Nicholas Hilliard (b. c.1547) – portrait painter to Elizabeth I, James I, and their courts – was buried in St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, in January 1619. The Exeter-born Hilliard had lived an exceptionally long and rich life, notable for the wide range of people he met and portrayed, as well as for his own journey to the heart of the Tudor and Stuart courts. He was also the first native-born English artist to acquire a reputation for excellence both at home and overseas: Hilliard counted the Medici, the Valois, the Habsburgs and the Bourbons among his many Continental admirers.
Nicholas Hilliard – the 1577 Self-Portrait
Hilliard’s self-portrait at the age of about thirty, now in the V&A, is an extraordinary object. Thanks to an unusually complete provenance, which stretches back to the will of Hilliard’s son Laurence, there can be no doubt that this is a depiction of the artist himself. Indeed, it is the only certain image of Nicholas Hilliard that we have. Executed during a transformative period in Hilliard’s life, this portrait – though it measures just 41mm in diameter – provides a window into the soul of the man hailed by contemporary writers such as Francis Meres and Henry Peacham as the founding father of English art.
Like his heroes Hans Holbein the Younger and Albrecht Dürer, Hilliard worked in many media. Originally trained as a goldsmith, the adult Hilliard was in demand as a jeweller, a portrait painter, a deviser of medals and seals, and a designer of images for use by printers. But Hilliard’s fame, then as now, has derived chiefly from his miniatures (or ‘limnings’): exceptionally detailed portraits executed in watercolour on vellum, many no larger than a modern watch-face. In addition to kings and queens, Hilliard’s sitters included royal favourites the earls of Leicester and Essex, Shakespeare’s patron the earl of Southampton, the explorers Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Ralegh, as well as members of the emerging middle class from which he himself hailed. Hilliard’s miniature of himself – together with roughly contemporaneous miniatures of his wife and his father (also in the V&A) – constitute the earliest known group of intimate family portraits by an English artist.
Nicholas Hilliard and Painters in the English Court
Hilliard’s self-portrait is by no means the first executed by a painter with ties to the English court. Holbein – a native of Augsburg who lived in England from 1526 to 1528 and again from 1532 until his death in 1543 – portrayed himself at least once during these years. A (now-lost) self-portrait executed shortly before Holbein’s death is known from the artist’s own preliminary drawing (Uffizi), as well as from a copy: a miniature, perhaps executed by the Flemish émigré Lucas Horenbout, which, in contrast to the drawing, shows Holbein holding a paintbrush (Wallace Collection). In the mid-1550s, Gerlach Flicke, another German-born artist who had emigrated to England, painted an unusual double portrait, also in little (but in oils), depicting himself holding a painter’s palette, his image juxtaposed with that of a man believed to be Henry Strangwish (NPG). In 1558, the Utrecht-born Antonio Moro – who had visited England a few years earlier to paint Mary Tudor from the life – portrayed himself in great, in oils, sitting in front of an easel (Uffizi). But Hilliard’s self-portrait is, so far as is known, the earliest extant self-image by a native-born English painter.
Like many of Hilliard’s miniatures, it depicts its subject in head and shoulders, pivoted slightly to one side, against a plain blue background. An elegant inscription in gold – in this case, reading ‘Anno Domini 1577’ / ‘Ætatis Suæ 30’ – records the date of execution and the sitter’s age. This inscription constitutes the only known evidence for Hilliard’s date of birth, which nonetheless remains approximate owing to the fact that ‘Ætatis Suæ 30’ can be translated ‘at the age of thirty’ or ‘in his thirtieth year’ (i.e., at the age of thirty-one).
