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Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619)

Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) c.1595-1600

Watercolour on vellum laid on plain card | 5.4 x 4.5 cm (Sight size) (sight) | RCIN 421029

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The ageing Elizabeth is idealised as 'Astraea', the goddess described in Virgil's Fourth Eclogue as presiding over the classical golden age. Artists and poets, such as Edmund Spenser, linked Astraea's qualities of eternal youth and justice with Elizabeth I, reinforcing by this association the cult of the Virgin Queen.

The full range of Hilliard's capabilities as an artist is evident in his portraits of Elizabeth I (1533-1603; r. 1558-1603), who occupied the English throne for much of his active life. Queen Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry VIII by his second wife, Anne Boleyn, and succeeded her Catholic half-sister Mary I (the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon) as Queen in 1558. She was a considerable scholar in her own right and never married.

Although in favour at court from the 1570s, Hilliard only began to receive an annuity in 1599. There are a large number of images of Elizabeth I painted or designed by Hilliard in a variety of media - oil, plaquettes, prints, wax seals, illuminated manuscripts and miniatures. Examination of this outpouring shows how Hilliard was given responsibility for the personal iconography of the Queen, of which he came to hold a virtual monopoly. The earliest miniature dates from 1572 (London, National Portrait Gallery) when the artist was still allowed to portray Elizabeth I as she appeared in life. For such portraits Hilliard may have been granted sittings, although no doubt one pattern could serve as the basis for many replicas. In his Treatise concerning the Arte of Limning (c.1600) Hilliard describes such sittings; his text reveals a great deal about the technique of miniature painting as well as demonstrating on what good terms the artist was with the Queen.

Hilliard was also asked to devise a standard likeness of the Queen as she grew older. Younger painters had begun to depict Elizabeth I with increasing realism that all too readily exposed her ageing features - wrinkled skin, black teeth, false auburn hair. To counteract this, from c.1595 Hilliard created the 'Mask of Youth' image in which one set of the Queen's features is rigidly adhered to with no hint of her age and only the arrangements of hair, dress and jewellery changing. Sixteen or so miniatures of this type, including the present one, are known. These idealised portraits were often set into medallions or jewels intended to be given away by the Queen. There was a counterpart to this kind of portraiture with the literary creation of the 'Virgin Queen' in which reference is made to arcane symbolism. The result was to make the Queen into an icon.

Here Hilliard has used his characteristic technique of dribbling thick white pigment onto the surface of the vellum to recreate the intricate designs of the deep lace collar. The paint is raised above the surface of the other items of clothing to such an extent that under directional lighting it casts a shadow just as the lace itself would have done. To imitate gold jewellery he applied shell gold over an ochre-coloured ground, while to paint pearls he used silver on top of white pigment, which over time often oxidises to grey.

Catalogue entry from Royal Treasures, A Golden Jubilee Celebration, London 2002