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An Unknown Woman

  • Object:

    Portrait miniature

  • Place of origin:

    England (painted)

  • Date:

    1575-1580 (painted)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Hilliard, Nicholas (artist)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Watercolour on vellum stuck to a playing card

  • Credit Line:

    Given by E. Peter Jones

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Portrait Miniatures, Room 90a, The International Music and Art Foundation Gallery, case 18

This unfinished miniature shows what Hilliard would have have achieved after two of the three customary sittings, working directly onto the vellum support (fine animal skin). The ‘carnation’ - the flesh-coloured ground painted in the area of the face - has been laid down. Some of the features have been modelled over the carnation, using hatches of red and brown, but more detail is needed on the face and on the costume. Although Hilliard did paint members of Queen Elizabeth I's court, he also accepted commissions from customers who visited his shop in the City of London. Those of his sitters whose names are not inscribed on their miniatures are now virtually impossible to identify. This portrait demonstrates a simple alternative to the complex symbolism of many court portraits.

Physical description

Portrait miniature of a woman, oval, looking to front, the head turned slightly to the right and wearing a ruff. The features incomplete and modelled over a carnation ground in transparent hatches of red and brown; the hair loosely washed over the carnation ground to indicate its disposition; the almost complete and worked up with ransparent grey over a white ground, and its lace raised in thick white; the background has been taken only so far as the first thin wash of blue bice; the costume has been indicated with dark lines of brown and black over the vellum, below which there are faint signs of graphite underdrawing. The portrait is backed with a playing card with three spades showing at the reverse.

Place of Origin

England (painted)


1575-1580 (painted)


Hilliard, Nicholas (artist)

Materials and Techniques

Watercolour on vellum stuck to a playing card


Height: 39 mm, Width: 32.5 mm

Object history note

V. J. Murrell suggested that the painting was probably a demonstration piece kept in the studio. The evidence for this, in particular, the carelessness in the preparation of the vellum which has been crudely trimmed and fails to reach the upper edge of the playing card upon which it has been mounted.

Historical context note

Probably used as an artist's demonstration piece.

Descriptive line

Portrait miniature of an unknown woman, watercolour on vellum, painted by Nicholas Hilliard, 1575-1580.

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.

Victoria and Albert Museum, Department of Engraving, Illustration and Design & Department of Paintings, Accessions 1947, London: HMSO, 1950.


Vellum; Card; Watercolour



Subjects depicted

Ruff; Woman


Images Online; Paintings; Portraits


Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

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