Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist by Elizabeth Goldring

Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist
By Elizabeth Goldring
Yale University Press, 2019

Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist     By Elizabeth Goldring, Yale University Press, 2019

The portraits created by the great artist Nicholas Hilliard - the most famous ones are no bigger than your hand - so perfectly capture the faces of his era that they have become our own visual shorthand for Elizabethan and Jacobean times, every bit as much as the glorious paintings of his idol Hans Holbein. Hilliard rose to prominence at just the right time to have virtually all of the most powerful and influential people of his day and area as the objects of his art. And yet, despite this crucial role for an artist, Hilliard has for decades lacked a truly formidable biography.

Until now: historian Elizabeth Goldring in Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist has written a comprehensive and almost certainly definitive life of Hilliard and a richly involving portrait of his time. Hilliard was born in 1547 to a prosperous Exeter goldsmith and through a combination of luck, good timing, and self-evident genius, he became apprenticed to Robert Brandon, the jeweller to England’s Queen Elizabeth I (he also married his master’s daughter Alice). This gave Hilliard access to the highest echelons of Elizabethan society, and his talent for miniatures quickly made him a vogue. “Hilliard’s rendering of his sitters’ eyes was also innovative,” Goldring writes, “ - and much remarked on for its liveliness, a quality which, after Holbein’s death in 1543, had been in short supply at the English court.”

Goldring patiently follows Hilliard through all the stages of his life, noting with a little wistfulness that he’d peaked in 1588, the year of the defeat of the Spanish Armada:

Business was booming. Hilliard was, as ever, hopeless at financial management. But his services were in demand in an extraordinary range and variety of media; he was without competition in the field of miniature painting; and he could count on his rich and powerful father-in-law for financial assistance  when needed. Hilliard could not have realised it at the time but his personal and professional lives were at their apogee.

No life of Hilliard has ever come close to the level detail and empathy Goldring deploys here, and her treatment of the artist’s life is matched by the interest and insight of her treatment of the artist’s work:

Hilliard’s miniature continue to beguile - for their liveliness, their delicacy, their grace. Rarely do Hillard’s sitters appear static. Most seem on the verge of speaking, about to reveal an intimate confidence to the viewer. Many look directly, and penetratingly, into the viewer’s own eyes, creating the illusion of a connection, geographical distance and the passage of time notwithstanding. Even when greatly magnified, the most accomplished of HIlliard’s work suffer no loss of detail.

This is fascinating stuff although at times a bit confusing; Hilliard’s subjects virtually never look directly into the viewer’s own eyes - their faces are almost always pointed offstage at some angle, with only their sparkling eyes turned to watch the viewer. Cumulatively, in the course of this big, beautifully-designed book, the effect of all those furtive glances is quite deliciously creepy.

Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist contains not only Hilliard’s own work in all its forms but also a wide array of contextual artwork that informed his aesthetic world; this wonderfully detailed biography is also a seminar in Tudor-era artwork. Yale University Press has spared no expense in the creation of this oversized volume, and the result is magnificent.

--Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Historical Novel Society, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for TheNational,The Washington Post, The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.