The Captivating Power of Elizabethan Miniatures

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The great miniature painter Nicholas Hilliard declared that his method of art ‘excelleth every other art form whatsoever.’ Miniature painting or ‘limning’ held a far more interesting position in the Elizabethan world than traditional painting.

Precious Jewels

Image result for man against flamesThe pieces were jewel-like works made with precious metals. One example in the V&A shows a lady’s pearl necklace painted in real silver. This came at a time of artistic decline after the great patronage of Henry VIII when Elizabeth’s reign saw many artists struggle. Protestant immigration from the Netherlands brought with it many painters who angered many artists in the City of London who petitioned the mayor to place controls on imported art. Hilliard, the son of a royal jeweller, was naturally keen to distance his craft from these exquisite canvases.

The miniatures themselves held a new space in cabinets next to the bedrooms of the aristocracy, right at the heart of their households. Patricia Fumerton suggested a penetration metaphor to describe how visitors viewing a miniature would be brought to a host’s most intimate space to view portraits of loved ones.

A Courtier’s Visit

Sir Henry Melville revealed an interesting encounter with Elizabeth when he was permitted this far and yet touching the miniature was out of reach. “[she] opened a little cabinet, wherein were divers little pictures wrapt within paper, and their names written with her own hand upon the papers. Upon the first that she took up was written, “My Lord’s picture.” I held the candle, and pressed to see that picture so named. She appeared loath to let me see it; yet my importunity prevailed for a sight thereof, and found it to be the Earl of Leicester’s picture. I desired that I might have it to carry home to my Queen; which she refused, alleging that she had but that one picture of his. I said, your Majesty hath here the original; for I perceived him at the farthest part of the chamber, speaking with Secretary Cecil. Then she took out the Queen’s picture, and kissed it; and I adventured to kiss her hand, for the great love therein evidenced to my mistress. She showed me also a fair ruby, as great as a tennis-ball. I desired that she would either send it, or my Lord Leicester’s picture, as a token unto the Queen. She said, if the Queen would follow her counsel, that she would in process of time get all she had; that in the meantime she was resolved in a token to send her with me a fair diamond.” (Memoirs of SirJames Melville of Halhill, 1535-1617, ed. A. Francis Steuart (New York, 1930), 92 and 94)

by Stewart Vickers