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Zoomable Image of An unknown gentleman, wearing black doublet and white lace collar, against a red curtain background, c.1590

An unknown gentleman, wearing black doublet and white lace collar, against a red curtain background, c.1590

Nicholas Hilliard (c.1547-1619)

An unknown gentleman, wearing black doublet and white lace collar, against a red curtain background, c.1590

Nicholas Hilliard (c.1547-1619)

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Price:

£65,000

Materials:

Watercolour on vellum stuck to pasteboard

Dimensions:

Oval, 1 ¾ in (44 mm) high

Provenance:

Christie’s, London, 28th November 2006, lot 93; Christie’s, London, 17th October 1995, lot 19; ‘Property of a gentleman’, Sotheby’s, London, 1st May 1958, lot 60.

Frame:

Gold locket frame (probably 18th century), the reverse with an enamel of flowers dating to the mid-17th century

He wears his hair long on one side of his head, a fashion, known as a lovelock, that can also be seen in portraits of the Earl of Southampton. Elements of dress, moreover, suggest that he was a figure who worked at the upper echelons of the court.

This hairstyling of the sitter, his clothing and the red background against which he is placed date this portrait to the 1590s...


These years were ones of continued artistic experimentation for Nicholas Hilliard (c.1547-1619). His former pupil, Isaac Oliver (c.1565-1617), had become his leading competitor. Oliver’s rich, Italianate chiaroscuro, which contrasted with Hilliard’s stated preference for clean line and little shadow, challenged the older artist to innovate. This he did by developing a new format, the full-length “cabinet miniature”, which responded to visual stimuli to which he would have been exposed during his time in France, and by experimenting with the backgrounds against which his sitters were placed.

Previously, Hilliard had shown his sitters almost exclusively against a background of vivid blue, often made of the mineral pigment azurite. Now, however, he introduced a greater variety to his art. Most significantly, this included the use of a red background painted to simulate velvet, as seen here. These velvet curtains, which suggest that his sitters are shown in real rather than abstract settings, are in keeping with his moves to introduce a greater degree of naturalism to the composition of his portraits.

Hilliard first used this device c. 1590.[1] Initially, the red background was painted “wet in wet” to suggest a quilted fabric. But as he grew more confident in the technique, he developed it to show the curtain hanging in long, vertical folds. This was painted using a highly refined method. First, a layer of red would be painted; then, when it was still wet, Hilliard would drag a dry brush down the paint layer to create the folds of fabric.

Later, this would be seen prominently in Hilliard’s portraits of the new king, James I of England and VI of Scotland (1566-1625). But in the 1590s, this background can be seen in some portraits by Hilliard of the circle of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex (1565-1601). Following the death of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (1532/3-1588), Essex – who was both Leicester’s stepson and his godson – had become Queen Elizabeth’s (1533-1603) new favourite. In keeping with this status, he turned to Leicester’s primary image-maker, Hilliard, to form his iconography “in little”, before turning to Oliver as he looked to acquire a more independent status at court.[2] Several of his associates were painted by Hilliard and two surviving works – portraits of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (1573-1624), and Sir Henry Slingsby (1560-1634) – show the sitters against red backgrounds.

It could be that the sitter of the present work hailed from this circle. He wears his hair long on one side of his head, a fashion, known as a lovelock, that can also be seen in portraits of the Earl of Southampton. Elements of dress, moreover, suggest that he was a figure who worked at the upper echelons of the court. The faint moustache on his upper lip suggests that he was a young man when the portrait was painted, which would place him as a contemporary of the dashing young men of the Essex circle.


[1] E. Goldring, Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist (New Haven and London, 2019), pp. 233, 236.

[2] Ibid., pp. 235-7.

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