In order to attain the intense colours that can be seen here, layers of watercolour needed to be carefully “floated” atop one another. The technique was one that only few artists could master.

This portrait was painted in the 1590s, the final years of the reign of Elizabeth I (1533-1603). This young man, with his distinctive blond hair and neatly trimmed beard was likely a member of the court, possibly an aristocrat. The deep pink doublet, embroidered and cut into a regular patterned texture, is an unusual colour for such a garment. A later portrait of a similarly coloured doublet worn by Sir John Renruddock (circa 1619-20) shows it matched with pink hose.[1]

By the time the present work was painted, Hilliard had been working professionally for around twenty years.[2]Despite his professional success, he was not one to settle into old habits. The unusual colours in this miniature clearly challenged him as an artist and forced Hilliard to expand his colour palette as he has worked a purple toned hue into his palette to emulate the shadows in the costume. It was at this date that he was also experimenting with backgrounds. Although...

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This portrait was painted in the 1590s, the final years of the reign of Elizabeth I (1533-1603). This young man, with his distinctive blond hair and neatly trimmed beard was likely a member of the court, possibly an aristocrat. The deep pink doublet, embroidered and cut into a regular patterned texture, is an unusual colour for such a garment. A later portrait of a similarly coloured doublet worn by Sir John Renruddock (circa 1619-20) shows it matched with pink hose.[1]

By the time the present work was painted, Hilliard had been working professionally for around twenty years.[2]Despite his professional success, he was not one to settle into old habits. The unusual colours in this miniature clearly challenged him as an artist and forced Hilliard to expand his colour palette as he has worked a purple toned hue into his palette to emulate the shadows in the costume. It was at this date that he was also experimenting with backgrounds. Although the sitter here is shown again a traditional bright blue background, an example of Hilliard’s work from this period shows the sitter against a black background.[3]

In employing some fresh techniques in this portrait of a young man, Hilliard was also responding to the growing popularity of the work of his former pupil, Isaac Oliver (c.1565-1617). Although Hilliard had worked for Queen Elizabeth since the 1570s, he was never completely secure in this role, not being awarded the traditional pension of court artists before him until late in life. This forced Hilliard to look outside the court for commissions, as in Hilliard’s own words, these were 'more proffitable'.[4]Although a close servant of the queen, and championed by her favourite, the Earl of Leicester, Hilliard was free to take undertake miniatures from anyone who could pay. The sitter in this miniature is likely a figure from the court and not from the merchant classes who also sat for Hilliard. His fashionable, flamboyant doublet appears the opposite of the modest, more practical garb commonly worn by wealthy merchants. The face and distinctive blond hair of the sitter are close to the unknown gentleman portrayed in the allegorical portrait, where he clasps a hand descended from above (Victoria and Albert Museum, P.21-1942).

The clear, bright blue background shown here was a continuation of the quality that patrons expected from the experienced hand of Hilliard. The brilliance of these blue backgrounds was difficult to achieve. Azurite, the main pigment that was used, was coarse and difficult to work with. In order to attain the intense colours that can be seen here, layers of watercolour needed to be carefully “floated” atop one another. The technique was one that only few artists could master. Yet, focussing attention on the sitter’s face with disarming simplicity, it had an enduring popularity, which stretched into the first decades of the next century.

[1]Sold Christie’s, London, 2 March 2014, lot 5

[2]Hilliard's first known adult miniature is dated 1571, when his sitter was A Man Aged 35(private collection); the next, dated 1572(Victoria and Albert Museum).

[3]See the portrait of an unknown young man in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, P.3-1974

[4]N. Hilliard, A treatise concerning the arte of limning, ed. R. K. R. Thornton and T. G. S. Cain (1981), p. 69.

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500 Years of British Art