Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Head study of an unknown Lady, late 1590s 

Isaac Oliver (c.1565-1617)

Head study of an unknown Lady, late 1590s, Isaac Oliver
Pencil and wash on paper heightened with gold
16th Century
Oval, 2 ½ in (64 mm) high
Jonathan Richardson (L.1514) (collector’s stamp lower centre); Miss Dora Webb, L.M.S.; Sotheby's, London, 27 March 1969, lot 113; Dr Theodore Besterman; Christie's, London, 17 November 1981, lot 28; Colin Hunter; Sotheby's, London, 11 July 1991, lot 12
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This atmospheric study of a head was drawn by Isaac Oliver, one of the most celebrated artists of the English Renaissance period, and was once owned by the distinguished painter, connoisseur and collector Jonathan Richardson.

The mannerist positioning of the subject’s head, and the refined use of chiaroscuro suggests that Oliver was highly influenced by his extensive travels through Europe and exposure to paintings and drawings of the Italian and Flemish schools at this period. This work fits into a body of biblically-themed drawings he produced from the mid-1580s through to the late 1590s. The empathetic and sensitive treatment of the subject perhaps suggests that she was intended to be a Madonna-type figure, and it is possible that this was a preparatory drawing by Oliver in anticipation of a larger, more dramatic composition like his ‘Adoration of the Magi’ (c.1596) , in which the Madonna bears a marked similarity to the subject of this study.

Oliver has used specks of gold highlighting on the surface of this work – a most unusual addition in sketches and a technique more commonly associated with the finished watercolour miniatures of his master and eventual rival, Nicholas Hilliard (c.1547-1619), who also trained as a goldsmith. Dr. Richard Haydocke wrote of Hilliard and Oliver in 1598 as a partnership of ‘Master’ (Hilliard) and his ‘well profiting scholar’ (Oliver), although by this date Oliver had already painted his first independent miniature and travelled to Venice. This sketch reveals a technical debt to his master, as Hilliard’s artistic practice was innovative in that he included gold in his miniatures not as a pigment but as a metal. There were, however, other sources available to Oliver that may have influenced his decision to experiment with gold in a drawing – an anonymously published treatise of 1573, simply entitled Limming (sic), discusses artists’ techniques to ‘temper gold and silver…’. Unlike Hilliard, Oliver often produced preparatory drawings, as evidenced by George Vertue who described viewing a book filled with the artist’s sketches.

The early provenance of this drawing from the collection of the great connoisseur Jonathan Richardson follows the tradition, started in England around the time of this drawing’s execution, of collecting drawings as works of art in their own right. It was not until Henry Peacham published his Arte of Drawing in 1606 that preparatory and unfinished drawings began to attain a new status as collectable works of art and the act of drawing considered a worthy, independent activity. The attitude towards drawing when Oliver produced this sketch was that it was a technical means to an end. The eventual presence of this work in Richardson’s much-admired collection reveals the elevated position such drawings attained over the subsequent century.
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