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Portrait miniature - An Unknown Man

An Unknown Man

  • Object:

    Portrait miniature

  • Place of origin:

    England (painted)

  • Date:

    ca. 1600 (painted)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Hilliard, Nicholas (artist)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Watercolour on vellum stuck onto card

  • Credit Line:

    Purchased with the assistance of the Murray Bequest

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

Object Type
The medium and techniques of miniature painting, or limning as it was traditionally called, developed from the art of illustrating sacred books (also called limning). Nicholas Hilliard first trained as a goldsmith and introduced to this watercolour art innovative techniques for painting gold and jewels. In this miniature we see his characteristic curling and scrolling calligraphy, painted in real gold and then burnished.

Subjects Depicted
This work beautifully illustrates the role of the miniature in the chivalrous atmosphere of dalliance and intrigue at the court of Elizabeth I, where secret gestures of allegiance could become public display depending on the whim of the wearer. Here the young man turns a picture box, the image concealed, towards his heart. This was a gesture of devotion, presumably made to the wearer of his miniature.

Ownership & Use
Unlike large-scale oil paintings, which were painted to be displayed in public rooms, miniatures were usually painted to be worn, to be held, and to be owned by one specific owner. Although we do not know who this miniature was painted for, it is a very intimate image as the gentleman is depicted effectively in a state of undress.

Physical description

Portrait miniature of a man, oval, half-length, and standing against flames.

Place of Origin

England (painted)


ca. 1600 (painted)


Hilliard, Nicholas (artist)

Materials and Techniques

Watercolour on vellum stuck onto card


Height: 24.2 cm estimate, Width: 26.3 cm estimate

Descriptive line

Portrait miniature of an unknown man against a flame background, watercolour on vellum, painted by Nicholas Hilliard, ca. 1600.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Strong, Roy. Artists of the Tudor Court: the Portrait Miniature Rediscovered 1520-1620. London: The Victoria and Albert Museum, 1983.

Labels and date

British Galleries:
Nicholas Hilliard and Miniature Painting

Nicholas Hilliard trained as a goldsmith and developed painting techniques that exploited this training. He used metallic pigments to mimic the jewellery on the opulent clothes that were fashionable. Hilliard created the image of Elizabeth and her courtiers that we know today, but he never won a salaried position at court. He had to set up shop in the City of London. From there he painted anyone who could afford his services.


The young man clearly intended his portrait to be a very personal gift. He stands dressed only in his shirt, turning a jewel to his heart. The flames almost certainly symbolise passion. In contrast, the woman chose a conventional pose. Hilliard has carefully painted her magnificent dress decorated with tiny embroidered bees and deer. [27/03/2003]

Production Note

This miniature was acquired in 1917 as a work attributed to Isaac Oliver. It was reattributed to Nicholas Hilliard in 1943 by Carl Winter. In the 1983 exhibition 'Artists of the Tudor Court' it was attributed to Isaac Oliver by Roy Strong, but in subsequent publications it is still attributed to Nicholas Hilliard.


Watercolour; Vellum



Subjects depicted

Man; Flames; Pendant; Love; Fire


Paintings; British Galleries; Portraits


Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

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