Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait miniature of a Nobleman, wearing black doublet embroidered with gold thread and white ruff, blue bice background and gold border 

Peter Oliver (1594-1648)

Portrait miniature of a Nobleman, wearing black doublet embroidered with gold thread and white ruff, blue bice background and gold border, Peter Oliver
Watercolour on vellum
17th Century
Oval, 1 7/8 inches, 48mm high
Private Collection (where described as ‘Peter Oliver portrait of James I’)
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Dating from circa 1610-15, this portrait is an early example of the work of Peter Oliver. The heavily contoured face contrasts with the sitter’s flatly embroidered doublet, showing exploratory techniques yet to combine into a mature, distinctive style.

The portrait miniatures painted by Peter and his father Isaac Oliver differed significantly from the earlier style of Nicholas Hilliard. Described by Richard Haydocke in 1598 as Hilliard’s ‘well-profiting scholar’, Isaac preferred to look to Continental art for his guide and inspiration. A mark of how different the two men’s style had become is clear in the division of patronage between James I and his queen, Anne of Denmark. James preferred to remain loyal to Hilliard and continue the conventional portrait tradition started by Elizabeth I, whilst Anne employed Isaac Oliver as her official image maker. Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales also employed Oliver and encouraged some of his most ambitious and magnificent miniatures.

Peter Oliver was the eldest son of the miniaturist Isaac Oliver by his first wife, Elizabeth. Evidence that he was trained by his father is in the bequest of Isaac’s unfinished miniatures to his son that he could ‘exercise that art or science which he and I now do’. When father and son worked together, their work is virtually indistinguishable. As seen in this portrait, Peter described the contours of the face with short brushstrokes, viewing Hilliard’s lack of chiaroscuro as somewhat archaic. His later portraits refined this technique further as he perfected the same fine sfumato stippling demonstrated by his father.

Much of Peter Oliver’s early work focused on the numerous repetition of portraits of Prince Henry and Prince Charles, produced from his father’s original ad vivum works. When he was able to work from life, such as with this portrait of an unknown courtier, the results were usually highly characterful and emotive. His work was always experimental, particularly in his use of colours. He also introduced the use of commercially produced gessoed card, known as ‘table book leaf’ as a support for vellum. Eventually, Peter became consumed with making copies of oil paintings, largely ‘histories’ and during the 1620s and 1630s, John Hoskins became the dominant court portraitist.

Peter Oliver died at Isleworth and was buried beside his father at the church of St Anne Blackfriars. He died childless and left everything to his widow Anne. Vertue records a rather tragic family story relating to this legacy which recalls a visit from Charles II to Mrs. Oliver after the Restoration. In viewing the miniatures left by her husband he offered her either £1000 in cash or an annuity of £300 a year. She chose the latter but when she later heard that he had given some of the miniatures to his court ladies she let it be known that she would never have sold them had she known that they would be given to ‘whores, bastards and strumpets’. The annuity was promptly cancelled by the king.

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