New attributions to Hilliard

May 30 2017

Image of New attributions to Hilliard

Picture: via Apollo

In Apollo, Juliet Carey, curator at Waddesdon House, gives some fascinating new information on a pair of portraits in the Rothschild collection. The portraits are of Elizabeth I (above) and her ambassador in France Sir Amias Paulet (below). These may now be attributable to Nicholas Hilliard, who, while known almost entirely these days as a miniature painter, is recorded as also being a painter of large-scale portraits in oil.

Until now, it's not been possible to attribute any paintings firmly to Hilliard, although the 'Pelican' and 'Phoenix' portraits of Elizabeth I in Liverpool and the NPG in London respectively, are often linked to him (more on those here). But the two Rothschild portraits have been found (via dendrochronology) to have been painted on French oak. This is unusual, and it so happens that Hilliard was in France at the time the Rothschild portraits were painted. Says Carey:

What allows us to link the Rothschild portraits to Hilliard with unprecedented confidence is a new discovery about the wood on which they are painted. The panels are formed from boards of oak of French origin. It is extremely unlikely that an English artist would have chosen French oak over the wider, straighter-grained Baltic oak, from which English panels were usually constructed, unless there were some exceptional circumstance.

The sitter in the male portrait, Sir Amias Paulet (c. 1533–88), gives us the reason and further tightens the link between the portraits and Hilliard. Paulet was Elizabeth I’s resident ambassador in France from 1576 until 1579. Hilliard was himself in France from 1576 until 1578 and part of Paulet’s retinue for some of this time. Elements in the portraits highlight their French context, including the fleur-de-lys on Elizabeth’s pelican jewel, which is part flattery, part swagger. At the time, the queen was considering marriage to the duc d’Anjou, the French king’s brother, and had also revived the English claim to the French throne.

The technique and face type of the 'Pelican' and 'Phoenix' portraits are clearly very close to the Rothschild painting of Elizabeth I too. So if this new attribution stands, and it seems really very plausible, then we can at last begin to form an idea of what a Hilliard oil painting looks like. AHN congratulates all those involved - connoisseurship in Tudor portraiture is rare, and largely unpracticed.

The pictures will go on display at Waddesdon on 7th June.

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