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Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver

Queen Elizabeth l, Sir Francis Drake, and Sir Walter Raleigh were the celebrated figures of their age, but what did they really look like? In the years before photography and film, the only way people were able to get an impression of their appearance was from paintings. They are now brought to life in an exhibition of portrait miniatures which has opened at the National Portrait Gallery in London to explore the work of the most skilled artists of the period, Hilliard and Oliver. The exquisitely beautiful and intricate portrait miniatures of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by the two artists are recognized today as among the greatest of all works of art to have been produced in England. Nicholas Hilliard, an Englishman from Devon, and Isaac Oliver, from a Huguenot refugee family, were compared by their contemporaries to Michelangelo and Raphael, and gained international fame and recognition.

Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver brings together key images from major public and private collections, including the National Portrait Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), and the Royal Collection. The exhibition also marks 400 years since Hilliard’s death. The exhibition explores what their miniatures reveal about identity, society, and visual culture in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Termed “limnings” at the time, with their roots in manuscript illumination, miniatures were prized by monarchs, courtiers, and the rising middle classes as a means of demonstrating favor, showing loyalty, and expressing close relationships. They could be set into ornate jeweled cases and worn around the neck, pinned to clothing, or secretly concealed as part of elaborate processes of friendship, love, patronage, and diplomacy.

Described by Hilliard as “a thing apart from all other painting or drawing,” miniature painting was regarded as a particularly refined and expressive art form, capturing, in the words of Hilliard, “those lovely graces, witty smilings, and those stolen glances which suddenly like lightning pass,” as well as the rich and elaborate costumes and jewelry of the time. These tiny portraits, many in exceptional condition, bring their sitters before us, four hundred years after they were painted, with astonishing freshness and vivacity.

A large section of the exhibition is devoted to Hilliard and Oliver’s portraits of Elizabeth I, as well as images of James I, his wife Anne of Denmark, and his three children Henry, Elizabeth, and Charles (later Charles I). Miniatures of some of the most famous figures of the day, including Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake, are displayed along with the most evocative and well-known works of the period, including the beautiful Young Man among Roses by Hilliard, and Hilliard’s Unknown Man against a Background of Flames, both on loan from the V&A. Little-known images include a dashing portrait of Shakespeare’s patron, the Earl of Southampton.

A previously unknown portrait of King Henry lll of France (1551-89) by Nicholas Hilliard is on display for the first time since its discovery. A superbly preserved work, it is a rare survival of an image of Henry lll. It was almost certainly painted by Hilliard from life, while the artist was in France. Henry lll was the third surviving son of Henry ll and his queen, Catherine de Medicis, and at one time a possible suitor for Elizabeth l. He inherited the throne at the age of twenty-three in 1574 and was killed in 1589, the last of the Valois kings of France.

Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619) trained as a goldsmith and became an outstanding painter of portrait miniatures, the first notable English-born artist in this medium. He was a key figure in creating the visual imagery of Elizabeth l, producing many miniatures, as well as oil paintings, seal designs, and medals. Elizabeth l appointed him her official limner, or miniature painter, a service to the monarch that he continued after the accession of James l in 1603.

Isaac Oliver (c. 1565-1617) was born in Rouen, France, and came to England with his family as a Huguenot refugee. He learned the art of miniature painting from Nicholas Hilliard but unlike Hilliard, and as a result of his understanding of continental art, he used light and shade (chiaroscuro) to develop a softer, more illusionistic style. Oliver was appointed miniaturist to Anne of Denmark, wife of James l, and later worked for their eldest son Henry, Prince of Wales.

Dr. Nicholas Cullinan, Director, National Portrait Gallery, said: “I am delighted we are able to stage this major exhibition celebrating Hilliard and Oliver’s jewel-like portrait miniatures from the courts of Elizabeth l and James l. These intricate works represent the pinnacle of British art in this period, and Hilliard and Oliver were exceptional artists, creating vivid character and individuality with a few elegant strokes of a tiny brush, or a complex surface of minute colored dots.”

Catherine MacLeod, Senior Curator of Seventeenth-Century Portraits and Curator of Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver, said: “I am thrilled to be able to bring together the masterpieces of Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver in this major new exhibition. These miniatures not only display the artists’ astonishing technical ability, but they also express in a unique way many of the most distinctive and fascinating aspects of court life in this period: ostentatious secrecy, games of courtly love, arcane symbolism, a love of intricacy and decoration.”

The National Portrait Gallery is to be commended for putting together such an exquisite selection of portrait miniatures which vividly bring to life historical figures and explore social and cultural influences which defined Elizabethan and Jacobean England.

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