Hilliard and Lace Painting

written by Sophie | Art History, Lace



In the miniatures of Nicholas Hillard sitters wear similar lace ruffs to the one we can see in the Armada portrait, but then portrayed on a tiny scale. Hilliard painted the complex patterns of lace, embroidery, and jewellery (he was initially trained as a gold smith), in a highly detailed manner, recreating the splendour of Tudor costume in miniature.

The ruff of Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke (1590) is a combination of cutwork and reticella lace, with needle lace edgings. It is a very large ruff, starched, and probably held up by a supportasse (a wire construction to support the ruff). The folds of the ruff were outlined with a fine brush, loaded with lead white paint, on top of the grey underpainting and partly over the blue background and black dress. The plain linen areas inside these outlines were rendered with an evenly applied paint. The outer needle lace edgings were drawn with a bright white paint, while the reticella section next to it, especially at the centre front, was painted with a light grey paint.

Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke by Nicholas Hilliard watercolour on vellum, circa 1590 2 1/8 in. (54 mm) diameter, NPG 5994, © National Portrait Gallery London

Sir Walter Ralegh (Raleigh)by Nicholas Hilliard,  watercolour on vellum, circa 1585 1 7/8 in. x 1 5/8 in. (48 mm x 41 mm) oval, NPG 4106, © National Portrait Gallery London.

In a miniature of Sir Walter Ralegh (1585) there are traces of colour in the depiction of the white lace ruff, perhaps applied by Hilliard for various visual effects. In Mary Herbert’s portrait the ruff is painted in grey and white, with the brightest white on either side of her face, suggesting the light falling on the ruff and, perhaps, focussing the viewer’s gaze.

On the right side of the ruff the figure-of-eight folds were drawn in a darker grey paint, providing some sense of depth. Only the furthest outer edges were touched with bright white highlights. The patterns were painted confidently, going round the ruff consistently. Lines and circle shapes show little hesitation in application and further detail was added by small dots suggesting picots. In many of Hilliard’s miniatures the white lines depicting the lace were laid on with a thick paint, standing proud of the surface. This emphasises the intricacy of the complex lace pattern. The slightly raised white paint catches the light, making it appear brighter and whiter. At the same time, it generates subtle shadows, which, in turn, provide a contrast which contributes to the overall effect. 

The techniques developed by Hilliard to represent jewels, fabrics and lace were innovative. Using thick paint to create three-dimensionality to the modelling of the forms was something he also applied to painting jewels, where he used coloured resin over burnished silver to enhance sparkle and raise them off the surface. When he painted gold or silver jewellery, he used real gold and silver. When he painted intricate lace, he used thick-bodied lead white. He wrote in his treatise on miniature painting, The Arte of Limning, which was not published in his lifetime but widely distributed, that he used three different whites; the first was the finest and it would ‘glisten’ and he called it ’Satin White’, the next was good for general painting and ‘linen’ and the last was the coarsest and mostly suited for painting skin tones, because this white was matt. He did not specify which white was used for the lace but his referral to ‘linen’ probably includes lace. The characteristics of the paint, or the technique used, matched the material he was trying to represent.

Hilliard’s techniques suggest his interest in the materiality of things. Instead of suggesting precious metals with brown and yellow or white and grey, he preferred to use real gold and silver. By raising the painted pattern of the lace off the surface of the vellum and depicting every thread and every picot, he approximated replicating the materiality of the lace. He was less interested in deceiving the eye through suggestive realism, but more in the “presence of material” (see Faraday 2019). To this end he favoured light, colour and line and preferred to keep shading to a minimum. After all, he wrote, “to shadow as if it were not at all shadowed is best shadowed” (p. 62). On miniature painting he wrote it “excelleth all other painting whatsoever in sundry points, in giving the true lustre to pearl and precious stone, and worketh the metals gold or silver with themselves which so enricheth and ennobleth the work that it seemeth to be the thing itself” (p. 43). Perhaps the ‘true intricacy of lace’ which ‘enriched’ the work, to seem ‘the thing itself’, can be added to his short list.

There are conflicting theories whether Hilliard painted his portraits from live sittings or from preparatory drawings.  In his treatise he warned the prospective artist-reader about the lack of opportunity for fixing mistakes. Working with quick drying paint leaves little time to re-work mistakes. Hilliard also described adding colour to the initial laying down of skin tones until it is the correct shade which matches the sitter’s complexion. Do these notes suggest Hilliard worked ‘from life’? Edward Norgate (1581 – 1650), who knew Hilliard and was a miniaturist himself, wrote in his treatise on miniature painting on painting dress details from life: “… for the apparell, Linnen, Jewells, pearle and such like, you are to lay them before you in the same posture as your designe is, and when you are alone, you may take your owne time to finish them, with as much neatnes an perfection as you please, or can” (p. 38). Although this does not necessarily reflect the techniques used by Hilliard, the highly detailed patterns in the apparel of the sitters depicted in Hilliard’s portraits, and the lack of known preparatory studies for embroidery and lace, suggest he did work from the costumes themselves, perhaps modelled on lay figures.

Further Reading

Nicholas Hilliard, A Treatise Concerning the Arte of Limning, ed. By R.K.R. Thornton, T.G.S. Cain (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1992).
Edward Norgate, Miniatura. Or, The Art of Limning, ed. By Martin Hardie (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1919).

Catharine Macleod, Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver (London: National Portrait Gallery, 2019).
Karen Hearn, Nicholas Hilliard (London: Unicorn Press, 2005).
Katherine Coombs and Alan Derbyshire, ‘Nicholas Hilliard’s workshop practice reconsidered’, in Tarnya Cooper, Aviva Burnstock, Maurice Howard and Edward Town, Painting in Britain 1500- 1630 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 248-249.
Roy Strong, Artists of the Tudor Court (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1983).
Christina Faraday, ‘“It seemeth to be the thing itself”: Directness and Intimacy in Nicholas Hilliard’s Portrait Miniatures’, Etudes Epistémè 36 (2019), https://doi.org/10.4000/episteme.5292.
Christy Anderson, ‘The Secrets of Vision in Renaissance England’, Studies in the History of Art 59 (2003), 322-347.
Christine Slottved Kimbriel and Paola Ricciardi, ‘Secrets of a Silent Miniaturist: Findings from a Technical Study of Miniatures Attributed to Isaac Oliver’, British Art Studies 17 (2020), https://doi.org/10.17658/issn.2058-5462/issue-17/kimbrielricciardi.

Published August 27, 2023

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