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February 2019

Vol. 161 / No. 1391

Hilliard in Europe

There are times when current political debates seem to entwine in the most complex ways with art history. It is not surprising that the United Kingdom’s decision in 2016 to leave the European Union is one example, since it raises fundamental issues of national identity. Brexit’s shadow falls in surprising places, few less likely perhaps than over an artist who said that the depiction of shadows had no part in his work, Nicholas Hilliard. The four-hundredth anniversary of his death in January 1619 is being marked by an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London, which opens later this month.1 Among the discoveries that will be on display is a miniature of Henri III of France, published in an article in this issue (pp.102–11), which raises intriguing questions of how Hilliard is to be remembered: British or European or both?

In his lifetime Nicholas Hilliard was by far the most admired artist in England. John Donne wrote in his poem ‘The Storm’ that ‘a hand, or eye / By Hilliard drawne, is worth a history, / By a worse painter made’ and in a footnote to his celebrated translation of Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso, published in 1591, John Harington asserted that although ‘this Realme hath not bred any Michel Angelos’, Britain can take pride in Hilliard, ‘our countryman’, who is ‘inferiour to none that lives at this day’.2 This praise was the foundation of a fame that has never faded. Hilliard’s reputation is based not only on the ‘very perfection’ of his paintings but also on the fact that his art is ‘worth a history’ in the way that it encapsulates his age: when we think of Elizabeth I, Hilliard’s miniatures of the ageless, jewel-encrusted Gloriana immediately come to mind. The enshrinement of Elizabeth’s reign as a golden age in English history and culture – a belief already established by the mid-seventeenth century – meant that Hilliard’s paintings soon became images infused with patriotism. The late sixteenth century was understood as the era when England acquired its modern Protestant identity in its heroic stand against the threat of Catholic Spain. It was only in the second half of the twentieth century, when the fusion of religious and national identity was rapidly dissolving, that scholars started to look at Hilliard in a different way. A reassessment of his art is helped by the fact that he is so well documented, notably in his engagingly frank letters and the autobiographical passages in his treatise on miniature painting, ‘The Arte of Limning’. He is the first British artist for whom sufficient materials survive for a full-scale biography: the latest, which is likely to prove definitive, is published this month by Elizabeth Goldring to coincide with the anniversary.3

Hilliard spent two substantial periods out of England. The accession of Queen Mary in 1553 meant that his staunchly Protestant family thought it best to keep a low profile, and Hilliard, then still a young boy, was sent abroad, settling eventually in Geneva. He did not return until 1559, after Elizabeth had succeeded her sister. Then, in 1576, when he was about twenty-nine and a well-established artist, Hilliard moved to France, where he worked for two years. Understanding of this period, traditionally thought of as a relatively insignificant caesura in his career, now looms large in assessments of his art, thanks to research by French as well as British scholars. Recent discoveries such as the miniature of Henri III, or the large-scale portraits of Elizabeth I and the British ambassador Sir Amias Paulet, published in this Magazine last year, demonstrate that Hilliard worked at the highest levels of French society.4 Among the revelations of the article in this month’s issue is the suggestion that a miniature by Hilliard of an unknown gentleman may be a portrait of the most celebrated French poet of the sixteenth century, Pierre de Ronsard.

As a result, the image of Hilliard as one of the definers of English identity is enlarged to encompass a cosmopolitan artist of European reputation. His anniversary could therefore hardly be timelier, coinciding as it does with the United Kingdom’s struggle to reshape its relationship with Europe. One reason why it is helpful to reflect on the way that art of the past might relate to ideas of British identity is that contemporary artists have played such a disappointing part in the debates that have followed the referendum. It is not surprising that artists overwhelmingly wish that the vote had gone the other way, but their response has tended to confirm a belief that ‘remainers’ are experiencing a prolonged period of post-traumatic stress, evident in anger and denial. It is perhaps unfair to single out Anish Kapoor, but his comments on last month’s crushing parliamentary defeat of Theresa May’s Brexit proposals sum up why this debate is so stuck. Brexit, he claims, ‘seems to have brought out the very worst in us – Britain is more intolerant, more xenophobic, more insular than I have known it to be since the 1970s’.5

The problem about such remarks is that there is no attempt to see the issue from the point of view of those who think differently. Those who voted in favour of leaving the European Union are likely to regard such an attitude by a wealthy and successful artist as just another example of entitlement and privilege. They might also reflect that the diversity that is constantly held up as an ideal in the spaces of contemporary art does not seem to include diversity of political opinion. But Kapoor is right to say also that ‘it is our duty as citizens to find ways to come together and overcome the deeply sad and disorienting effects of Brexit’. How this is to be done is a question that should be asked most forcefully of those who when asked why they voted leave, reply that they want to leave the European Union, not Europe. How do they propose to reinforce Britain’s European identity? If quiet reflection on how to advance beyond this impasse is wanted, two good places for the historically minded to start are the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition and Goldring’s book.

1 Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver (21st February– 19th May). A conference, ‘Hilliard, Oliver and the Miniature in Context’, sponsored by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, the National Portrait Gallery, the European Research Council and the University of Cambridge, will be held at the Gallery on 28th– 29th March.

2 J. Harington: Orlando Furioso in English Heroical Verse, London 1591, p.278.

3 E. Goldring: Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist, London 2019.

 4 S. Bayliss, J. Carey and E. Town: ‘Nicholas Hilliard’s portraits of Elizabeth I and Sir Amias Paulet’, THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE 160 (2018), pp.716–26.

5 Quoted in A. Shaw and A. Cole: ‘“A perfectly engineered catastrophe”: artists speak out after Theresa May’s Brexit deal is crushed by Parliament’, The Art Newspaper (16th January 2019),, accessed 17th January 2019.