Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait miniature of a Lady of the Tudor Court 

Nicholas Hilliard 1547-1619

Portrait miniature of a Lady of the Tudor Court, Nicholas Hilliard
Watercolour on vellum
16th Century
Oval, 2 1/16 inches, 5.2cm high
Probably Baron Gustave de Rothschild; By whom probably left to Sir Philip Sassoon, 3rd Baronet; Sybil Sassoon (1894-1989), Marchioness of Cholmondeley; By whom sold Christies, London, 22nd October 1974, lot.69 for £17,000; Spink & Son; Private Collection, UK.
Auerbach, E. Nicholas Hilliard, London, 1961. pg.108 (illustrated), p.g.311. Reynolds, G. Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver, London, 1971, no.45.
‘Hilliard and Oliver’, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1947, no. 45 ‘The Houghton Pictures’, Agnews, May 6 – June 6 1959, no. 30
Later 19th century frame with white striped enamel border, surmounted with pierced scroll inlaid with black and white enamel, green guilloche enamel reverse.

This portrait miniature or ‘limning’ is an exemplary example from the latter part of the reign of Elizabeth I and the mature style of Nicholas Hilliard. Although stylised and precisely drawn, the portrait includes humanising elements which look toward the greater characterisation and naturalisation found in the later seventeenth century portrait. Among the starched court finery of the sitter, her auburn curls escape, teased out by Hilliard onto her ruff. As Erna Auerbach notes of this portrait; “An almost Rococo treatment of the hair, with corkscrew curls falling down onto the standing lace ruff, distinguishes the miniature”.

As might be expected from the hand of Elizabeth I’s own image-maker, this portrait of a young married lady is laden with symbolism. Using the backdrop of the sitter’s hair and dress, Hilliard has interweaved an opus of symbolic objects. The status of the portrait miniature in Elizabethan England was ostensibly that of a private image. As part of a complex world ruled by courtly conventions they were used as a form of communication, their use controlled by their owner. To this end, portrait miniatures, or limnings as they were then known, were imbued with emblems personal and significant to owner and recipient. As Clifford Geertz has observed, the Elizabethan imagination was “allegorical, Protestant, didactic, and pictorial; it lived on moral abstractions cast into emblems.” From the 1580s onwards, female court dress began to incorporate these emblems as embroidery.

The present example is no exception and to the Elizabethan eye this miniature would have read as a litany to the virtues of a young wife and mother. The jewelled crossbow nestled in the sitter’s auburn hair, for example, is a symbol of brains over brute strength. Although uncommon, if known at all, in other portraits by Hilliard, this symbol notably appears in the oil portrait of the young Anne of Denmark [after Paul van Somer, 1617/18, National Portrait Gallery, London]. Similarly shown housed in the Queen’s coiffure, this jewel may have been the same one as Anne inherited from Elizabeth I.

Although not firmly identifiable at present, the sitter is presenting to the viewer a close connection with Elizabeth’s court. It is well documented that Elizabeth was donating items from her wardrobe from 1561 until the end of her reign. Janet Arnold has suggested that many of these court ladies may have had their portraits painted in appreciation of such gifts, although her theory does not embrace the more private portrait miniature type. The inclusion of the Tudor rose, prominent in the centre of the sitter’s bodice and embroidered irises, found in other dresses worn by Elizabeth would suggest an alliance with the Queen. The addition of oak leaves embroidered on the sleeves can also be seen in other portraits of Elizabeth.

The Tudor rose on the bodice is flanked by pomegranates slightly hidden by the falling starched lace and a further cut pomegranate on the sitter’s sleeve. Beneath these are blue irises, representational in Elizabethan times of the Virgin Mary. The combination of such fruits and flowers may also attest to this portrait as that of a married woman and mother, even the oak leaves would have been noted as a symbol of fecundity.

The necklace worn by the sitter further indicates a lady from the the inner circle of Elizabeth I. Comprised of one large gold-set diamond star from which hangs a large pearl, and several smaller stars hung from a pearl necklace, an identical necklace is worn by Elizabeth in her portrait set into the Heneage or Armada Jewel [Victoria and Albert Museum, London, M.81-1935]. As observed by Roy Strong, Elizabeth appears to have sat for no portraits after circa 1586-7, forcing Hilliard to adopt the ‘mask of youth’ in his depictions of her. Hilliard does, however, continue to observe the queen’s legendary wardrobe and her jewels directly from life. This distinctive necklace is also shown worn by the Queen in Francis Delaram’s engraving of circa 1617-19 (after Hilliard).
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.