Saturday, February 9, 2019

Portrait Miniatures in the Elizabethan and Jacobean Eras

Timed perfectly for the opening of an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London called "Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver", The Literary Review has posted this review of a biography of Nicholas Hilliard, one of the great portrait miniaturists of the Elizabethan era:

According to Elizabeth Goldring in this engrossing biography, the earliest recorded use of the term ‘miniature’ in English literature comes in Sir Philip Sidney’s prose romance The New Arcadia, written in the early 1580s. Four ladies bathe and splash playfully in the River Ladon, personified as male, and he responds delightedly by making numerous bubbles, as if ‘he would in each of those bubbles set forth the miniature of them’. It’s a pleasing image, calling to mind the delicacy and radiance of the works of Nicholas Hilliard, the leading miniaturist (or ‘limner’) of the Elizabethan age, whom Sidney knew and with whom he discussed emerging ideas about the theory and practice of art. In some ways, a miniature had the ephemerality of a bubble, capturing an individual at a fleeting moment in time, often recorded in an inscription noting the date and the sitter’s age. Yet it also made that moment last for posterity, as shown in this sumptuous book, where Hilliard’s subjects gaze back at us piercingly from many of the 250 colour illustrations.

Miniatures were often referred to as ‘jewels’, a term that captures their glittering beauty and the way that they were worn on the body, often in cases embellished with gemstones. Within the pictures also, Hilliard paid minute attention to costumes and jewellery, developing a new technique of simulating gems by ‘laying a ground of real silver, burnishing it to a shine, and then, with a heated needle, modelling the jewel out of stained resin’. Magnified images illustrate this in astonishing detail. Goldring also provides fascinating information about Hilliard’s techniques: playing cards were used as backing for miniatures; pigments were often mixed in mussel shells; paint was applied with a fine brush made of squirrel hair; silver was treated with garlic juice to guard it against tarnishing. . . .

Read the rest here.

Of Isaac Oliver, the NPG website offers this note:

Oliver was born in Rouen and came to England with his family as a Huguenot refugee. He learnt the art of miniature painting from Nicholas Hilliard but unlike Hilliard, and as a result of his understanding of continental art, he used light and shade (chiaroscuro) to develop a softer, more illusionistic style. Oliver was appointed miniaturist to Anne of Denmark, wife of James I, and later to their eldest son Henry, Prince of Wales.

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