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Definition: Hilliard, Nicholas from Philip's Encyclopedia

English miniaturist and goldsmith. Hilliard portrayed many of the leading figures of the time in an exquisitely graceful style.

Summary Article: Hilliard, Nicholas (c. 1547–1619)
from Encyclopedia of Tudor England

Nicholas Hilliard was the most accomplished painter of miniatures in Elizabethan England. Born in Devon, the son of an Exeter goldsmith, Hilliard was apprenticed as a boy to a London goldsmith. About 1560, Hilliard began experimenting with the art of miniature painting, which was known in Tudor England as limning. Before the age of 20, he had done several portraits in miniature, including one of himself and one of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. His style, which was heavily influenced by the work of Hans Holbein, court painter to Henry VIII, attracted the attention of Elizabeth I, who in 1572 appointed Hilliard to be the royal limner and goldsmith. Unlike the more realistic portrayals executed by his best pupil, Isaac Oliver, Hilliard’s numerous portraits of Elizabeth were more refined and idealized, and thus more to the aging queen’s liking.

In the mid-1580s, Elizabeth granted Hilliard a monopoly on the painting of royal portraits in miniature. Although few of his works have survived, Hilliard painted the portraits of many prominent Elizabethan courtiers and was a friend of Sir Philip Sidney and Sir Christopher Hatton. In the late 1570s, Hilliard briefly entered the service of Francis Valois, Duke of Alençon, and spent two years at the French court where his work became extremely popular. Because his miniatures were designed as jewels, Hilliard continued to pursue his trade as a goldsmith and jeweler, making the pendants and lockets on which the miniatures could be worn and displayed. Hilliard is also known to have executed a number of large-scale paintings, but few of them can now be definitely identified as his work.

After the accession of James I in 1603, Hilliard found himself in serious competition with Oliver, whose use of shadowing made Hilliard’s more linear style of miniature painting seem outdated. Nonetheless, Hilliard won appointment as limner to the king, although Oliver was named official limner to James’s wife, Anne of Denmark. About 1600, Hilliard began writing his Treatise on the Art of Limning, but the work was unfinished at his death in January 1619. English limning reached its highest achievement under Hilliard, who also greatly influenced English portrait painting in the seventeenth century.

See also Monopolies

Further Reading
  • Edmond, Mary. Hilliard and Oliver. R. Hale London, 1983.
  • Hearn, Karen. Nicholas Hilliard. Unicorn London, 2006.
  • Copyright 2012 by ABC-CLIO, LLC

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