Hilliard in France at the Valois Court
Painted in France, when Hilliard was mid-way through a two-year spell at the French court, the self-portrait is a record of the artist – as he saw himself and wished others to see him – at a time of great personal and professional significance. In 1577, Hilliard was newly married and soon to be a father. Having already enjoyed patronage at the highest levels in England, he now found himself employed in the household of Henri III’s younger brother, François, Duke of Anjou, as a ‘valet de chambre’, an honorific title which many eminent French artificers, including François Clouet, had held at the Valois court.In contrast to France, painters in England at this date generally were viewed as manual labourers. Hilliard’s self-portrait, however, shows his growing confidence in his own social and intellectual status – a phenomenon which no doubt reflects, in part, his experience of life at the Valois court. In a remarkable act of self-fashioning, Hilliard presents himself, in both garb and mien, as barely distinguishable from his aristocratic sitters and patrons at the Elizabethan court. Indeed, some viewers have perceived in this self-portrait the mirror image of Hilliard’s chief patron, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, as depicted by Hilliard in the run-up to his departure for France the previous year (NPG). Arguably, the self-portrait shares a greater affinity with Hilliard’s 1576 miniature of Dudley, Elizabeth I’s rich and powerful favourite, than it does with Hilliard’s 1577 miniature of his own father Richard, an Exeter goldsmith (V&A).
Nicholas Hilliard and Albrecht Dürer
Given Hilliard’s admiration for ‘Albertus Dure’, the most ‘exquisite and perfect a Painter … since the world begane’, it is tempting also to see echoes of one of Dürer’s self-portraits: that executed in 1498 at the age of about twenty-seven (Prado), just a few years after the Nuremberg native’s first journey to Italy, during which he witnessed the comparatively high status enjoyed by leading Italian artists. Differences of size and medium notwithstanding, the angle of Hilliard’s head and the direction of his gaze – to say nothing of his glorious corkscrew curls and choice of courtly attire – all invite comparison with Dürer’s portrayal of himself at a similarly pivotal moment in his life. How, indeed if, Hilliard might have had knowledge of this image is impossible to say. But it is not difficult to understand, when on the receiving end of Hilliard’s coolly haughty and imperious gaze, why one of his fellow goldsmiths in London complained, upon Hilliard’s return from France, that he was given to ‘standinge to[o] muche vppon his reputacion’.
Equally significant, in terms of this portrait’s declaration of self, is the fact that it is signed. The initials ‘N’ and ‘H’ – superimposed one on top of the other in gold – may be seen just above Hilliard’s left shoulder. Most of Hilliard’s miniatures – and indeed the vast majority of portraits by English artists of this period, whether in little or in large – are unsigned, most Englishmen at this date having perceived the value of a portrait as residing in the identity of the sitter rather than in that of the maker. But Hilliard’s life, and art, helped to effect a sea change in English attitudes towards painting and the painter. That said, Hilliard’s monogram recalls the makers’ marks used by English goldsmiths of the period (including his father), which typically consisted of their own initials conjoined. It is a reminder of the fact that Hilliard, throughout his adult life, inhabited – sometimes uneasily – the refined world of the court as well as the more rough and tumble world of the goldsmiths.
From craftsman to self-proclaimed gentleman
A sense of just how revolutionary this image would have been in its own time may be gleaned from a comparison to the Yorkshire-born George Gower’s self-portrait in oils (private collection), executed in 1579, two years before the gently-born Gower was appointed Elizabeth I’s Serjeant Painter. Gower depicts himself holding the tools of his trade – a brush and a palette charged with paint – while in the background a pair of dividers is shown outweighing his family’s coat of arms in the pans of a metal balance. In Hilliard’s self-portrait, however, there is nothing – save for the sheer virtuosity of the objet d’art itself – overtly to link the sitter to painting. Hilliard’s journey to France was not simply a physical one. It was also an intellectual, artistic, and aesthetic journey, the impact of which was felt in his life and oeuvre long after he returned to England. Hilliard’s Arte of Limning – a treatise-cum-autobiography written c.1598-1603 – is filled with learned allusions to the writings of Alberti and Dürer, among others. One of the first English vernacular defences of the visual arts, it – like Hilliard’s self-portrait – marks a turning point in the history of English art. Hilliard’s trajectory from the provinces to the court, from craftsman to self-proclaimed gentleman, speaks to – and helped to make possible – a larger shift in English culture and mores over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: the gradual acceptance of painting as a gentle pursuit and of the painter as the practitioner of a learned liberal art, suitable for the company of kings, queens and courtiers.
Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist is published 12 February 2019 by Yale University Press for The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.
Discover more about the book here.
Elizabeth Goldring is an Honorary Associate Professor at the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance at the University of Warwick and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. Her other publications include Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and the World of Elizabethan Art (2014), which won the Roland H. Bainton Prize for Art History.