Nicholas Hilliard

1547 – 1619

A Miniature Portrait of King James I


Watercolour & Gouache on Vellum




4.2(h) x 3.4(w) cms


This small miniature is comprable to the example by Hilliard in the Victoria & Albert Museum of the same sitter (P.3-1937). It is the pendant to the miniature of Princess Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia.

James I inherited the throne from the great Queen Elizabeth in 1603. He was the son of her great adversary, Mary, Queen of Scots and who had a strong claim to the throne of England. James also held the crown of Scotland as James VI.

Nicholas Hilliard was a renowned goldsmith and 'limner' whose miniature portraits of Elizabethan and Jacobean court members have become symbolic of the age. Characterised by red and blue backgrounds, crisp detailing and gilt lettering his pocket sized paintings have become instantly recognisable and reflective of the Elizabethan era. Despite his noted success, however, he was constantly beset by financial troubles throughout his life.

The son of Richard Hilliard, a goldsmith by trade and subsequently Sherriff of Exeter in 1568, Nicholas had a fairly privileged upbringing. He was later attached to the family of John Bodley, a strongly Protestant family who moved to Geneva at the accession of the catholic Mary I to the English throne. By 1557 Hilliard too was in Geneva but it is not clear what early training he received. At his return to England he is soon apprenticed to Robert Brandon, Queen Mary's jeweller. In 1569 he has become a freeman of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths.

His timing could not have been more fortuitous. At the time there was a vacant spot as court portrait painter and he was immediately employed. His 'Phoenix' and 'Pelican' portraits of Elizabeth, dated 1572-76 are testament to his meteoric rise. Oddly, he decided to go to France in 1576, despite this success and having recently married. He certainly became well known, but failed to secure the necessary patronage and was soon back in England. This setback eventually proved vital to his artistic development. The Queen and her court continued to patronise him, but it was also around this time that he proved to be short of financial acumen and his disastrous decisions left his finances in disarray.

His studio in St Martins-in-the-Fields near the Court became an important hub of activity. His best pupil, Isaac Oliver, went on to become a highly successful miniaturist in his own right. John Donne's poem of 1597, 'The Storm' praises Hilliard and his work, illustrating how well regarded he was by his contemporaries. indeed, it has now been confirmed that he was the author of the important treatise, circa 1600, on miniature painting "The Art of Limning".


Private Collection, Spain