Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver: The Art of Limning

A major exhibition, Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver, featuring miniature portraits produced in the British Isles from Elizabethan and Jacobean period has opened at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Inspired by these exquisite tiny artworks, described by Hilliard as ‘a thing apart from all other painting or drawing’,  we are turning the spotlight on Bridgeman Images collections that feature major works by the two giants of British miniature portrait painting, Nicholas Hilliard (c. 1547 – 1619), and Isaac Oliver (c. 1565 - 1617). 


Left-right:  Self portrait aged 30, 1577 (watercolour on vellum), Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619) / Victoria & Albert Museum, London, UK; Self-Portrait, c.1590 (w/c on vellum laid on card), Isaac Oliver (c.1565-1617) / Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2019

A bit of history...

“How then can the curious drawer watch, and as it were catch these lovely graces, witty smilings, and those stolen glances which suddenly like lightning pass, and another countenance taketh place, except to behold and very well note and conceit to like.”  Nicholas Hilliard, A Treatise Concerning the Arte of Limning.

Miniature portrait painting first appeared in the French and English courts in the 1520s, during the reign of Henry VIII. Prior to that, miniature painting had been confined to the art of illuminating manuscripts – i.e. illustrating hand-written texts.  Not simply the art of painting on a small scale, miniature painting also described the skill of using watercolour in its opaque form on vellum. The main difference between illuminating manuscripts and miniature portrait painting was that the latter was not attached to books. The portraits were designed to be portable and worn like medals, but as realistic in form and colour as conventional portraits. Their popularity began to increase when, with the development of the printed book, there was a decline in the need for hand-painted manuscripts. The miniature portrait, therefore, provided an opportunity for the illuminated manuscript painters to carry on working and practise their skills. 


From top left clockwise: Self portrait, from a Book of Hours, c.1540 (vellum), Simon Bening (c.1483-1561) / Victoria & Albert Museum;  Anne of Cleves, 1539 (w/c on vellum mounted on ivory), Hans Holbein the Younger, (1497/8-1543) / Victoria & Albert Museum; Henry VIII in a grey doublet and fur gown (w/c & bodycolour on vellum), Lucas Horenbout or Hornebault  (fl. 1534-44) / The Portland Collection; Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset, c.1534 (w/c & bodycolour on vellum), Lucas Horenbout or Hornebault,  (fl. 1534-44) / Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2019; Queen Elizabeth I playing the lute (w/c on paper), Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619) / Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire; James I, c.1609-15 (w/c on vellum laid on playing card), Nicholas Hilliard, (1547-1619) / Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2019


The miniature portrait became a useful tool for the British monarchy to signify favour. The portraits would often be presented in opulent and costly cases and were the perfect diplomatic gift to convey loyalty.

On occasion, portraits would be a gift between rulers as a means of conveying the likeness of proposed future spouses. When Henry VIII was considering Anne of Cleves as a possible fourth wife, his painter Hans Holbein the Younger was sent to paint miniatures of Anne and her sister.


Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver

Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver were the dominant miniature portrait painters of their time.

Nicholas Hilliard was the eldest of the two and burst on the scene in 1570. He had been an apprentice to the goldsmith Robert Brandon, who perhaps thought it would be useful to train one of his team in portrait miniature painting so that he could then make the expensive settings that would often accompany the miniatures. Hilliard’s talent meant that he gained the patronage of the most important person in the country – Queen Elizabeth I – to whom he became the main portraitist.

The French-born Isaac Oliver was taught the art of Limning (as it was then called) by Hilliard, leading to their styles being very similar and sometimes indistinguishable. After the death of Queen Elizabeth I, Oliver became the main portraitist of her successor, James I. 


Highlighted Collections:


Royal Collection

There are 3,000 portrait miniatures in the Royal Collection, making it one of the largest and most important collections of such works in the world. The collection spans four centuries and includes works by portrait miniature's greatest practitioners, including Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver.


Left-right: James I, c.1603-8 (w/c on vellum laid on playing card), Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619); Jane Seymour, c.1600 (w/c on vellum), Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619); Portrait of a young man, c.1590-95 (w/c & bodycolour on vellum laid on card), Isaac Oliver (c.1565-1617) ; Princess Elizabeth, later Queen of Bohemia, c.1610 (w/c on vellum laid on card), Isaac Oliver (c.1565-1617) / all  Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2019

The Portland Collection

Probably second only to the Royal Collection, Portland's portrait miniature collection is expansive and impressive. The collection dates back to Tudor times and until the 16th century, and contains work by the best artists in the field, including Hilliard and Hans Holbein the Younger.


Left-right: A Lady Traditionally Identified As Mary Queen Of Scots (w/c on vellum), Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619);  Self portrait aged 13 (w/c on vellum), Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619) (;  Elizabeth Harding, Mrs Isaac Oliver (w/c on vellum), Oliver, Isaac (c.1565-1617)A Gentleman traditionally identified as Thomas Howard, 2nd Earl of Arundel (w/c on vellum), Oliver, Isaac (c.1565-1617) / all from The Portland Collection, Harley Gallery, Welbeck Estate, Nottinghamshire

Fitzwilliam Museum

The Fitzwilliam Museum has an important collection of portrait miniatures spanning from the 16th through to the 19th century. 


Left-right: Anne of Denmark (1574-1619) wife of King James I of England, c.1610 (vellum on playing card), Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619) (studio of); Unknown Lady, formerly called Lucy Harrington, Countess of Bedford, c.1605 (bodycolour & w/c on card), Isaac Oliver (c.1565-1617); Queen Elizabeth I, c.1595-1600 (gouache on vellum on card), Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619); An Unknown Man, c.1574, Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619) / all images Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge, UK / Bridgeman Images


Bridgeman Images | Image. It’s Everything


Are you looking to license art, culture and historical images? Bridgeman Images offers the highest resolution rights managed images for licensing. Please contact us for free image research or to learn more.

Back to top