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‘Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver’ Review – The National Portrait Gallery

February, 21st – May, 19th

Standard Ticket – £10

Concessions – £8.50


The National Portrait Gallery’s current exhibition, showcasing Elizabethan and Jacobean portrait miniatures, is described as ‘a thing apart from all other painting or drawing’ and is the first major UK exhibition of these miniatures for a generation.

Sir Walter Ralegh by Nicholas Hilliard © National Portrait Gallery, London

Upon arriving at the National Portrait Gallery, the popularity of the exhibition was immediately obvious – people of all ages were queued outside waiting to enter into the realms of Elizabethan and Jacobean England. The Elizabethan (c.1558-1603) and Jacobean (c.1603-1625) periods were amongst the most influential in British history and the volume and quality of art from this period, epitomised in this exhibition, is undeniable. Miniatures became particularly important in the sixteenth century; they were intimate pieces of art, designed to be mementos (similar to how we would keep photographs today) and reveal much about relationships and sentimentality in this period, as tokens of love, favour, power and ostentation. Unfortunately, like so much of sixteenth-century art, the symbolic meaning is often forgotten.

The exhibition begins with the lives of the artists, Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver, and displays their self-portraits and portraits of their family members. A useful timeline depicts key events of the period, mirrored by important events in the artists’ lives. The exhibition is organised chronologically, beginning with Hilliard, who is famous for his portraits of important members of Court under Elizabeth I: Sir Walter Ralegh, Sir Francis Drake, Sir Christopher Hatton and, of course, Elizabeth herself. The portraits of Elizabeth I are the most popular in the gallery – a large portrait draws the viewers’ attention to one side of the exhibition, which is paired with a small glass cabinet, housing Hilliard’s miniatures from throughout Elizabeth’s reign. Most of these portraits are watercolour on vellum, reminiscent of the style of Renaissance art, and often have a turquoise or azure background colour. The most striking portrait in this collection is a nostalgic coronation portrait of the young Elizabeth, with flowing red hair. Hilliard depicts the ageing queen with youthfulness, throughout these portraits, which reflects Elizabeth’s anxiety of growing older. Oliver was not so kind, failing to enhance her youthfulness and emphasising deep lines in her face. It is unsurprising that Elizabeth is the subject in only one of his portraits.

Self-portrait by Isaac Oliver © National Portrait Gallery, London

The exhibition then naturally flows onto Isaac Oliver’s works. Oliver became more prominent under James I, but it was Anne of Denmark, described as ‘the most artistically adventurous’, who favoured Oliver’s work. Oliver, unlike Hilliard, was much more than a royal portraitist; he did life drawing and painted many scenes of religious imagery, which were much more continental in their style. The exhibition, curated in this way, allows the audience to draw a natural reflection of the serious portraits of Hilliard, to the more flowing landscapes of Oliver.

A pitfall of the exhibition is its busyness – queuing to enter is rather forgivable, but then you are forced round the exhibition in a queue-like manner, waiting to press your nose against the glass of the next exhibit. This is not a fault of the curator, but merely an unavoidable consequence of the display of miniature portraits – most of which are no bigger than the palm of your hand!

There is no doubt that this exhibition showcases some of the greatest works of portraiture produced in Britain. The exhibition is expertly curated to reflect the development of portraiture from Elizabeth I’s reign, to that of James I, through the lens of two sensational portraitists. So many of the images showcased here are familiar, but to see the original paintings is sensational.

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