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9 December 2021

Not only is Nicholas Hillyard a great English artist through whose works the Elizabethan court comes to life, he is the author of "The art of Limning" which, dating from about 1600, is the only contemporary written work by an English artist of the period. (Painting miniatures is known as limning.) Using extracts from the book, as well as illustrations by Hillyard and his contemporaries, on the evening of Thursday 9 December Dr Gillian White gave Vale of Evesham Historical Society members a lively, enthusiastic and fascinating account of the man, his work and his time.

Miniatures are produced using the same techniques as are used in illuminating medieval manuscripts - they are essentially watercolours painted on vellum which is mounted on a piece of card (for the most part, surprisingly, a playing card). They first emerged in France in about 1520 and many early miniaturists, for example the Fleming Lucas Horenbout, were originally illuminators.

Nicholas Hillyard was bom in 1547 into a prosperous provincial family in Exeter, where his father was a goldsmith. The earliest of his works to survive is a self portrait completed when he was just 13. Apprenticed later to the goldsmith Robert Brandon, the Queen's jeweller, he is thought to have been taught his craft by Levina Teerlinc, the official court miniaturist to Elizabeth I.

Preferring to paint directly from the life, Nicholas at first strove for a realistic depiction of his subject. Later, however, after a two-year stay in France, he seems to have adopted the French style, in which a decorative effect is aimed at, and we see likeness subordinated to the fabulous details of lace ruffs and jewellery associated with his court paintings. He received many commissions from Elizabeth herself and from her favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Some of his works, such as the Armada Jewel, are mounted in the most fantastic jewelled settings but despite his training as a goldsmith there does not seem to be any piece of jewellery surviving that can be attributed to him.

Towards the end of the sixteenth century, he seems to have been considered a bit passé, and in the seventeenth century, the new monarch James I was not much interested in art, while the royal patrons - Queen Anne and Henry Prince of Wales - preferred the work (once again in a more realistic style) of the miniaturist Isaac Oliver.

Hillyard continued to paint till the end of his life, but never found a permanent patron and seems to have lived a rather hand-to-mouth existence. He died in 1619 aged 71 and was buried in the churchyard of St Martin in the Fields.

This was a fascinating talk illuminated by much humour on the part of the speaker and by the gorgeous illustrations of works by Hillyard and his contemporaries. There was a lot of interest on the part of the audience, and this being the Society Christmas meeting) a lot of discussion over the mince pies.

Nicholas Hilliard and the Art of the Miniature - by Gillian White: Event
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