Home » Exhibitions » Exhibition Review – Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver at the National Portrait Gallery from 21 February to 19 May 2019

Exhibition Review – Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver at the National Portrait Gallery from 21 February to 19 May 2019


The National Portrait Gallery presents the first major exhibition on Tudor and Jacobean portrait miniatures in the UK for over 35 years. The exhibition entitled Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver brings together key works from the National Portrait Gallery and major loans from public and private collections.

The exhibition centres on the careers of two of the most skilled artists of the period, Nicholas Hilliard (1547? – 1619) and Isaac Oliver (c.1565 – 1617). It was considered that the portrait miniatures of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods by these two artists were of the highest quality, Hilliard and Oliver were highly regarded and gained international fame.

The exhibition explores the society and status role that the miniatures played in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Miniatures were highly prized by  monarchs, courtiers and the rising middle classes because they were a means of gaining favour, showing loyalty and expressing close relationships.

An example of how they were used is Nicholas Hilliard’s ‘Peace with Spain’ medal 1604 which is the only medal linked to Hilliard. Only 12 examples of the gold medal were made for the most favoured courtiers, silver and bronze for those down the pecking order at court. The miniatures were often set into ornate jewelled cases and worn around the neck, pinned to clothing or secretly concealed.

The main part of the exhibition is devoted to Hilliard and Oliver’s portraits of Elizabeth I, as well as images of James I, his wife Anne of Denmark and his three children Henry, Elizabeth and Charles (later Charles I).

Miniatures of some of the most famous figures of the day, including Elizabeth I (playing a lute), Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake are displayed. Other highlights of the exhibition are Young Man among Roses by Hilliard and Hilliard’s Unknown Man against a Background of Flames, both on loan from the V&A.

Also in the exhibition are drawings by Hilliard and Oliver that illustrate their artistic qualities and large portraits of Hilliard and Queen Elizabeth I.

One unusual artistic role for Hilliard was to provide portraits for charters and legal documents as illustrated by the Midmay Charter from 1583-84.

This fascinating exhibition takes viewers into the often murky world of Tudor and Jacobean politics. Miniatures played a role in the elaborate processes of friendship, love, patronage and diplomacy. The stakes in the game were high and often a case of life and death. Hilliard and Oliver’s remarkable miniatures introduce us to some of the movers and shakers of the court and royal personages in all their glory.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

For more information, visit the National Portrait Gallery website here

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