Nicholas Hilliard’s Sir Walter Ralegh: a fashionable status symbol

The English goldsmith known for creating portrait miniatures captures the ethereal beauty of his sitters

Great and small …

Sixteenth-century England had Shakespeare and the metaphysical poets. But when it came to the visual arts, its contribution was, literally, tiny. The era’s pioneering artists adapted the skills of manuscript illuminators to miniature portrait painting or “limning”.

Good as gold …

Chief among them was Nicholas Hilliard, a self-styled gentleman artist and court favourite. Hilliard was trained in a goldsmith’s workshop and his pocket-sized likenesses may initially have been ways to make little picture frames sell.

Secret love …

His portraits had a social function: a fashionable status symbol, token of loyalty or lover’s keepsake. They were worn around the body with a showy secrecy, hidden in a locket or a fancy ebony or ivory box.

You little beauty …

These paintings were meant to seduce and his sitters are typically depicted as limpid-eyed charmers. In this 1585 work, the poet and explorer Sir Walter Ralegh is an ethereal beauty, with the lace ruff, exquisitely depicted in pronounced brush marks, above lavender ribbons and a pink scarf.

Nicholas Hilliard’s Sir Walter Ralegh

Part of Elizabethan Treasures, National Portrait Gallery, WC2, to 19 May

Contributor

Skye Sherwin

The GuardianTramp

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