English writers of Nicholas Hilliard’s time considered him the equal of Michelangelo and Raphael, a preposterous claim, you may think. The greatest Italian miniaturist, Giulio Clovio, had set a precedent, though, of linking the extremely large and the decidedly small by mimicking the range and layout of the Sistine ceiling in the Farnese Book of Hours, in a series of illuminations on Biblical subjects at a scale not far from Hilliard’s, whose portraits of Elizabeth and her courtiers are tiny by whatever standards of the miniature you apply.
One justification for the comparison is that both scales stretch unmercifully the ability of human senses to take them in. Every observer can see at once that Michelangelo has exceeded human scale and challenged mind and eye to comprehend all that confronts them. It is less obvious that we can’t appreciate the wealth of Hilliard’s images trusting to normal sight. There is plenty to see without magnification, but once you have seen what enlargement brings, ‘life size’ doesn’t seem enough.
So in the recent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery magnifying glasses were supplied, and wielding one you could switch between normal and enhanced vision. There’s also a further layer of difficulty—to save the delicate watercolours from damaging amounts of light they can’t be strongly or evenly lit, even for a special exhibition like this, so some parts are inevitably cast in shadow. It is even worse in permanent displays, at the V & A for example, where I experienced an epiphany the other day caused primarily by poor lighting. Among the most lyrical passages in Hilliard’s wonderful Treatise is a description of how rubies become burning fires by candlelight–it seems he was prepared to have his work seen under trying or unusual conditions.
Thus, in at least two ways we can’t experience Hilliard’s work fully when standing directly in front of it. This sounds a drawback and so it seems at first, but I’ve come to feel it as a kind of richness—Hilliard dawns on you in stages, slowly. In one of his earliest surviving works, a circular bust-length image of Leicester, the Queen’s favourite, a painting less than two inches across, the background seems an anonymous grey to the naked eye, but is known to have had special attention lavished on it, to be founded on a base of silver which has been selectively burnished to bring it out in patches, probably with an instrument like a weasel’s tooth mounted on a stick, as described in Hilliard’s treatise The Arte of Limning.
This detail emerges first under magnification looking like Islamic script, before being recognised as a dusky brocade pattern, an effect so subtle and recessive one marvels at the attention required to produce it. If you want to appreciate fully the concentrated craft of this artist you need to read his short and wonderfully quirky treatise, with all its detail about washing colours, behaving suitably with aristocratic sitters and understanding the mystical properties of the five main types of precious stone, which Hilliard seems to believe are the ultimate sources of colour in its purest form.
The treatise wasn’t printed until the early 20c, though it had already had a considerable influence in manuscript. Hilliard himself has come into much clearer focus as recently as 2019 with the publication of Elizabeth Goldring’s biography, which is particularly strong on the formative role of two long stays on the Continent, first as an 8-12 year-old and then two further years around the age of 30. Among Goldring’s riskiest, most charming speculations is the idea that Hilliard was introduced to Holbein and Dürer, later his idols, as a nine year old in Germany. My skepticism grows weaker when I remember the impression a year in California made on me at age 5 and as I hear of my ten year old grandson’s response to a month in China.
Hilliard’s self-portrait inscribed with a date of 1577 takes on a new meaning when placed in his French period when it was painted, where he saw artists accorded higher status, and was welcomed into learned circles around writers like Ronsard, newly identified as one of his sitters. Hilliard’s little self-portrait shows him as another gentleman, not a mere artisan, a claim picturesquely fleshed out in the treatise. The liveliness of expression in the features, especially the eyes, the hair and the set of the mouth, is extended by the flying bits of the clothes, as if rocked by a breeze, and the dematerialised edges of the ruff, which will become an even more outlandish feature of many later Hilliard portraits, where regular pattern and an opposing force are locked in endless struggle.
Perhaps the most astonishing fruit of Hilliard’s time in France is the recently discovered miniature of the young king Henri III which combines hieratic flatness with subtle traces of red around the eyes, of blue shadow in the temples, with odd life in hair, jewels and lace–lace a little universe in itself, melting away to nothing at the edges and tangling to thickets in its densest parts.
