As Elizabeth Goldring shows in her richly detailed and illuminating biography, Hilliard may not have been a great painter — his continental peers numbered Veronese, Tintoretto and El Greco — but he was great at what he did... But for those sittings he would stare at the royal visage for hours from mere feet away. Perhaps no one else ever looked at her so intently. Goldring’s fascinating and beautifully produced book allows us to do something similar with the limner himself.
The 400th anniversary of Hilliard’s death this year has been marked by the publication of Elizabeth Goldring’s impeccably researched new biography, and by an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, Elizabethan Treasures, featuring ninety works by Hilliard and Oliver, accompanied by an excellent catalogue by Catharine MacLeod.＊ Both books are full of the ‘beauties’ which Walpole’s magnifying glass revealed. Enlarged photographic details show us the dexterity of the brushwork, the glint of an eyeball, the nap of fabric, the spidery finesse of lace, the spark of light on jewellery – this was a particular speciality of Hilliard’s, who wished to give ‘the true lustre to pearl and precious stone’ so that ‘it seemeth to be the thing itself’ – but Goldring has a harder job to achieve a comparable close-up of the man himself, who is elusive in ways that go beyond the usual patchiness of evidence after the passage of centuries.
At times Goldring’s book reads like an Elizabethan version of a John le Carré novel...Books on art are weighty and expensive. They tend to be looked through for the illustrations, not read. It would be a shame were Goldring’s Nicholas Hilliard to suffer that fate. In spite of informed and scrupulous scholarship, with the author ever distinguishing what is known from what may reasonably be inferred, the narrative is unputdownable.
As Hilliard’s Self-Portrait reveals, he became caught up in this game. He never got rich, partly because he spent so much on looking the part of a gentleman – he wrote how the limner must wear “silkes”. The same ambition made him write his book on art. Goldring excavates the connections that let an Exeter goldsmith become an artist renowned at the courts of Europe. She has rescued a Renaissance in miniature.
Goldring leaves no doubt about the breadth and importance of Hilliard’s achievement and his ability to convey psychological depth. But alas that genius does not guarantee fortune. This superb book vividly conjures a costly dresser and spendthrift, terrible with money, litigious, and sometimes slippery with creditors. He made a disastrous early investments in gold mining, demolishing a £100 gift from Elizabeth I, and never quite clawed his advantage back. Patrons bailed him out of debt more than once, and his penultimate year was spent in Ludgate jail for debt. What humiliation for one who painted everyone who counted.
...read Elizabeth Goldring’s sumptuous survey Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist... a fine, incisive eye. This is a scholarly book, not a rollicker... but full of insight and courtly intrigue... Goldring gives the bones of Hilliard’s biography (there’s much we still don’t know) and his turbulent times — the Protestant Reformation, the Marian persecutions, Good Queen Bess, the Armada, the spendthrift James I — but more than that she encourages you to really look.
Even within his lifetime, Hilliard became an emblem of national pride, as various English writers compared him to Michelangelo or Raphael. John Donne enthused that ‘a hand or eye/By Hilliard drawn, is worth an history,/By a worse painter made’, and Goldring herself convincingly proposes that Hilliard was the greatest English artist of his age. Her engaging account of his life, character and artistic methods, supported by gorgeous illustrations and illuminating new archival discoveries, makes for a wonderful book, at once authoritative and full of pleasures.