Despite so many colourful and lavish displays of class difference in the golden years of Elizabethan England, the visual experience, in terms of formal portraiture, was largely the same between the highest lords and ladies of the court and Her Majesty’s stooped peasants under their leaky, vermin-infested and flammable thatched roofs. Of course, the well-feasted and velveteen landed gentry would have been the productive force behind much of the finest portraiture available for consumption, sitting themselves and their closest relations before the easels of (often trendy Dutch) court painters, and maybe proudly commissioning a little ditty like this to really kiss the royal buttocks:
And, of course, the sweating, sooty smithies and rank fishwives of the lower classes would have viewed much less of this kind of commanding imagery. But they would have seen it all the same; richly stylised depictions of wealthy patrons hung smugly on stony church walls among the stations of the cross, and ornate portraits like the one above could have been glimpsed while paraded through village centres on special days to mask overt dissemination of the queen’s good propaganda in plumed clouds of festivity.
What connected the soft lords, muttering at their picture closets full of foreign masters, pausing to gnaw a leg of mutton, and the crusty Cheapside peasants, clawing at one another over the last fish head in the pot, was the fact that English painting as a whole was a sadly stunted affair. Flat, stark, kind-of-unchanged-since-the-Byzantine-Empire planes and linear compositions focused on passable facial likenesses and costly, heavily-accessorised garb persisted from the crowing of Henry VII well into the milky twilight of Elizabeth I’s long life. Meanwhile, French and Italian geniuses across the Channel were consistently feeding brilliantly-modeled masterpieces of perspective to their expectant and properly cultured princes. Fortunately, there’s something to boast of for the tavern wenches and corner dwellers of every dark, smelly London hovel. One very refined, very English, tradition swelled in artistic and courtly circles during the sixteenth century, outside the traditions of the continent, albeit more subtly…the art of the miniature.
The very word for a painter specialized in the execution of miniatures, “limner”, is derived from the job title “illuminator”, earned by scores of talented, sore-handed, bible-illustrating monks on the British Isles throughout the Middle Ages. Looking to a bright, lively insular tradition, painters in the Netherlands seem to have been the first to substitute the small-scale secular portrait for the religious miniature of the era, some of whom were gainfully employed in the entourage of Henry VIII. In favour, for example, was the “paintrix” Livinia Teerlinck, whose body of work has been lost, and Luke Horenbout, who is said to have given lessons on the art to another court painter, Hans Holbien the Younger. Elizabethan patrons adored miniatures for their intimate qualities, lacking in the normative rigidness and symbolism which represented the autocratic government to which they bowed and curtsied and bobbed their heads. With gem-like conception, clear and intense color palettes, decorative simplicity and space for personality to peek through, Holbien’s miniatures enticed his English clientele to capture their spouses, children, lovers, and sovereign on a delightfully intricate and smallest of scales.
The superstar of English limning, however, was Nicholas Hilliard (c. 1547-1619). Born in Exeter to a goldsmith father, Hilliard learned the familial trade young and carried his metal working knowledge into his later jewel-like miniatures, which he often set within clusters of sparkling gemstones for arresting unity of effect. He studied Holbien, and said deferentially of the Dutchman that “he had the best manner of limning I ever imitated, and I hold it for the best.” Hilliard stands apart, though. The freshness and familiarity of his little treasures went unparalleled, as attractive and engaging today as to those who would have originally kept them tucked away close to their hearts. The compositions’ pared-down proportions more than measured up to noble patrons’ expectations, as they offered an outlet for very personal sentiments and quirks outlawed from stoic state portraiture.
In retrospect, Hilliard’s miniature of a Youth Leaning Against a Tree Amongst Roses can be considered one of the veritable masterworks of Elizabethan pictorial art, the visual equivalent of a steamy sonnet in which style and content commune in sweet harmony. It is a piece is full of inspired passages: the complex tracery of white eglantine rose petals upon a jet black cloak, twiggy sprays of sage green leaves against a svelte thigh in white hose, an anguished motto in Latin revealing the sprightly gallant to be suffering the brutal pangs of love. The subject clutches at his chest, overcome by a wave of unfulfilled carnal and spiritual love for his anointed queen. Perhaps he has come to this jade green oasis seeking some respite for that perfectly curled chestnut head of his.
Another poetic miniature by Hilliard is Man Among Flames, although it boasts a darker lyricism, more Dante’s Inferno than A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is a well-known image of an unknown man broiling serenely in the dancing metaphorical flames of passion. The heat of love, so much the property of written amorous verse, has stolen away and taken physical form. Sorry, Shakespeare. Hilliard’s intense-eyed lover, with his ruffled dark locks and gorgeously embroidered grey tunic, cries out to be requited and reveals the artist’s taste for exquisite detailing and saturated pigments. A volcanic love poem in brushstrokes, and portable, too! Though his best paintings were but small, Hilliard reached a first pinnacle of English miniature making, and marked the face of the tradition with a crater as big as a meteor for younger generations t0 consult. Just look into the eyes of his burning man, or any of Hilliard’s petite sitters, and listen to them nearly whisper, “Size doesn’t matter.”
Source: William Gaunt, A Concise History of English Painting, London: Thames and Hudson, 1964