Exploring the Life and Artistry of Nicolas Hilliard
Nicolas Hilliard, born around 1547 and departing this world on 7th January 1619, was a distinguished English goldsmith and limner, celebrated for his exquisite portrait miniatures capturing the essence of individuals from the courts of both Elizabeth I and James I of England.
Early Years and Family Background
Hilliard’s origins trace back to Exeter, where he was born in 1547. His father, Richard Hilliard (1519–1594), also known as Hellyer, was a goldsmith in Exeter. Richard Hilliard, a staunch Protestant who served as the Sheriff of Exeter in 1568, married Laurence, the daughter of John Wall, a goldsmith from the City of London. Nicolas Hilliard was one of four boys in the family, with two others choosing the goldsmith’s trade and one pursuing a career in the clergy. Interestingly, Hilliard might have been related to Grace Hiller (Hilliar), the first wife of Theophilus Eaton (1590–1657), co-founder of the New Haven Colony in America.
At a young age, Hilliard found himself associated with the household of John Bodley, a prominent Exeter Protestant and the father of Thomas Bodley, renowned for establishing the Bodleian Library in Oxford. When Queen Mary I, a Catholic monarch, ascended to the throne, John Bodley went into exile, taking Hilliard with him. During this time, Hilliard, at the age of ten, was recorded in Geneva, where he attended a Calvinist service presided over by John Knox. Although he did not fully embrace Calvinism, the fluency in French he acquired during his time abroad would later prove to be valuable.
Hilliard’s artistic journey commenced at a young age, with him creating a self-portrait at the tender age of thirteen in 1560. At eighteen, he is said to have painted a portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Apprenticeship and Early Career
Nicolas Hilliard apprenticed himself to Robert Brandon (d. 1591), a jeweler to the Queen and a prominent goldsmith in London. It is also suggested that Hilliard may have received training in limning (miniature painting) from Levina Teerlinc during this period. Teerlinc, the daughter of Simon Bening, a master of Flemish manuscript illumination, later became the court painter to Henry VIII after Hans Holbein’s passing. Following his seven-year apprenticeship, Hilliard became a freeman of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths in 1569. He established a workshop in partnership with his younger brother John, while another brother continued in the goldsmith’s trade, and the youngest pursued a career in the clergy. In 1576, Hilliard married Alice Brandon (1556–1611), Robert Brandon’s daughter, and they were blessed with seven children.
Royal Limner and Court Painter
Hilliard emerged as a prominent portrait painter at a time when the royal court desperately required the services of a skilled artist. Two panel portraits, known as the “Phoenix” and “Pelican” portraits, had long been attributed to him, dating around 1572–76. Although the exact date of his appointment as limner (miniaturist) and goldsmith to Queen Elizabeth I is unknown, his first documented miniature of the Queen is dated 1572. By 1573, he had earned the Queen’s favor, receiving a lease reversion from her in recognition of his “good, true, and loyal service.” In 1571, Hilliard created “a booke of portraitures” for the Earl of Leicester, the Queen’s favorite. It is believed that this connection with Leicester and his circle helped him gain recognition at court.
Despite this royal patronage, Hilliard embarked on a journey to France in 1576, shortly after his marriage. His aim was to increase his knowledge and secure commissions from the nobility. During his stay in France, he mingled with the artistic circles around the French court, staying with influential figures like Germain Pilon and George of Ghent, the Queen’s sculptor and painter, respectively. He also had the opportunity to meet Ronsard, a renowned poet. While in France, he was recorded as “Nicholas Belliart, peintre anglois” and received a stipend of 200 livres. Hilliard’s portrait of Madame de Sourdis, dating to 1577, is one of the works attributed to him from this period.
Financial challenges followed Hilliard throughout his career. Miniatures were typically priced at £3, a competitive rate compared to his contemporaries like Cornelis Ketel. Unfortunately, in 1574, Hilliard invested in a gold mine in Scotland, a venture that resulted in financial losses. In 1599, he secured an annual allowance of £40 from Queen Elizabeth. However, in 1617, he faced a brief imprisonment in Ludgate Prison due to his inability to produce a debt surety for another individual. His father-in-law’s will in 1591 provided for Hilliard’s daughter through an allowance administered by the Goldsmiths’ Company.
Later Career and Legacy
Upon returning from France, Hilliard established a workshop in Gutter Lane, off Cheapside, w
here he worked from 1579 to 1613. His son and pupil, Laurence, took over the workshop in 1613, continuing the family business for many decades. Hilliard later moved to an undisclosed location in the parish of St Martins-in-the-Fields, closer to the royal court. The opening of his shop marked a significant transformation, expanding the clientele for miniatures from the Court to the gentry and eventually to well-off city merchants.
Hilliard’s pupils included Isaac Oliver, a notable artist of the time, and Rowland Lockey. He even provided lessons to amateurs. Despite his success, financial concerns persisted, prompting him to request permission to retire to the countryside in 1601. He mentioned that he had trained apprentices who had become his competition in the private painting market.
Hilliard’s artistic legacy endures through his extensive body of work, with the Victoria and Albert Museum in London housing the largest collection. The National Portrait Gallery and the British Museum in London also possess several of his miniatures. The conditions in which his miniatures have been preserved have allowed many to remain in excellent condition. Hilliard authored an essential treatise on miniature painting, known as “The Art of Limning,” preserved in the Bodleian Library. While it was once attributed to John de Critz, Serjeant Painter to James I, modern scholarship credits Hilliard as the author.
Hilliard’s artistry, characterized by minimal chiaroscuro modeling, emphasized capturing the grace and emotions of his subjects. He favored painting the entire face in the presence of the sitter, often in multiple sittings. His technique involved intricate hatching and subtle use of shadows to add depth and three-dimensionality to his subjects’ clothing and jewelry. While Hilliard’s style remained relatively unchanged after the 1570s, his later works, particularly those featuring James I, were considered weaker compared to his earlier masterpieces.
In recognition of his contributions, Nicolas Hilliard received high favor from both Queen Elizabeth I and King James I.
James granted him a special patent in 1617, providing him with a sole license for producing royal portraits in engraved form for twelve years. Hilliard’s artistic journey came to a close on 7th January 1619 when he passed away. He was laid to rest in the church of St Martins-in-the-Fields, Westminster.
In conclusion, Nicolas Hilliard’s remarkable talent as a portrait miniaturist and his enduring influence on the art of his era solidify his place as a central figure in English art history. His ability to capture the essence of his subjects, combined with his technical skill, ensures his legacy as a celebrated artist of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods.