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An Unknown Man

Portrait Miniature
ca. 1600 (painted)
Artist/Maker
Place Of Origin

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.


object details
Categories
Object Type
Materials and Techniques
Watercolour on vellum stuck onto card
Brief Description
Portrait miniature of an unknown man against a flame background, watercolour on vellum, painted by Nicholas Hilliard, ca. 1600.
Physical Description
Portrait miniature of a man, oval, half-length, and standing against flames.
Dimensions
  • Estimate height: 66mm (Note: Taken from Artists of the Tudor Court)
  • Estimate width: 51.5mm
Content description
Portrait of a man, half-length, looking to front and holding a pendant, suspended from a chain round his neck, in his right hand; behind him are the flames of a fire.
Styles
Gallery Label
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. (27/03/2003)
Credit line
Purchased with the assistance of the Murray Bequest
Object history
COLLECTIONS: W.C. Morland of Lamberhurst, Sussex by 1865 when lent to the South Kensington Exhibition as a portrait of Edward Courtney, Earl of Devon; Henry J. P. Pfungst collection; sold Christie’s 14th June 1917 (lot 59); purchased from the funds of the Capt. H. B. Murray Bequest.

Production
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.
Subjects depicted
Summary
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.
Bibliographic References
  • Strong, Roy. Artists of the Tudor Court: the Portrait Miniature Rediscovered 1520-1620. London: The Victoria and Albert Museum, 1983. Cat. 163, pp. 109-110. Part Citation: ".. The iconography is of the flames of love and the sitter holds in his right hand what is probably a picture box at the end of a chain. He has placed himself amidst flames in an emblematic manner that draws on common devices; the phoenix arising out of the flames, used a device signifying the varieties of resurrection, rebirth and chastity. The general drift of possible meanings is caught in the verse accompanying a salamander emblem in George White’s A Collection of Emblems (1638), p. 30. This Crowned Salamander in the Fire, May therefore, not unfitly, signifie Those, who in Fiery Chariots, doe aspire Elijah-like, to Immortality: Or those Heroicke-spirits, who unharm’d Have through the Fires of Troubles, and Affliction, (With Vertue, and with Innocence arm’d) Walkt onward, in the Path-way of Perfection. The formula is repeated in a miniature by Isaac Oliver at Ham House. Vaenius Amorum Emblemata (1608) which includes a salamander amidst the flames in a specifically amatory context: Love live In the fyre Unhu’rt amidds the fyer the Salamander lives The lover in the fyre of love delight doth take Where lover therby to live his nouriture doth make What others doth destroy lyf to the lovers gives. Or there is equally a parallel to the device of the flaming inverted torch with the motto Qui me alit extinquit (That which feeds me extinguishes me): Even as the waxe doth feede, and quenche the flame, So, love gives life; and love, dispaire doth give… (Geoffrey Whitney, A choice of Emblemes and Other Devises, Leiden, 1586, p. 183) Once the sitter had adopted the device it became his impresa open to his own personal reading of its meaning.
  • pp. 94-5Catharine MacLeod with Rab MacGibbon, Victoria Button, Katherine Coombs and Alan Derbyshire.‎ Elizabethan treasures : miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver. London : National Portrait Gallery, 2019.‎ ISBN: 9781855147027‎
Collection
Accession Number
P.5-1917

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record createdDecember 15, 1999
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