As in many later Hilliards, the jewels and especially the pearls have probably lost most over time. One of Hilliard’s cleverest devices was adding a silver highlight or underlay to give the sparkle or translucency of jewelry, sparkle which has dulled to dark grey as the metal pigment oxidised, an effect seen in several different forms on Henri’s chest.
Eventually Hilliard became known best for his highly ritualised representations of the English queen. One of his earliest royal portraits is among the most informal. It shows her in motion, actually doing something, playing the lute with an expression of relaxed pleasure, after stepping down from the throne, now looming like a ghost of itself whose enigmatic crowned pomegranates split open at a slightly lower level than her central head, which seems to wear the throne as an accidental headdress like a piece of clothing she meant to take off.
Hilliard’s own actual hand in large images of the queen generally associated with him is in doubt. These, like the Phoenix portrait in the National Portrait Gallery which you could compare to the miniatures during the exhibition, are undeniably powerful. They convert the living person into an intimidating piece of machinery, mostly stone and metal, with brief and isolated tracts of marbleised flesh peeking out from the jeweled defences. It is a kind of divinity, surpassing mortality by hardening and stiffening itself. Especially after more delicate and ethereal styles of transformation in the miniatures, this doesn’t seem very Hilliard-like, but by comparison crude and inflexible, and above all earthbound, entirely without lightness and freshness, a travesty of the brightness and liveliness recommended in the treatise when one is representing gold and silver in paint.
Hilliard didn’t do many full-length figures or miniatures which evoked a wider world. His one-time pupil Isaac Oliver was more interested in doing that, and probably better at it. Oliver’s portrait of Lord Herbert of Cherbury stretched out at full length like Shakespeare’s Jaques in the wood is the most appealing of several of these. Hilliard falls down badly trying to extend a sylvan scene into the distance, starting from a lounging nobleman. Hilliard is wonderful for rich flatness, not for miniaturised Italian renaissance scenes like Oliver’s. That is probably the source of Horace Walpole’s insensitive preference for Oliver over Hilliard.
When Hilliard does melancholy in a woodland setting on his own terms the result is magic of a sort outside Oliver’s ken. It shows a spindly youth leaning cross-legged on a tree all in black and white. He’s been standing there so long and so quietly that wild roses have grown over him and he has become a figure of myth, decorated by entirely natural embroidery, most beautiful on his white stockings but almost as effective on his black cape, so nonchalantly draped, where thorns show more plainly but still un-fiercely, setting the idea of pain gently in motion. More reserved than other treatments of such subjects, it reaches further contemplative depths than they do, the narcosis of a person willing himself to become a plant. It stands out among all Hilliard’s subjects for transcending the social limitations of most portraits. Like other Hilliard subjects, this person remains unidentified (not for want to trying), for different reasons and with different result from all the others, a kind of nirvana.
George Clifford, Earl of Cumberland, in jousting armour after a successful day of mock-war of a pseudo-historical kind, is an entirely different image of the transcendence of individual identity. He is eaten up in emblems which compare the queen and his role at court to the motion of heavenly spheres. Hilliard’s best contribution to this enlargement is the juxtaposition of two closely allied blues, that of the sky and that of the coat he has put on over his armour.
So he resembles the weather, but keeps his own distinctness. He is outdoors where he can see heavenly bodies and they can see him, but clings to his pasteboard shield with its powerful pictures of them. It is a convincing portrayal of the magic of heraldry, at bottom a kind of faith in imagery.
Most miniatures were meant to be worn around the neck or pinned to the clothes, as the secret concealed inside a locket or as an image hidden beneath a neckline or flaunted on a sleeve. There’s the famous story of Cecil’s portrait, which the queen borrowed, then pinned to her shoe and walked around displaying. Tiring of that, she moved it to her elbow.
