Nicholas Hilliard + Isaac Oliver with Karen Hearn

A close up from the Portland Miniatures

Join art historian Karen Hearn for a magnified look at some of her favourite miniature portraits by Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver, from The Portland Collection.

In Tudor and early Stuart England, tiny portrait miniatures painted in watercolour became extremely popular among the elite and they’re among the finest portraits of that period, from which more English miniatures survive than for any other European country. In the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, the two leading miniaturists were the English born Nicholas Hilliard and the French born migrant raised in England, Isaac Oliver.

The V&A Museum in London holds the National Collection of portrait miniatures, and there are 3 other significant British collections; the Royal Collection, that of the Duke of Buccleuch and The Portland Collection at Welbeck, all of international importance. Assembled over 4 centuries by successive family members, The Portland Collection currently comprises 507 items which date from the early 16th century onwards.

A remarkable amount of depth of historic information of The Portland Miniatures is available, largely due to Mr Richard Goulding, who became the private secretary and librarian to the 6th Duke of Portland at the end of the 19th Century. At the behest of the 6th Duke, various catalogues of the family collections were made. Goulding researched and wrote the miniatures catalogue, it appeared in 1916, both as a privately printed book and in the fourth volume of Walpole society. Goulding traced the earliest documentary references to every miniature, going back to a list that had been made by the engraver, George Virtue in 1743; and in a few cases to an even earlier list that predated 1741. The backs of many of The Portland Miniatures remain rich in information, including labels in Goulding’s distinctive handwriting. This depth of information is unusual because miniatures, especially once they’ve escaped from a family collection, often lack provenances that stretch back very far.

Another distinctive aspect of some of The Portland Miniatures is that they were reframed during the 1720s for Edward Harley later second Earl of Oxford and Mortimer. In rectangular black stained pear wood frames designed by the miniature painter and art advisor Bernard Lens III they look like tiny easel paintings and would even have enabled them to be displayed on a wall. It’s not that unusual for early miniatures to be reframed to the taste of the later owner, most of the miniatures in the collection of Her Majesty the Queen were reset in gilded frames in the 19th Century by direction of Prince Albert.

Originally miniatures might be set as wearable items of jewellery such as lockets or pendants, emphasising their function as luxury items. Such a precious locket might be worn closed or with its lid open, enabling the wearer to display the miniature inside and thereby show off their personal or indeed political allegiance.

The 16th Century term for painting a miniature was limning the word used in the title that was later given to the treaties written by Nicholas Hilliard in around 1600 on the art of limning, so an artist who made them was a limner. The limner would apply water-based pigments with some gum Arabic, to a small piece of very fine vellum that had already been stuck onto a piece of paste board, usually a playing card, and sometimes they still survive with the heart, club, diamond, or spade symbols on the back once the tiny painting was completed and dry, it was cut out and placed in a protective case. This technique is quite different from that of painting in large easel painting, which in England in the time of Hilliard and Oliver was usually carried out on wooden panel and occasionally on canvas; portrait miniatures are fragile objects. Over the centuries many have faded through exposure to light, and as a result sometimes they have undergone later heavy-handed restoration and their inscriptions too can sometimes be altered or even removed.

16th century miniatures share some characteristics with the larger scale portraits of the period, rendering specific details of costume was extremely important because rank, status, fashionability and wealth were all conveyed through the depiction of a sitter’s luxurious and decorated fabrics, and of course their jewellery. Hilliard and Oliver and the large-scale painters too all carefully recorded these elements.

Isaac Oliver was born in France in around 1563, his father too was a protestant goldsmith and by 1568 the family had moved to London. The trail then goes cold for a while but by the 1580s Isaac was working in Hilliard’s workshop. He was obviously receiving some form of training although he was beyond the age of apprenticeship so we don’t quite know what the arrangement was. Isaac died in 1617 and his wife, Elizabeth, remarried to a man named Piers Morgan.

Karen Hearn

Karen was previously a Curator at Tate, is author of the book Nicholas Hilliard, and chairs The Harley Foundation Curatorial Advisory Group. She is a specialist in 16th- and 17th-century British and Netherlandish art, has curated many exhibitions, and writes and lectures extensively.

Karen devised and curated the groundbreaking exhibition “Portraying Pregnancy: from Holbein to Social Media”, shown at The Foundling Museum in London in 2020. She has spent many years researching that little-explored subject and wrote the accompanying book.

Find out more

Plan your visit to see a selection of the Portland Miniatures in the Museum.