The Waddesdon Portrait of Elizabeth

Attributed to Nicholas Hilliard,Queen Elizabeth I, 16th Century. 815 x 612 x 5mm. Waddesdon (Rothschild Family) © Hamilton Kerr Institute

Something very exciting happened at Waddesdon Manor recently. Amongst the art collection of De Rothchild family, who own the Manor, two late Tudor portraits were found which, after scientific and art historic analysis, were attributed to the celebrated Tudor painter Nicholas Hilliard (1547–1619).

The Phoenix Portrait. Associated with Nicholas Hilliard, Queen Elizabeth I, c. 1575, 31 in. x 24 in. (787 mm x 610 mm; © National Portrait Gallery, London

Nicholas Hilliard was an English painter who was especially famous for his miniatures. Art historians think that there are other large portraits by his hand or from his studio, notably the Phoenix and Pelican Portraits. They cannot be sure however.

The portraits from De Rothchild’s collection, however, not only have stylistic characteristics in common with Hilliard’s miniatures, as well as clear similarities with the Phoenix and Pelican portraits, but there is a more mundane piece of evidence that puts it all nicely into place.

Hilliard was in France in the retinue of Elizabeth’s ambassador in Paris Sir Amias Paulet. He is the sitter in Elizabeth’s companion portrait. Hilliard and Paulet were in France at the same time as Elizabeth.

The portraits were painted, scientific analysis proves, on French oak panels. No English artist would have chosen this support, considering there was much better quality oak available in the England at the time. Art historians believe that these two portraits must have been created in France for Sir Amias Paulet’s Parisian ambassador’s residence perhaps. Elizabeth was considering a French marriage at the time and various French references in the portrait point to this, such as the fleur de lis in her pelican jewel.

Finding such splendid portraits by one of the most celebrated Tudor portraitist is a fabulous discovery indeed. Knowing for sure these paintings are by Hilliard means we can now compare his painting technique in miniatures with his large paintings. With these portraits as a bench mark other portraits might now be able to gain a certain attribution.

The main reason I wanted to visit Waddesdon Manor last week was to see these two ‘new’ portraits by Hilliard. They were on display throughout the summer and will remain there until 29 October 2017. I am not sure where they are going to go when the display closes. I do hope the portraits will remain on public display somewhere as they are true national treasures.

When I first walked into the small room where the paintings are displayed I was surprised by their modest size. The Elizabeth portrait is 815 x 612 x 5mm,  only a few cm bigger than the Phoenix portrait. For some reason I was expecting something larger.

The painting was also less bright, bold and glossy than the images provided suggest. Focussing on the Elizabeth portrait, it actually looked a lot less glamorous and a lot more interesting and aged. The blacks are not the deep glossy blacks my computer screen suggested, but an aged, patchy black with some more matt areas here and there.

It was hard to see the painting in the small room because of the annoying large array of lights reflected in the protective glass, and the painting being hung quite high on the wall. I am not tall, granted, but my eye level was about a quarter from the bottom of the painting, making it nearly impossible to study the upper half in any close detail.

Attributed to Nicholas Hilliard, Sir Amias Paulet, 16th century; oil on panel; 815 x 610mm; Waddesdon (Rothschild Family); acc. no. 28.2017. Photo: © Hamilton Kerr Institute

What I could see was the beautiful way the lace ruff was painted with a thicker raised layer of paint, creating a 3d texture that is very effective as the thick paint catches the light beautifully. This technique we can also see in Hilliard’s miniatures. The lace ruff stood out even more in the companion piece of the ambassador, as he was dressed in stark contrasting black clothes. In Elizabeth’s portrait the ruff is fairly small and insignificant compared to the overload of jewels on display.

Elizabeth’s pale stylised face (assuming the rosy cheeks will have faded over time as in so many Tudor paintings) was much less bright than the digital images we’ve seen online. The whole painting was a little calmer and quieter than the online images suggest. I wish I could have taken a photo myself but alas I was not allowed.

In real life you can sense the age of the work much better. You can clearly see it was painted on wooden panels, there are lines where the panels are stuck together and you sense the texture of the wood. The black paint and the red background have uneven patches, the (not original) frame is matt and a little faded.

The portrait itself is a tour de force, as are the other Elizabeth portraits by Hilliard. His skills in painting jewels and embroidery is mind blowing. There is a dazzling load of pearls and gemstones. Some of the pearls have probably faded a little and look more like glass balls and are so big it makes one wonder. There are black precious stones held in huge golden settings, pearls in pieces of circular fabric that looks like fur but could be frayed silk perhaps. There is a huge pelican jewel, silk ribboned sleeves (fantastically painted!), intersected by pink and gold flowers that are either beads or embroidery, and a flower corsage (is that a pink carnation and something that looks like blossom?). In the bottom left corner is an object heavily jewelled and feathered, perhaps a fan, I am not sure.

The golden chain with pearls hangs heavily around her dress. Her waist is exaggerated by the artist into a tiny wasp waist a victorian lady would be jealous of.  Her sleeves puff up at the shoulders. There is a thin transparent veil  with butterfly wings behind her back, with the points pinned to her sleeves at the front. A small needle lace ruff carries her face which is framed by her trademark red curly hair, covered in jewels and pearls.  If an outfit like this was ever real, and why wouldn’t it have been, it would have weighed a ton and cost even more!

The painting so filled with painted jewels, is a jewel itself. The skill of the artist makes the flat surface sparkle and dazzle. The eye is drawn to the dress and its ribbons and jewels with all its intricate detail and high realism. She on the other hand is highly stylised with her flat pale face, extreme thin waist and tall neck. Her jewels are as real as she is unreal. She has become a jewel herself.

Attributed to Nicholas Hilliard,Queen Elizabeth I, 16th Century. Waddesdon (Rothschild Family) © Hamilton Kerr Institute (Detail)
Attributed to Nicholas Hilliard,Queen Elizabeth I, 16th Century. Waddesdon (Rothschild Family) © Hamilton Kerr Institute (Detail)
Attributed to Nicholas Hilliard,Queen Elizabeth I, 16th Century. Waddesdon (Rothschild Family) © Hamilton Kerr Institute. (Detail)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbvKnTJbmws

Some interesting links:

Power & Portraiture: painting at the court of Elizabeth I

Is this life size portrait of Elizabeth I by our greatest painter of miniatures?

A radical new look at the greatest of Elizabethan artists

 

Further Reading:

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