In London? We recommend…

Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard & Oliver

Where: National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, London, WC2H 0HE
When: 21 February until 19 May 2019
Tickets: £10/£8.50 (Book tickets here)

Spectacularly intimate and unbelievably precise, this vast exhibition of Elizabethan miniatures at the National Portrait Gallery is beguiling.

Inching into the mysteriously dark exhibition space with magnifying glass in hand, visitors are suddenly confronted by case after case of Hilliard and Oliver’s tiny masterpieces. But it is not until one is pressed up against the glass that the magic of these nearly 500-year-old miniatures is revealed.

Painting miniatures, also known as limning, was an incredibly popular art form amongst the very wealthy in Renaissance Britain and Europe. Nicolas Hilliard (1547-1619) became the first renowned English limner and his French-born pupil Isaac Oliver (1565-1617) quickly enjoyed equal fame.

Considered by many as the greatest works of art in Europe, Hilliard himself described his miniatures as “a thing apart from all other painting or drawing”.

Giant photographic magnifications in the exhibition help to illuminate Hilliard and Oliver’s extraordinary technique. Painted with squirrel-hair brushes, the fine stippling and brushstrokes miraculously resolve themselves into blushing cheeks, wispy beards, and intricate lace ruffs.

After the initial awe of their diminutive size fades, the power of Elizabethan miniatures emerges as both public yet intensely private objects. They were often pressed against the heart or worn around the wrist like bracelets. Owners handled, marvelled over, and even kissed their miniatures.

According to Hilliard, the limner sought to capture “those lovely graces, witty smilings, and those stolen glances which suddenly like lightning pass.

Two ivory-framed miniatures of unknown little girls, aged 4 and 5, are an especially striking loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum. Whilst one sister appears bewildered by the experience of sitting for Oliver, with her pouting lips and puppy-dog eyes, the eldest confidently smirks in a captivatingly life-like way. The mischief of childhood is perfectly portrayed here, and we can easily imagine a parent cherishing these portraits.

The private bond between lovers is another theme explored throughout this exhibition. Shakespeare’s patron and rumoured lover, the Earl of Southampton, is depicted by Oliver with a distinctively long love lock, high quiff, and energetic eyes. In a unique miniature by Hilliard, golden flames engulf an impassioned lover. The unknown man is aflame with desire for his own beloved, whose indistinguishable miniature is cradled in his hand.

Hilliard and Oliver painted some of the most powerful people in Elizabethan Britain, with miniatures on display of Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Drake, James I, Anne of Denmark, and of course Elizabeth I. A recently discovered portrait of King Henry III of France is also on show.

Bringing together an astounding collection Elizabethan miniatures for the first time in 35 years, this major exhibition draws visitors straight into the love, loss, and humour of Britain’s not-so distant past.