Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

A Superb New Biography of Nicholas Hilliard Vividly Recounts the Life and Times of Elizabeth I's Favourite Portrait Painter

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

A Superb New Biography of Nicholas Hilliard Vividly Recounts the Life and Times of Elizabeth I's Favourite Portrait Painter

Article excerpt

Byline: Philippa Stockley

Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist by Elizabeth Goldring (Yale University Press, PS40) THE knowing glances of wealthy sitters in meticulous tiny portraits painted by Nicholas Hilliard between 1571 and about 1618 are mesmerising, leaping 400 years like a lover's dart. Set in precious mounts, these roughly 5cm tall watercolours on vellum or re-used playing cards were called "pictures in little" miniatures today.

Their like had never been seen: the clear skin, sparkling eyes enlivened with white highlights; glistening curls; translucent "jewels" of coloured resin on burnished silver; ruffs of opaque white in reticulated three-dimensional layers. And they turned a youth from Exeter trained for seven years as a goldsmith into the foremost portrait painter in England.

Born in 1547, Hilliard became Queen Elizabeth I's personal painter for 32 years. His miniatures raised the perception of painters from jobbing jacks-of-all-trades to potential courtiers, and the reputation of English portrait artists from wooden to wondrous.

Elizabeth Goldring's engrossing, thickly illustrated biography shows that it was a rags-to-riches-and-back-again story. She gives a detailed account of Hilliard's four-year sojourn in Europe, where he acquired French and a worldview, then of his London training, evoking the bustling streets where his father apprenticed him to royal goldsmith Robert Brandon, who provided plate for Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.

The apprentice Hilliard darted between richly appointed houses, the Jewel House and the Mint. Goldring explains that goldsmiths acted as bankers, and the ambitious lad must have soaked it all up. She argues that in 1571 the Earl of Leicester probably showed Hilliard's little portrait of himself, destined for Catherine de' Medici, to Elizabeth I. Hilliard soon became Elizabeth's court "limner" (a decorative painter a term previously used for manuscript illuminators), with a PS40 stipend, plus PS3 per miniature. He and his later Gutter Lane workshop also produced large oil paintings and designed royal seals, medals and coins. King James I granted him the same terms.

Despite exhaustive research the author cannot definitively explain how, in 1571, just two years after his apprenticeship ended, Hilliard was skilled enough to paint a (now lost) miniature of Elizabeth, which Leicester sent to France and which essentially began his astounding career. …

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