Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Hilliard, Nicholas

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HILLIARD, NICHOLAS (1537–1619), miniature-painter, goldsmith, and jeweller, was a younger son of Richard Hilliard, a citizen of Exeter, and high sheriff of that city and county in 1560, who is said to have been descended from an old Yorkshire family. Nicholas was born at Exeter in 1537, and apprenticed to a jeweller and goldsmith, but at an early age he attempted painting in miniature. At the age of thirteen he painted a miniature of himself, signed and dated ‘N. H. 1550,’ which was formerly in the Harleian collection, and lately in that of Mr. Hollingworth Magniac, and while he was still young he drew the portrait of Mary Queen of Scots at the age of eighteen. He was appointed goldsmith, carver, and limner to Queen Elizabeth, whom he painted as princess and as queen. In 1586 he engraved the second great seal of Elizabeth, 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’ (Notes and Queries, iii. iv. 207). 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’ (Rymer, Fœdera, xvii. 15). 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. Hilliard died in the parish of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Westminster, on 7 Jan. 1619, and was buried in the parish church. 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. Laurence was alive in 1634.

Hilliard was the first English painter of miniatures, and his works were highly esteemed in his own day. Dr. Donne, in his poem on ‘The Storm,’ written in 1597, testified that

a hand or eye
By Hilliard drawn is worth a history
By a coarse painter made.

He was, however, surpassed by his pupil, Isaac Oliver [q. v.], 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.

Many of Hilliard's best miniatures are in the collection of the Duke of Buccleuch, who contributed twenty-three to the exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1879. They include portraits of Queen Elizabeth (four), Edward Seymour, duke of Somerset, Edward Vere, earl of Oxford, Richard Clifford, earl of Cumberland, Lady Arabella Stuart, Sir Philip Sidney, Mary Sidney, countess of Pembroke, Sir Francis Drake, Sir Francis Walsingham, Richard Hilliard, his father; his own portrait, dated 1574, ‘ætatis suæ 37,’ and that of his wife Alice, daughter of John Brandon, chamberlain of London, dated 1578, ‘ætatis suæ 22.’ Mr. Jeffery Whitehead possesses a little book of prayers written on vellum by Queen Elizabeth in six different languages, which has miniatures by Hilliard of the Duke of Alençon at the beginning, and of Elizabeth at the end. It was formerly in the collection of Horace Walpole at Strawberry Hill. Mr. Whitehead owns likewise the fine portrait of Hilliard by himself, which was formerly at Penshurst, and that of Mary Queen of Scots, painted in 1579, formerly in the Bale collection. Other miniatures by Hilliard are in the collections of the Duke of Portland, the Earl of Derby, the Earl of Carlisle, Major-general Sotheby, Mr. R. S. Holford, and Mr. J. Lumsden Propert. Miniatures of Queen Elizabeth by him are in the National Portrait Gallery and the Jones collection, South Kensington Museum.

There are engraved portraits of Hilliard in the Strawberry Hill and later editions of Walpole's ‘Anecdotes of Painting.’

[De Piles's Art of Painting, 1706, p. 430; Walpole's Anecd. of Painting, ed. Wornum, 1849, i. 171–6; Redgrave's Dict. of Artists of the English School, 1878; Cat. of the Special Exhibition of Portrait Miniatures at the South Kensington Museum, 1865; Royal Acad. Exhibition Catalogues (Old Masters), 1879; Cat. of the Exhibition of Portrait Miniatures, Burlington Fine Arts Club, 1889.]

R. E. G.