… tiny fire crackers of colour & astonishing detail …

Henri iii france hilliard miniature

Tucked into a pocket or worn next of the heart, Queen Elizabeth keep them wrapped in tissue in a cabinet, the language of miniatures has always been an intimate affair. Created for love, diplomacy and remembrance these limnings of Hilliard and Oliver display exquisite details and jewel like colours. Withe their roots in illuminated manuscripts, the size of these watercolours draws you in, making you concentrate to appreciate every detail. This attention creates an intimacy not usually found in larger works of art – akin to a private conversation rather than a public announcement.

Along with such well known images as Hilliard‘s Young Man amongst Roses from the Victoria and Albert and a personal favourite of mine, Oliver‘s Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales from the Royal Collection, I discovered some new delights. Forced to choose three for special mention, I would pick a dandy, a goddess and a lute player.

The dandy is the marvellous Hilliard portrait of Henri III (above). Recently discovered at a French auction, this is the first time it has been exhibited publicly. Painted by Hilliard when he was in the English Ambassador’s Household in Paris, the work had me spellbound. The king’s face is extraordinarily charismatic, set off with a high ruff and bonnet decorated with jewels and feathers. At first glance I thought he was wearing a tiara and, as a side note, the experts are still trying to pin down his sexuality. But who cares when he looks this good? The favourite son of Catherine de Medici he was never supposed to be king and preferred studying to the Valois hobbies of hunting and physical exercise. Apparently there are very few paintings of Henri; everyone hated him so much that after his death, many portraits were destroyed.

masque jacobean anne of denmark

The goddess is Oliver‘s Portrait of a Lady dressed as Flora. How extraordinary and bizarre were Jacobean Masques! Lord knows what the lady actually looked like dancing around with her diaphanous silks, multiple jewels and very tight bodice. Oliver was less flattering and aimed for more realism than his sometime mentor, Hilliard – a point fluently displayed in this exhibition – and to me, the lady seems a little wary, a little bored of all this Masquing. Oh alright if the Queen REALLY really wants to …

My final favourite new discovery is this beguiling miniature of Queen Elizabeth playing the Lute. So much of our ideas of this woman are tied up with big public portraits of a Warrior Virgin Queen that we can forget she was once a young woman feeling her way. Here Elizabeth is poised, in control, and young. She did play the lute and, with a throne behind her, the image neatly evokes the metaphor of good statecraft being like harmonious music. Most experts date the work to 1575 or even 1590 – which makes Elizabeth 42 or 57 years old when this was painted. I know the old Queen demanded to be portrayed youthful but I feel they must have this wrong for the face in this miniature is so fresh and youthful – quite different from even the early icon-like publicity images.

queen elizabeth I lute playing hilliard

To me, this is so unlike the later portraits of her that it must be a thing apart –  a private token of love or friendship, showing a more relaxed Elizabeth with her hair down, so to speak. It could still be by Hilliard as he is reputed to have painted Mary Queen of Scots when he was only 18 in c. 1565 when Elizabeth was 32; though the experts say that the first known miniature of her painted by Hilliard is dated 1572. So I may do some more research on this …

To gain the most from the exhibition, take a deep breath and be prepared to queue up to look at every single cabinet of miniatures in these darkened rooms. The objects are so small that there’s only room for one, or perhaps a very friendly and close pair, of viewers per display. The artistry is so astonishing that it’s worth to wait and it pays to linger and look hard. There are magnifying glasses to be borrowed at the entrance which brings a heightened experience to these tiny fire crackers of colour.

There is also a short explanatory film on The Limner’s Art and a beautiful 8 minute film showing the jaw dropping brushstroke detail in many of the works including Hilliard‘s portrait of Raleigh with his dazzling blue eyes. Close-ups of this portrait can be found on the NPG website if you follow this link.

Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver runs until 19 May (Mon – Sun 10am – 6pm; late closing of 9pm on Fridays) at the National Portrait Gallery, London. Tickets are timed due to the nature of the display and a standard pass costs £10. Click here for further details.

Nicholas Hilliard (c. 1547 – 1619) Portrait of Henri III. ©The Djanogly Collection.

Issac Oliver (1556-1617) Portrait of a Lady as Flora. ©Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Nicholas Hilliard (c. 1547 – 1619) Portrait of Elizabeth I playing the Lute. ©Berkeley Castle.