater than that paid to either Lucas Horenbout or Hans Holbein the Younger, even taking into account the inflation of the times.   

Like that of Susannah, a clear collection of Levina’s work is hard to determine, but her career spanned four Tudor monarchs – Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I, plus she also knew Queen Katharine Parr (1512 – 1548) and Anna, Duchess of Cleves (1515 – 1557), as well as all the great families such as the Seymours, the Greys and importantly, the Dudleys. There are various surviving examples of portraits dating between 1545 and the emergence of England’s first home grown artist, Nicholas Hilliard (1547 – 1619) in 1572, when he painted his first portrait of Elizabeth (NPG).  These unsigned portraits of the period 1546 – 1572 are often attributed to Teerlinc, as are various illuminations in documents and other manuscripts, but there is so much difference in the styles of these examples it is difficult to define a complete set of works by her.  

One of the first tasks set for her would have been illuminating the front page of the Peace of Address, 1546, now one of the treasures of the Biblioteque de France.

Illuminated front page of The Peace of Address, 1546. Teerlinc (1520 – 1572). BnF, Paris.

Teerlinc’s arrival coincides with the use of Renaissance motifs in the illumination of treaties, the illuminated Ps on the front of the Coram Rege rolls, and a new eye for the portrayal of the great of the good in miniature portraits.

By 1558, the portrait miniature was much in fashion.  Katharine Parr had been a great fan of the genre and perhaps had influenced the Princess Elizabeth to develop a love of this small and intimate way of having an image of a cherished person to keep, especially if it were of a lover, but the canny Virgin Queen also commissioned many portraits of herself to give to diplomats. 

If you were lucky enough to be invited to view such a portrait, it became an intimate experience between you and the person inviting you to view it. One of the best examples of how this type of image was used for diplomatic reasons was when the 1564 negotiations of a possible marriage were underway and Robert Dudley, who had recently been created Earl of Leicester to make him of a more suitable rank for marriage to a queen, was proposed as a possible husband for Mary Queen of Scots. In the memoirs of the Scottish ambassador, Sir James Melville (1535-1617), we learn how Elizabeth I invited him to her private cabinet where she showed him a portrait miniature of Dudley in a private tête-à-tête.  The description of the intimacy of Melville’s viewing this portrait miniature is best told in Melville’s own words:

“She [Elizabeth] took me to her Bed-chamber, and opened a little Cabinet, wherein were divers little pictures wrapped within Paper, and their Names written with her own hand upon the Papers. Upon the first that she took up was written, My Lord’s Picture. I held the Candle, and pressed to see that picture so named, she appeared loath to let me see it, yet my impor­tunity prevailed for a sight thereof, and found it to be the Earl of Leicester’s picture. I desired that I might have it to carry home to my Queen, which she refused, alledging that she had but that one picture of his. I said, your Majesty hath here the Original, for I perceived him at the farthest part of the Chamber, speaking with Secretary Ci­cil. Then she took out the Queens picture and kissed it, and I adven­tured to kiss her hand, for the great love therein evidenced to my Mistress. Se shewed me also a fair Ruby, as great as a Tenis Ball, I desired that she would either send it, or my Lord of Leicester’s picture, as a Token unto the Queen. She said, if the Queen would follow her counsel, that she would in process of time get all she had; that in the mean time she was resolved in a Token to send her with me a fair Diamond. . .”

In case you are wondering who painted this treasured miniature of the adult Dudley, it could have only been the court illuminator, Levina Teerlinc.  There is a miniature of Dudley in his prime that is held in the private collection of the Duke of Buccleuch and may be the one that Elizabeth showed Melville.  

As Elizabeth’s reign progressed, the notoriously parsimonious the queen would give small portraits of herself created by Teerlinc’s successor, Nicholas Hilliard (1547 – 1610), as a token of her esteem.  Known for his ability to capture a true likeness, as the queen aged, Hilliard was diplomatic enough to ensure the focus of his portraits of the queen was her jewels and fabulous wardrobe. 

These two portraits of Elizabeth I & her favourite, Robert Dudley. They measure 15mm high and were probably originally kept in a hinged ring. Sold at auction some 12 years ago.

The gossips said that Hilliard had created so many of these royal portraits that he was able to render her likeness ‘in but four lines‘.  Clearly this lovely bit of gossip was encouraged to enhance Hilliard’s reputation, and he repeats it in his draft treatise of 1598. Even if he did not use ‘but four lines’ to create Elizabeth’s portraits, he was a master of the art of illusion.   Using the symbols associated with the virgin goddesses, Astraea and Cynthaea, he perpetuated the visual propaganda first promulgated by William Cecil in a draft proclamation of 1563 to regulate images of the queen. Even though the proclamation was never made, the evidence that there must have been a discussion about what symbols were to be used in official portraits are still before us in the Phoenix and Pelican portraits, the use of the crescent moons of the virgin goddess Cynthaea seen in the miniatures of the 1580s known as the Mask of Youth series.  These images focused on the ageing queen’s fabulous wardrobe and he used dots of coloured resin dropped on to burnished silver leaf to mimic her jewellery. Thanks to Hilliard’s skill, Elizabeth I became a glittering statement of majesty and power and it is this image that immediately springs to mind when anyone mentions portraits of England’s Virgin Queen. This portrait of Elizabeth has recently been restored to its original condition so the faux gems now glitter in artificial light once more.

Elizabeth I c 1595. Mask of Youth series. Nicholas Hilliard (1547 – 1619). Royal Collection Trust. (Much enlarged so you can see the jewels)

Teerlinc was steeped in knowledge of visual medieval symbolism and as Hilliard’s probable teacher she taught him. Art historians are divided as to whether she was his teacher, but after years of researching her works, for me there is clear evidence that she was.

While Teerlinc introduced early Renaissance motifs into document illumination, Hilliard’s later style embraces a combination of late Renaissance motifs together with elements of the queen’s personal symbols representing her as a wise virgin goddess as seen in the illuminated E (below) for the founding charter of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, commissioned by Sir Walter Mildmay in 1584.

Illuminated letter E from the founding charter of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Image source: Wikipedia.


The individual miniature portraits were considerably cheaper than a large portrait and by the late 16th century the average price of a portrait in miniature was £2 – £3, which equates to approximately £2,000 in today’s money.  Ironically, this is roughly what a leading 21st century portrait painter in miniature would charge today, so prices have kept pace with inflation.  

After the death of Elizabeth I in March of 1603, Hilliard went on to serve James I and died in January 1619 at the age of 72.

James I of England, VI of Scotland. Nicholas Hilliard (1547 – 1519) Royal Collection Trust.

What the royal accounts and surviving portraits demonstrate is that the art of the illuminator was highly regarded by the court, with specific artists being in close contact with the royal family.  

While the various ancient European royal dynasties may have regarded the Tudors as newcomers in comparison to the length of their rule by other ruling houses of Europe, Henry VIII’s desire to compete at their level on the artistic stage meant he hired the first official woman artist to any court, Levina Teerlinc (née Bening).  

Henry VIII’s artistic legacy includes work by two of the most highly regarded women artists in Europe at the time; Susannah Horenbout (twice married to Englishmen) and Levina Teerlinc.  As gentlewomen to the various English queens, Susannah and Levina had access to the various private royal quarters at all times and did not require chaperoning should any one queen or princess wish to avail themselves of the talents of these two artists, either as artists or even as a confidante.  The idea that a male artist might require a chaperone could be considered a minor detail by today’s liberal society, but in the 16th century it was important and is something that has been disregarded by art historians ever since the history of art became a serious academic subject in the 1800s.  That too is not surprising since the subject was at that time only studied by privileged, rich white men whose attitude to women artists was to ignore their existence.  

Grateful thanks to Heather Darsie for giving up her time to discuss whether or not Susannah Horenbout would have been sufficiently able to converse with Anna, Duchess of Cleves in Anna’s dialect.

An earlier version of this post first appeared on History Lair.


Primary Sources

Various royal accounts, legal documents and patent rolls held in The National Archives, Kew.

Documents held in the archives of The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths

Guicciardini, Ludovico; Descrittione di Tutti i Paesi Bassi; 1567.

Hilliard, Nicholas; draft treatise of 1598; Edinburgh University

Melvil of Halhil, Sir James; Memoires; ed George Scott gent; printed by E. H. for Robert Boulter at the Turks Head in Cornhill against the Royal Exchange, 1683

Selected Secondary Sources

Unpublished MA dissertation into Life and Works of Levina Teerlinc, University of Kent, 2006 (Undertaken in the name of M V Fraser, now Taylor).

Auerbach, Erna; Tudor Artists: A Study of Painters in the Royal Service and of Portraiture on Illuminated Documents from the Accession of Henry VIII to the Death of Elizabeth I, Athlone, 1954

Auerbach, Erna: Nicholas Hilliard; Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961.

Darsie, Heather; Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s Beloved Sister; Amberley, 2019.

Edmund, Mary; Hilliard & Oliver; Robert Hale, Ltd., London 1983.

Goldring; Elizabeth; Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and the World of Elizabethan Art: Painting and Patronage at the Court of Elizabeth I; Yale University Press; 2014.

Goldring, Elizabeth: Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist; Yale University Press; 2019.

James, Susan; The Feminist Dynamic 1450; Ashgate Press 2009.

Strong, Roy; Artists of the Tudor Court: Portrait Miniature Rediscovered; V&A Museum, London, 1983, and other publication on Tudor & Jacobean portraiture.

Drighsdal, Eric; Research presented in 2000 revealing portraits of both Simon and his father Alexander Bening in the full page illumination of the Presentation of the queen of Sheba to King Solomon in the Grimani Breviary held in Venice.

© MVT 2020.

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