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Zoomable Image of Portrait miniature of a Lady, wearing black bodice over white-sleeved gown, a diaphanous fichu decorated with black and white rosettes, white ruff and cap decorated with lace and flowers and trimmed with gold lace over her dark hair; blue background with gold border, c.1615

Portrait miniature of a Lady, wearing black bodice over white-sleeved gown, a diaphanous fichu decorated with black and white rosettes, white ruff and cap decorated with lace and flowers and trimmed with gold lace over her dark hair; blue background with gold border, c.1615

English School

Portrait miniature of a Lady, wearing black bodice over white-sleeved gown, a diaphanous fichu decorated with black and white rosettes, white ruff and cap decorated with lace and flowers and trimmed with gold lace over her dark hair; blue background with gold border, c.1615

English School

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Materials:

Watercolour on vellum

Dimensions:

Oval, 2 in (52 mm) high

Provenance:

With David Lavender 1996 (as by Laurence Hilliard)

Frame:

Set into a turned ivory box with lid (probably original)

The present work indicates a high level of confidence in capturing the lively expression of the sitter and her detailed costume, which would have been observed from life...

This fascinating portrait, dating to the first quarter of the seventeenth century, is probably an example of the work carried out by a pupil or assistant of Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619). It is known that Hilliard trained at least three artists – Isaac Oliver, Rowland Lockey and his own son, Laurence Hilliard. Although it is not clear whether Hilliard presided over a studio, his influence must have extended to both professional and amateur artists. Miniature painting, or limning as it was then known, was advocated as a suitable practice for gentlemen in several treatises and influential publications, such as Henry Peacham’s ‘Graphice’.[1] The present work is accomplished, with the artist displaying great skill in the painterly description of transparent fabrics in the fichu and cap.

The present work also indicates a high level of confidence in capturing the lively expression of the sitter. It is clearly observed from life and possibly portrays a character known to the artist. In this the unknown artist also apes Hilliard, in following his accurate and direct observation of the sitter before them, including their attire. The use of gold, both within the portrait and at the borders, similarly derives from Hilliard’s practice.

The clothing of the sitter allows some insight into her status. Dating to circa 1615, her dress contains elements of expensive attire, but it is possibly the clothing of a wealthy merchant’s wife, rather than that of a noblewoman. The sitter’s cap is richly decorated with floral motifs, carefully drawn by the artist, but this type of embroidery had been in fashion since the latter years of the sixteenth century and was perhaps not quite as ‘au courant’ by this date. By the early 1620s, ruffs were also less starched and fell in a more natural shape around the sitter’s neck. The blue background of the portrait is a somewhat antiquated feature relating to the earliest portrait miniatures. Interestingly this serves as a reminder that Hilliard and those who followed his profession were not solely confined to courtly patronage, where the latest fashion and most lavish clothing would be on show. Although portrait miniatures of the early seventeenth century were central to courtly life, patronage also extended to the minor nobility and wealthy merchants.

The ivory box which houses the miniature is possibly the reason for its excellent condition. Such boxes protected miniatures and enabled them to become portable portraits. They also had a secretive element, as the box lid requires opening to reveal the portrait inside. Several examples of such boxes survive in public collections, including an oval portrait of a youth in a yellow doublet by Hilliard dating to circa 1590 [P.4&A-1974] and another which previously contained a miniature by Hilliard in the Radnor Collection [P.1:2-1974]. These boxes share similar characteristics with the present example, including the simple turned lid and base, and were probably made by English craftsmen. More complex ivory boxes with delicate high-relief carving exist, but the skills required for such elaborate turning could only be found on the continent at this date.[2]



[1] For a full discussion of the place of ‘limning’ in the sixteenth and seventeenth century see K. Coombs, ‘A Kind of Gentle Painting’: Liming in the sixteenth century’ (online publication British Museum; https://www.britishmuseum.org/pdf/3-Coombs-A%20kind%20of%20gentle%20painting.pdf)

[2] See, for example, the portrait of Anne of Cleves by Holbein in the Victoria and Albert Museum [P.153:1, 2-1910]. It is assumed that this box post-dates the portrait miniature and may have been made in Germany.

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