Nicholas Hilliard’s unusual portraits

We’ve looked at some unusual self-portraits in a previous post, and this one isn’t a self-portrait (we actually don’t know who the subject is) but it is certainly one of the most unusual portraits you’ll come across. It’s a tiny painting by the wonderful Elizabethan miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard and is known as Unknown Man Clasping A Hand From A Cloud, completed in 1588. This is an extraordinary painting not only for it’s mysterious iconography but also because it is SO small – only 5 x 6 centimetres. Hilliard’s talent is almost impossible to comprehend when you note that the painting is a beautiful one even when enlarged by 5 times as it is here (depending on the size of your screen!) How he painted the beautiful lettering, lace collar, individual hairs on hair and beard and fine detail of ribbons and beadwork is frankly baffling. The Victoria and Albert Museum who own the painting have a photograph of it next to a 5cm scale so that you can get an idea of just how small it is. I note that they credit the painting to both Hilliard and his pupil Isaac Oliver, who became perhaps the country’s second most celebrated miniaturist. Although known as a painting of an unknown subject, it is thought possible to depict Lord Thomas Howard.

Nicholas Hilliard Unknown Man

 Unknown Man Clasping A Hand From A Cloud, Nicholas Hilliard, 1588 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Devon-born Hilliard really created the miniature genre so beloved by Elizabethan England, and was miniaturist to Queen Elizabeth I. By the standards of the flat icon-like Tudor paintings Hilliard’s style was to my mind more delicate, slightly better modelled even if still predominantly free of heavy shadow, and reflected his travels to France where he learned from continental techniques. He painted with a lot more skill in miniature than many contemporary British artists did in a full sized painting. Further, they were completed in watercolour on vellum which is a much more difficult medium to handle than oils, insofar as mistakes cannot be easily rectified. Hilliard was an admirer of the great painter Hans Holbein and his delicate technique, and wrote that  ‘Holbein’s manner of limning (painting) I have ever imitated, and hold it for the best.’ Queen Elizabeth, it seems, was not a fan of excessive chiaroscuro.

Below is Nicholas Hilliard himself in a self portrait from 1547. The skill with which the ruff and the beautifully detailed curly hair is rendered is quite breathtaking. Hilliard’s miniatures have a jewel-like quality (Hilliard in fact trained and worked initially as a goldsmith), and were made often to be worn like jewels and set into lockets, as with the painting above. Otherwise they were not displayed on the wall but kept tucked away in drawers, reflecting their nature as often romantic keepsakes given as gifts and expressions of love and devotion.

Nicholas Hilliard Self Portrait

Self portrait, Nicholas Hilliard, 1577 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In this one – another Unknown Man, from 1572, I love the extraordinary skill with which the feathers are painted, the jewels on his hat, intricate crochet detail on the ends of the ribbon tied around his neck, and the pale blue of the man’s eyes.

Nicholas Hilliard Unknown Man

 Unknown Man, Nicholas Hilliard, 1572 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Below is Hilliard’s most celebrated miniature which exemplifies these qualities. It’s known as Young Man Leaning Against A Tree Amongst Roses and dates from 1585-95. The lovesick man depicted may be unknown (although Roy Strong identifies him as Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, a favourite of the ageing Queen) but the object of his affections is the Queen herself, as made clear by the typical Elizabethan coded references – clues are found throughout the image in the form of the colours (black and white – Elizabeth’s colours), the Eglantine flowers which were associated with her Accession Day and were her emblematic flower. It is a beautiful image, and I was amused to hear the art historian Dr James Fox select it as the ‘work he would most like to steal’ during his recent BBC series The Great British Renaissance (I too have given much thought as to which art works I might steal if I had the opportunity, though I would probably plump for a Rembrandt sketch). The aforementioned series has a little segment on Hilliard which has an interesting insight into his methods (he apparently painted much of it with a brush with a single hair on it, and may or may not have looked at the image through a magnifying glass. I would think that he would have to have done…..)

Nicholas Hilliard Young Man Amongst Roses

Young Man Amongst Roses, Nicholas Hilliard, 1587 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Back to the mysterious hand-clasping man however, and what does this painting mean? The inscription “Attici amoris ergo” is rather obscure and difficult to translate but is to do with love, and it’s a woman’s hand descending from the cloud. The fact that her hand is descending from a cloud makes her seem rather like a guardian angel. It’s obviously a complex allegory typical of the Elizabethans and their love of symbolism, puzzles and obscure emblematic mysteries, and yet such an exquisitely painted portrait at the same time.

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