March 7, 2019

Nicholas Hilliard, The First Great British Artist

Lark Mason III

Nicholas Hilliard is generally regarded as the first great British artist. Painting in the 16th and 17th centuries, he was first the court painter for Elizabeth l and subsequently for James I. His works are held in the collections of some of the most prestigious institutions across the world. 

Born circa 1547 in Exeter, England, he was a goldsmith and a limner. While his father taught him the trade of gold smithing, it is believed he studied limning under Levina Teerlinc (1510-1576). Hilliard’s portrait miniatures were generally in oval form. At times he would also create lockets for them, using his skills as a goldsmith. He is also believed to have painted two quite famous full-size portraits of Queen Elizabeth I. Regarded as the central artistic figure of the Elizabethan age, he is “the only English painter whose work reflects, in its delicate microcosm, the world of Shakespeare's earlier plays." (Waterhouse, 1969)

His works were not only likenesses they were, “often designed as private keepsakes for lovers. These objects of desire were part of a world of hidden social codes and romantic games.” (BBC, 2014)

Hilliard died on January 3, 1619 and while his body is buried in St Martins-in-the-Fields Westminster, England, his works are scattered across the globe in collections waiting to be viewed. Today the romanticism attached to these miniatures can only be imagined, but the masterful quality of the work and the historic importance of Hilliard’s contributions to the English art landscape will forever be admired.

To view some works by Nicholas Hilliard visit any of the below institutions.

Victoria and Albert Museum, London

National Portrait Gallery, London

Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT

National Museum, Stockholm


Portrait of a Woman, c. 1590,
The Friedsam Collection, Bequest of Michael Friedsam, 1931

Portrait of a Woman, c. 1600
Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1911

Portrait of a Woman, c. 1597
Fletcher Fund, 1935

Portrait of Sir Anthony Mildmay, Knight of Apethorpe, Northants, c. 1590-1593
The Cleveland Museuem of Art (not on view)

Portrait of a Young Man, Probably Robert Devereux (1566–1601),
Second Earl of Essex, c. 1588
Fletcher Fund, 1935

Waterhouse, E.(1969). Painting in Britain 1530 to 1790 (Vol. 1).(Harmondsworth): Penguin.
Nicholas Hilliard's miniature portraits of Renaissance Britain. (2014, March 28). Retrieved from