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Artists - ArtWorks

Name of the Artist / Artwork:

Nicholas Hilliard

Country: United Kingdom
Century: 1500 - The 16th Century
Artist / Artwork Description:

Hilliard was an English miniaturist (1547-1619) who’s paintings combine echoes of decorative manuscripts with Italian Mannerism.

Synthetic Chronology:

Nicholas Hilliard was born in 1547, the son of an Exeter goldsmith. He, himself, was trained as a jeweller. In about 1570 he was appointed Court Miniaturist and Goldsmith by Elizabeth I, and he also worked for James I, but after the turn of the century his position as the leading miniaturist in the country was challenged by his former pupil Isaac Oliver. Hilliard's reputation extended to France, which he visited in about 1577-78. He wrote a book “The Arte of Limning” in 1600 which sets out his views on the art of painting miniatures.
He died in 1619

The Context:

At around the time that Hilliard was working, the European Mannerism movement was in full swing. Mannerism is a period of European painting, sculpture, architecture and decorative arts lasting from the later years of the Italian High Renaissance, around 1520, until the arrival of the Baroque around 1600. Mannerism was noted for its intellectual sophistication, very decoration and artificial (as opposed to naturalistic) qualities. Stylistically, there were a variety of individual approaches influenced by, but reacting to, the harmonious ideals associated with Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and early Michelangelo.


Hilliard apprenticed himself to the Queen's jeweller Robert Brandon, a goldsmith and city chamberlain of London and Sir Roy Strong suggests that Hilliard may also have been trained in the art of limning by Levina Teerlinc during this period. She was the daughter of Simon Bening, the last great master of the Flemish manuscript illumination tradition, and became court painter to Henry VIII after Holbein's death.
After his seven years' apprenticeship, Hilliard was made a freeman of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths in 1569.
Hilliard emerged from his apprenticeship at a time when a new royal portrait painter was "desperately needed." Hilliard was appointed limner (miniaturist) and goldsmith to Elizabeth I at an unknown date; his first known miniature of the Queen is dated 1572. Apart from the Queen herself, many others of the great Elizabethans sat for him, including Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Sir Philip Sidney.

National Comparative:

English art was distinctly provincial, and Hilliard's art is a world away from that of the early-Baroque Italian artists of his time, or his close contemporary El Greco (1541-1614).
In its flat, linear, two-dimensional style, some of his work appears to look back to the decorative traditions of British manuscript and textile arts and was undoubtedly influenced by the sense of detail he developed through his skills as a jeweller.

Artistic Analysis:

In his book, THe Art of Limning, Hilliard emphasises the need to catch "the grace in countenance, in which the affections appear, which can neither be well used nor well-judged of but by the wiser sort". So the "wise drawer" should "watch" and "catch these lovely graces, witty smilings, and these stolen glances which suddenly like lightening pass and another countenance taketh place".
In many cases he does this and conveys the mood with elegant line and flat forms. Sometimes he adds an allegorical or symbolic detail which alludes to a sitter's social standing or experience.

Transnational Comparative Analysis:

The other European artists mentioned in ‘The Art of Limming’ are Hans Holbein the Younger, Henry VIII's court painter, and Albrecht Dürer, who Hilliard probably only knew from his prints. Both were dead by the time of Hilliard's birth. He also learned from French art, including their chalk drawings, and refers to the artist and writer Gian Paolo Lomazzo in his writings.
It is apparent that his appreciation of nature and elongation of form, in part, derive from the School of Fontainebleau and are the result, most probably, of his visit to France in the late 1570s.

Development of the artist's work through the years:

It is accepted that his visit to France played a key part in Hilliard’s development as an artist and this is shown in his most recognised work, the Youth among Roses. However, many of his later repeat portraits of James I and his family are much weaker than his early works.
From the 1590s on, his old pupil Isaac Oliver was a competitor, who was appointed as Limner to the new Queen Anne of Denmark in 1604, and then to Henry, Prince of Wales in 1610. Oliver had travelled abroad and developed a more modern style than his master, and was certainly better at perspective drawing, though he could not match Hilliard in freshness and characterisation.


Before Hilliard, and Queen Elizabeth’s court painter George Gower, the German painter Hans Holbein the Younger was a painter in the court of Henry VIII and an important influence on early English portrait painting.
However, the art of Nicholas Hilliard is perhaps the most representative of this period, visually representing the delicate sensibility and symbolism of Elizabethan poetry and music and the world of William Shakespeare.


The Cult of Elizabeth, Roy Strong (Thames and Hudson, 1977)
The Portrait Miniature in England, Katherine Coombs (V&A Publications, 1998)
Portrait Miniatures, Graham Reynolds (Cambridge University Press, 1988)

Related Material:

Other document available

  1. File name: 106_dn.jpeg

    Description of the material:

    Miniature portrait known as the “Young Man Among Roses”. Possibly Robert Deveraux, second Earl of Essex

    Contextualisation Of the source:

    The painting is in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and found on's_Young_Man/index.html

    Interpretation of the source:

    Nicholas Hilliard's 'Young Man Among Roses' has come to epitomise the romantic vision of the sonnet hero of Shakespeare's England and the Tudor Court of the 1580s. Tall, with handsome features, curly brown hair, and light moustache, he leans with his hand on his heart against the trunk of a tree encircled by a bush of symbolic white roses. The elegant pose of the Young Man is possibly derived from figures Hilliard had seen in the frescoes and plasterwork of the Palace of Fontainebleau after his visit to France in 1577/8.

  1. File name: 106_dn2.jpeg

    Description of the material:

    The so-called "Pelican Portrait" of Queen Elizabeth 1 c.1575 by Nicolas Hilliard. The painting shows his growing stylization of images of the Queen. Behind her there is a crown over each shoulder. The crown is on top of both a rose and a fleur-de-lys which represent her dynastic claims to both England and France.

    Contextualisation Of the source:

    The portrait is in the collection of, and can be seen at, the Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London. It is shown with descriptive text at

    Interpretation of the source:

    In this portrait of the Queen, aged about 41, Hilliard paints her almost like a religious icon, symbolism and detail showing her status and royal qualities. Her figure is stylised and her face mask-like. During the Middle Ages the mother pelican on her brooch was seen as symbol of Christ's sacrifice and of self-sacrifice and motherly love. It was adopted by Elizabeth to represent her as 'mother' of her Protestant nation and to signify her commitment to her subjects.

Comments about this Artist/ArtWork

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