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Portrait miniature - An Unknown Woman, aged 26

An Unknown Woman, aged 26

  • Object:

    Portrait miniature

  • Place of origin:

    England (painted)

  • Date:

    1593 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Hilliard, Nicholas (painter (artist))

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Watercolour on vellum stuck onto a playing card

  • Credit Line:

    Bequeathed by George Salting

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    British Galleries, Room 57, case 3

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.

Nicholas Hilliard set up business in Gutter Lane in the City of London. In his treatise on limning Hilliard noted that limners should choose an area away from other trades, a 'place where neither dust, smoke, noise nor stench may offend' and some colours would suffer in the 'sulphurous air of seacoal and the gilding of goldsmiths'. Also 'the place where you work' should be lit from the north-east by one window, 'great and fair', with no walls or trees blocking the light. The late Medieval buildings of London would have made it hard to find such a workplace.

This sitter was once called Mistress Holland, Maid of Honour to Queen Elizabeth, because of a later inscription on the miniature's back. There is no real proof that she is Mistress Holland, but her magnificent costume, embroidered with tiny bees and deer, does not rule against her being a lady of the court.

Physical description

Portrait miniature of a woman, half-length, turned slightly to left and looking to front. Oval with inscriptions in gold above the head. There are five spades printed on the reverse of the backing sheet.

Place of Origin

England (painted)


1593 (made)


Hilliard, Nicholas (painter (artist))

Materials and Techniques

Watercolour on vellum stuck onto a playing card

Marks and inscriptions

'Ano Dni. 1593. AEtatis suae. 26'
Inscribed at the top with lettering and a fleur de lys

'Mrs – Holland / Maid of Honor in the / Court of Queen / Elizabeth / by Hilliard Senr.'

Inscribed on the reverse in a nineteenth century hand


Height: 5.8 cm, Width: 4.8 cm

Object history note

- Previously thought to be a portrait of Mrs Holland because of a nineteenth-century inscription on the reverse.

- In 2003 it was suggested that this miniature of an unknown woman was a portrait of Emilia Bassano [Amelia or Emilia Bassano, born Lanier], 'a prime contender for the role of [Shakespeare's] Dark Lady... The discovery was stumbled upon by the actor and playwright Tony Haygarth while researching his latest play, Dark Meaning Mouse, which examines the relationship between Shakespeare and his Dark Lady and her influence on his work.' (reported by Simon Tait, 'The Independent', 7 Dec 2003). Another miniature by Nicholas Hilliard in the V&A’s collection (museum no. P.8-1945) has also been suggested as a portrait of Amelia or Emilia Bassano, born Lanier.

Provenance: In the collection of Samuel Addington in 1865 when lent to the South Kensington Exhibition as Mrs Holland, sold in his sale as Lady Elizabeth Russell, Christie’s 26th April 1883 (lot 87); bought Wareham; J. Lumsden Propert Collection; purchased by Salting at the dissolution of that collection in 1897 by the Fine Art Society; bequeathed by Salting 1910.

Descriptive line

Portrait of a woman, previously thought to be Mrs Holland, watercolour on vellum, painted by Nicholas Hilliard, 1593.

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]


Watercolour; Vellum; Card



Subjects depicted

Deer; Woman; Bees; Ruff


Paintings; Portraits; British Galleries


Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

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