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Nicholas Hilliard


A miniature-painter, goldsmith, limner, calligrapher, and jeweller, Hilliard was the founder of the English school of miniature painting. At at an early age he attempted painting in miniature, and by the age of thirteen he painted a miniature of himself, signed and dated 'N. H. 1550'. While he was still young he drew the portrait of Mary Queen of Scots at the age of eighteen. Between 1562 and 1569, he was apprenticed to Robert Brandon, a leading goldsmith and jeweller to Queen Elizabeth, and whose daughter, Alice, he later married. In 1569 he became a freeman of the Goldsmiths' Company. He was appointed goldsmith, carver, and limner to Queen Elizabeth, whom he painted as princess and as queen. Between 1576 and 1578, he resided in France where he soon settled easily in French society and befriended leading artists and intellectuals. There he painted the portrait of Queen Elizabeth's suitor, François, duc d'Alençon, on her instructions. Back in England, he engraved the second great seal of Elizabeth in 1586, which has more artistic merit than others of the period. In 1587 a lease of the manor of Poyle in the parish of Stanmore, Middlesex, was granted to him for twenty-one years, 'in consideration of his paines in engraving ye Great Seale of England'. After the accession of James I he received a grant, dated 5 May 1617, giving him for twelve years an exclusive right 'to invent, make, grave, and imprint any picture or pictures of our image, or other representation of our person'. This was a source of much profit to him, as it empowered him not only to grant licenses for the production and sale of the king's portrait, but also to seize such as were not duly authorised. Simon van de Pass and others were also employed by Hilliard to engrave the 'royal image' as well as those of the royal family. By his will, made shortly before his death, he bequeathed 20s. to the poor of his parish, divided the arrears of his pension between his two sisters, and left the residue of his estate to his son, Laurence Hilliard, who appears to have followed the same profession as his father, although no work by him is known. Hilliard was the first English painter of miniatures, and his works were highly esteemed in his own day.  He was, however, surpassed by his pupil, Isaac Oliver, to whom many of his more highly finished miniatures have been attributed. Hilliard's miniatures are usually on card or vellum, and sometimes on the backs of playing cards. They are executed with much care and fidelity and great accuracy of detail in costume, and are painted with opaque colours, heightened with gold, but the faces are pale and shadowless. Thirteen were in the cabinet of Charles I, who purchased from Hilliard's son a remarkable jewel, containing the portraits of Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Queen Jane Seymour, and having on the top an enamelled representation of the battle of Bosworth, and on the reverse the red and white roses. The portraits are now, with other works by Hilliard, at Windsor Castle, but the jewel has long since disappeared.

Place of birth: Exeter
Place of marriage: St Vedast, London
Place of death:
Parish of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Westminster
Place of burial: Parish church of St Martin-in-the-Fields






1. H. C. Matthew, B. Harrison et al. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004-2018.
2. L. Stephen, S. Lee. Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, vol. 26. London: Elder Smith & Co., 1891.

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