Nicholas Hilliard's miniature portraits of Renaissance Britain

Queen Elizabeth I, miniature portrait by Nicholas Hilliard Queen Elizabeth I, by Nicholas Hilliard

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Miniature portraits were immensely popular in Elizabethan Britain - intricately detailed and often designed as private keepsakes for lovers. These objects of desire were part of a world of hidden social codes and romantic games.

Nicholas Hilliard is widely acknowledged as the first great British artist. However it was his great misfortune to be born at a time when there was barely a word for art.

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Hilliard was born in 1547, when paintings were named merely for the surface on which they were made. A painting on a table was called a panel. One on a canvas was known as a cloth. A painter, or more accurately a 'limner', in the Elizabethan age was paid the same day rate, if he was lucky, as a bricklayer or tiler.

Poor Hilliard made exquisitely tactile and complex portraits just a few inches square, using techniques that we are only now beginning to understand, and yet much to his chagrin his social status was that of a tradesman.

Art historian Dr James Fox, presenter of BBC Two's A Very British Renaissance, says that if there was one piece he could steal from any of the many museums and galleries he visits, it would be a Hilliard miniature masterpiece.

Miniature by Nicholas Hilliard: Christopher Wise Christopher Wise, Mayor of Totnes, by Nicholas Hilliard

"They were a sort of half-selfie, half-text... what is it people call it... sexting? I'm not sure of the precise modern equivalent, but you have to think of them as more than just images, certainly", says Fox.

These keepsake images, filled with cunning heraldic clues and oblique messages of undying and often thoroughly illicit adoration, were often commissioned by men who professed to be in love.

Fox thinks of the Elizabethans as an extremely pretentious crowd. "They loved spies and codes and puzzles, that was their world."

However remarkable Hilliard's skill, it is unlikely the results came from his over-arching artistic vision. The pieces appear to have been very much a collaboration between sitter and painter.

"It's amazing to think of these love-struck gents going to Hilliard's dark little workshop on Gutter Lane and cooking up an idea for a smart miniature together. He must have been part-therapist, part-artist, when you think of the conversations he would have been having."

For just the cost of a lavish meal at the time, Hilliard would paint a portrait and mount it on a playing card (probably the cheapest way to access pre-cut quality paper) and the romantic game would be afoot.

William Cecil, Lord Burghley, by Nicholas Hilliard William Cecil, Lord Burghley, by Nicholas Hilliard

The tiny images amply reward the modern visitor to the Victoria & Albert Museum, but they were never meant for the public gaze.

Hilliard's early career as a goldsmith gave him the skill needed to create these portraits as little pieces of jewellery, with resin droplets mimicking pearls and rubies. This produces works that may look at their best by candlelight.

"How precious and wonderful that must have been," enthuses Fox, "to hold onto a picture of your lover, these incredibly tactile little things, and sneak a look at it before sticking it back into your doublet pocket or into a locket held hidden at the breast."

Fox's take on the very British form of Renaissance rests on characteristic national differences. The Italians were celebrating artworks on a grand scale such as Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel or Titian's altarpiece The Assumption of the Virgin. But the tendency in Britain was to prefer discreet cleverness.

Queen Elizabeth I

The Queen herself was at the forefront of the trend for complex symbolism in the arts, and those who were seen to be fluent in it were regarded as the in-crowd at court.

Hilliard was miniaturist to the Queen; she sat for him, and he later commented on how very much in charge of her own presentation she was.

"She controlled her visual image very carefully, much as say, Madonna might do today ," says Fox.

Portrait miniature of A Young Man Leaning Against a Tree Amongst Roses, possibly Robert Deveraux, 2nd Earl of Essex (1566-1601), by Nicholas Hilliard, 1585-95, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London Portrait miniature of A Young Man Leaning Against a Tree Amongst Roses, possibly Robert Deveraux, 2nd Earl of Essex (1566-1601), by Nicholas Hilliard, 1585-95, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

She was also the recipient of many declarations of courtly love, and apparently kept her miniatures in a treasure cabinet in her bed-chamber. She would occasionally take surprised foreign ambassadors up to have a look.

Being in love with the Virgin Queen was part of the politics of the day and, while it was never likely that she would capitulate, part of her power as a monarch was based on her desirability. As such, commissioning a beautiful miniature for her could be a shrewd move at court.

The piece that Fox confesses he would most like to slip into his pocket if it were possible is The Young Man Amongst Roses. (Can be seen in the British Galleries, room 57a, at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London).

It features a terribly handsome, long-limbed gent with curly brown hair, and he leans back against a tree, looking into the middle distance and clutching wistfully at his heart.

The youth, possibly Robert Deveraux, 2nd Earl of Essex, is tortured by his adoration for someone, but barely old enough to grow a beard.

He is wearing black and white, the colours of the Queen, and around him twist her five-petalled eglantine roses. Above him a gold inscription reads, 'Dat poenas laudata fides', which translates as 'My praised faith procures my pain'.

"He is absolutely sick, the poor chap. At the time the Queen was well into her 50s and famously unavailable," says Fox.

"I bet she would have loved it."

Watch A Very British Renaissance on BBC iPlayer and on BBC Two.

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