The youth in the woods and the queen’s champion in jousting gear were too big to wear, but still intended for intimate settings, hence their name, cabinet miniatures. Occasionally Hilliard produced full-length figures of a wearable smallness, a whole new order of impossibility. This one of an unknown lady is less than two inches across and just over two inches high. It is impossible to show her life-size, when her most teasing intricacies disappear, like the 5-pointed star-jewel in her hair, which some have used to identify her as the woman in Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, or the subtly shaded folds in her skirt or the criss-cross details at the edges of the black over-skirt. I never noticed the red ostrich feathers on her sleeves (if they are feathers) until I enlarged her many times.
Now comes the pinnacle of Hilliard’s art, his way of concealing a whole world of variety in a feature of dress that is both monochromatic and repetitive, the lace ruff that reaches its apogee in female portraits where the ruff is engaged in a contest with the outer limit of the whole image, the edge of the blue background, the uniform tone which we take for granted, which Hilliard’s treatise together with the astonishingly detailed chapter on his technique in the exhibition catalogue alert us to the extreme difficulty of achieving. This feature must have meant far more to alert contemporaries than it ever can to us, who see it as an artificial, indoor kind of sky, magically intense perhaps, but intense like an allegory, not reality—until, that is, it runs against the diffuse outer reaches of one of these ruffs like a planet’s orbit. At the edge the ruff turns green like the sea or the sky as it ends.
The miniature above goes about as far as you can go in stretching the image to the frame, engorging the space completely, except where the hair takes over at the top, and on the right where the same ruff that lies flat against the background tilts upward, as if it has brushed against and been deflected by the wooden frame. This asymmetry, actually slight, is subtly disorienting, as if something within the image is moving, as the right-hand half of the picture becomes restive.
There’s a heraldry of ruffs which I won‘t venture into, of crosses, circles, x’s and more complex patterns. Hilliard took tremendous pains over the extra layers he applied to the lace after it appeared complete, adding highlights and also perhaps smoky interiors. Recently these have been explored microscopically, leading to fuller accounts of how these complex structures were arrived at. I’m particularly taken with the honeysuckle that mixes itself with the roses in this one, and with the connection between the sitter Mary Sidney, the dedicatee of the Arcadia and its completer, perfecter and publisher after the death of her brother Philip, and Hilliard’s ideas about the possibilities of emblems as narrative and anti-narrational instruments.
My other instance of a ruff as a geometrical riddle is an oval miniature in a circular frame, which plays with curved forms inscribed within one another and alternating schematically between dark and light, between black, near-black, white and near-white. When I saw this one at the V & A its top and bottom were in shadow, so the part below the ruff was pure black, as was all above the hair, making the whole a much purer version of simple forms enclosing and repeating one another. The image is bilaterally symmetrical but extremely eccentric divided horizontally. If you blur your vision you get three crescents enclosing the oval of the face, which has a disturbingly unstable location in the larger oval, again suggesting movement. Goldring finds the sitter’s gaze coquettish, and she or her publisher uses it above her own biographical details as if she meant to borrow its expression. This image in chaste black and white seems just as enigmatic as the famous young men seen against a whole universe of flames or reaching up to twine fingers with a hand sent down from heaven. The meaning of all three is safely locked inside.
Coda on the Queen:
In an obvious way the summit of Hilliard’s efforts is his many representations of the queen, which triumph by leaving reality far behind and convert her into a field of jewels, often in a star-burst pattern (see opening image). Her ruff sometimes verges toward immaterial froth or quintessence, shadowed here by a flimsy veil like an aura which floats beyond the reach of her clothes. Again you should try to imagine all the grey as glitter and the pins ending in crescent moons as pearls or diamonds jumping out of her hair like sparks of her vitality. This larger oval from Ham House was a highlight of the exhibition.
The smaller one with a grey (originally silver) curtain behind from the V & A is purer and more concentrated, though another of Hilliard’s inventions, coloured resin mounded up to represent jewels, has worn less well. The aura created by the ribbed veil is outstanding, but Hilliard has stopped believing in the queen’s youth.
Hilliard’s Arte of Limning can be hard to get hold of. In the London Library catalogue a complete online copy is hiding under this heading: Introductory Note on Nicholas Hilliard’s ‘The Art of Limning’, Walpole Society, 1911