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Image of Gallery in South Kensington
On display at V&A South Kensington
Portrait Miniatures, Room 90a, The International Music and Art Foundation Gallery

Unknown Man Clasping a Hand from a Cloud

Portrait Miniature
1588 (painted)
Artist/Maker
Place Of Origin

With its allegory of the symbolically linked hands and the mysterious motto, which still has not been satisfactorily explained, this miniature typifies the emblematic mystery encouraged by Queen Elizabeth I's Accession Day ceremonial jousts. These great public tournaments centred around the Queen receiving the homage of her young knights, each of whom presented her with a shield bearing an impresa, a combination of picture and motto ‘borne by noble personages to notify some particular conceit of their own’. In much the same way, this miniature - uniting portrait, allegorical symbol and obscure motto - becomes a single statement of the ideals and allegiances of the sitter, to be shared only with those within his intimate circle. The clasped hands are a symbol of concord and plighted faith, here presumably between the stylish young courtier and his lady. Such complex messages on portraits would have been determined by discussions between the sitter and Nicholas Hilliard, the artist.

Numerous scholars have tried to identify the sitter, variously, as: Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex; Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford; Lord Thomas Howard and, inevitably, William Shakespeare. Some of these identifications are more plausible than others, but for none is there sufficient evidence.


object details
Categories
Object Type
Materials and Techniques
Watercolour on vellum mounted on to a plain brown card, probably a later addition
Brief Description
Portrait miniature of a man clasping a hand from a cloud, watercolour on vellum, painted by Nicholas Hilliard, 1588.
Physical Description
Portrait miniature, oval, head and shoulders, of a man clasping a hand from a cloud; inscribed with gold lettering on either side of the head.
Dimensions
  • Height: 60mm
  • Width: 49.5mm
Styles
Marks and Inscriptions
Inscribed in gold on either side of the head: 'Attici amoris ergo. / Ano. Dni. 1588'. The motto has never been satisfactorily explained or translated. It has recently been suggested that it could be translated as ‘Because of Athenian love’. [see Catharine MacLeod, ‘Elizabethan Treasures: miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver’, National Portrait Gallery, London, cat. no. 28, pages 96-97]. ‘Ano. Dni. 1588’: [Anno Domini] means: ‘In the year of our Lord. 1588’.
Credit line
Transferred from the British Museum
Object history
Once owned by Hans Sloane and then transferred to the British Museum in 1754, a year after his death: This was probably part of a group of Hilliard miniatures sold in May 1726 from the collection of a writer, Mr Halstead: “there likewise several hds of Hilliard with writing about, gold letters... the Earl of Essex. 1588...” (George Vertue, Notebooks, II, Walpole Society, XX,1932, p. 13). The 'Essex' could be this miniature acquired by Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753). This passed with his collection to the British Museum in 1754 (BM No. 3; Sloane 272) and it is recorded in the Sloane Inventory: “The picture of the Earl of Essex in whose hand is another coming from the clouds, supposed to be that of Queen Elizabeth, wrote upon Attici Amoris Ergo 1588 in miniature!, purchased or valued at £2.2.0d; transferred to the V&A, 1939.

Subjects depicted
Summary
With its allegory of the symbolically linked hands and the mysterious motto, which still has not been satisfactorily explained, this miniature typifies the emblematic mystery encouraged by Queen Elizabeth I's Accession Day ceremonial jousts. These great public tournaments centred around the Queen receiving the homage of her young knights, each of whom presented her with a shield bearing an impresa, a combination of picture and motto ‘borne by noble personages to notify some particular conceit of their own’. In much the same way, this miniature - uniting portrait, allegorical symbol and obscure motto - becomes a single statement of the ideals and allegiances of the sitter, to be shared only with those within his intimate circle. The clasped hands are a symbol of concord and plighted faith, here presumably between the stylish young courtier and his lady. Such complex messages on portraits would have been determined by discussions between the sitter and Nicholas Hilliard, the artist.



Numerous scholars have tried to identify the sitter, variously, as: Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex; Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford; Lord Thomas Howard and, inevitably, William Shakespeare. Some of these identifications are more plausible than others, but for none is there sufficient evidence.
Bibliographic Reference
Strong, Roy. Artists of the Tudor Court: the Portrait Miniature Rediscovered 1520-1620.. London: The Victoria and Albert Museum, 1983. Cat. 83, pp. 75-76. Part Citation: There are two versions of this miniature, the second of which was in the possession of Dr Leslie Hotson who made it the subject of his book, 'Shakespeare by Hilliard', London, 1977. The existence of a repetition indicates that the sitter was of some social standing. [Update 2013: In 2013 the second version was sold at Christie's. A close comparison at the V&A of both miniatures has established that the V&A version is the ad vivum version. Despite the large amount of damage on the sitter’s left cheek in the V&A version, it is of high quality.] "... The sitter’s right hand is raised clasping a female left hand issuing from a cloud with a ruff-cuff. A comparison with many other miniature by Hilliard leaves it indisputable that this is a female and not a male hand as Hotson argues. The formula is paralleled in Hans Eworth’s portrait of Sir John Luttrell (1550) in which Peace, ensconced in the clouds, embraces his raised arm (See Roy Strong, The English Icon, p. 86 (no. 22)). Clasped hands are a common emblem of Concord and plighted faith: Of Concord firme, the Romans in their coine, This symbole gave, their peace about to make, That as their hands, as in one their hearts should ione, And sooner first they would their lives forsake… (H. Peachum, Minerva Britanna, London, 1612, p. 135). The Hand-in-hand, which Plighted faith implies… (George Wither, A Collection of Emblemes, London, 1635, p. 166). More confusing is the motto which no one has satisfactorily explained or translated."
Collection
Accession Number
P.21-1942

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record createdDecember 15, 1999
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