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Nicholas Hilliard

Page updated 21st July 2010

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Nicholas Hilliard was born in Exeter in 1547 to Richard and Laurence Hilliard. His family were of Cornish origin, with Nicholas' father working as a goldsmith in Exeter. Richard Hilliard along with John Bodley were prominent religious reformers who helped repel the Catholic rebels at the 1549 siege of Exeter. When Mary I came to the throne, the young Nicholas joined John Bodley and his family when they fled to Wesel in Germany, Frankfurt and then Geneva to escape persecution. For a young Tudor boy, he took full advantage of his situation and became fluent in French and met Pierre Olivyer, the leading French goldsmith, and soon to be father of Isaac Oliver, who would become Nicholas' rival at court in later years. The family returned to England in 1558 on the ascent of Elizabeth I, and Nicholas was apprenticed in London as a goldsmith and limner or painter. Nicholas specialised in miniature portraits with watercolour on vellum and had shown much promise by painting a self portrait at the age of thirteen.

He produced a portrait of Mary Queen of Scots at the age of eighteen, and by 1570 at the age of 23, was free of his apprenticeship. At the age of twenty four he was appointed limner and goldsmith to Queen Elizabeth I. His best known work was the Armada jewel, a miniature of Queen Elizabeth set in a frame of enamelled gold.

In 1594 his father died leaving Nicholas property in St Pancras parish, Exeter. Jeremy Hilliard, his brother was himself a goldsmith in Exeter at this time and Nicholas would return to Exeter for visits and even take commissions from prominent westcountry people.

His old childhood friend, Thomas Bodley, and son of John, was the founder of the Bodlein Library - he commissioned a portrait from Nicholas in 1598. In 1600 Nicholas suffered financial problems but the Queen intervened and helped him renew his lease and pay off his debts. Upon the accession of James I he was granted the right to paint images of the King for a period of twelve years. Hilliard died sometime in the first week of 1619 aged 71 and was buried in St-Martin-in-the-Fields on the 7th January. In his will he left twenty shillings to the poor of the parish, thirty shillings divided to his two sisters, some goods to a maidservant and the rest of his estate to his son, Lawrence Hilliard.

Nicholas Hilliard married twice and had seven children. In the 16th Century, Hilliard established himself as a miniature painter of some international repute, at a time when the best artists came from the continent. He also trained and influenced Isaac Oliver, the other leading limner of Elizabethan England. See Topshop mural and Gandy Street murals.

Main source Hilliard and Oliver by Mary Edmond and www.findagrave.com

Nicholas Hilliard's mural in Gandy Street.

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