The Hilliard Family in Exeter
This year of marks the 400th anniversary of the death of one of the greatest Elizabethan artists, Nicholas Hilliard (c.1547-1619). The Hilliards were a prominent family in Exeter, renowned for their craftsmanship. Although the name of Hilliard is now more associated with miniature portraits, the family were originally goldsmiths. Several objects linked to the Hilliards are now held in RAMM’s collection. Here we trace the family’s history, beginning with Nicholas’ father Richard.
Richard Hilliard and the Goldsmith’s Trade
Although there is evidence of goldsmithing in Exeter as early as Roman times, it was not until the 16th century that the trade flourished in the West Country. Richard Hilliard belonged to a community of goldsmiths working in the city, primarily around the Guildhall and Broadgate areas.
The son of Cornish goldsmith John Hilliard, Richard was born c.1520. He was apprenticed to John Wall then admitted to Freedom in 1546, having satisfied his master that he had learned the trade to an acceptable standard. Goldsmithing enjoyed high status as a craft. Like many involved in the trade Richard was an influential citizen who owned considerable property in Exeter. He held several important civic positions, serving as a Bailiff, a Common Councillor and later Sheriff.
The evolution of the goldsmith’s trade during the 16th century was shaped by the wider transformations occurring in Tudor society; the Protestant Reformation had significant implications for Exeter’s craftsmen. King Henry VIII had broken away from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534 when Richard was a young man. Richard, along with many of his fellow tradesmen, was a firm supporter of the new Protestant Church. When riots broke out in Exeter following King Edward VI’s introduction of a new Protestant Prayer Book in 1549, Richard supported the reform and helped to defend the city against the dissenters.
Edward VI’s new Prayer Book was one of the many alterations made to the way church services were held following the Reformation. Before this period, goldsmiths had relied heavily on the Church for business, creating items such as Catholic chalices for Mass. However, changes in religious ideology led to the destruction of Catholic items of worship in favour of Protestant furnishings. As Holy Communion replaced Mass, chalices were melted down, offering goldsmiths a profitable opportunity to re-design ecclesiastical plate for Devon’s churches.
Objects at RAMM
In the 1570s, new Protestant Communion Cups were fashioned, including two created by Richard in c.1572, currently at RAMM. The first (L31) was created for St Sidwell’s Church. It is decorated with arabesque strapwork around its distinctive concave rim, peculiar to Exeter cups. The second (L24) features a Tudor rose on its flared foot. It was made for Bramford Speke, St Peter’s Church. Hilliard’s mark was punched into each.
At the same time as this, Hilliard was making spoons which were given as prestige gifts for weddings and by godparents for christenings. A seal top spoon in RAMM’s collection bears his initials in monogram in a circle of pellets.
Richard married Laurence, the daughter of his master John Wall, and had several children. His second son Jeremy inherited the business in 1594, having trained as a goldsmith with his father. One of his pieces, the lion sejant spoon, is also held at RAMM. But it was Nicholas, the eldest son, who enjoyed particular fame.
Nicholas was born in Exeter, 1547. At the age of 10, Hilliard was sent to Switzerland to escape the persecution inflicted on Protestants during the reign of Catholic Queen Mary I (r.1553-8). With the accession of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, Nicholas was able to return from exile in 1559 and pursue his artistic career. He became a freeman of the Goldsmith’s Company in 1569, after completing an apprenticeship with the Queen’s jeweller Richard Brandon.
Nicholas’ time in Switzerland had exposed him to a range of continental art which laid the foundation for his career as a limner, or miniature painter. Following the techniques of Hans Holbein, Henry VIII’s portrait painter, and studying Flemish illuminations, Nicholas taught himself the art of miniature painting. From 1570 he become the royal court’s miniaturist. In ‘The Arte of Limning’, Nicholas’ treatise detailing his craft, he reveals the techniques he adopted. Water-based pigments were applied to fine vellum, supported by a piece of card such as a playing card. After base colours has been laid down, individual details were added using hatching stokes and a very fine brush.
The Politics of the Elizabethan Portrait Miniature
Artists such as Nicholas were vital in shaping the public image of the monarch. Queen Elizabeth was particularly active in controlling her representation and propagating her image. In 1563, William Cecil drafted a proclamation forbidding artists from depicting the Queen until “some special painter might be permitted access to her majesty.” A chosen artist would capture the Queen’s likeness from life and their approved image would then provide a template for further artists to copy. A Privy Council order of 1596 even declared that unacceptable portraits of the Queen should be destroyed and replaced. Elizabeth rarely commissioned images herself, but skilfully encouraged her courtiers to disseminate her portrait at their expense. Miniatures were an ideal art form to achieve this. Their small scale, usually no larger than 10 inches tall, meant they might be integrated into jewellery, enabling the wearer to exhibit political allegiances and loyalty to the crown.
A Lasting Legacy
The objects and images produced by the Hilliard family offer us a tangible link to people of the past, helping us to illuminate the Tudor period. Without the meticulous skills learnt from his father’s trade as a goldsmith, Nicholas might not have executed the portrait miniatures which so enrich history with faces and colour. In 1577 Nicholas created these two portraits, now held at the V&A. The first shows himself aged 30, whilst the second shows Richard aged 68.
Several exciting events will be taking place this year to commemorate the anniversary of Nicholas’s death. Visitors can experience the astonishing detail of Nicholas’s work in a major exhibition held at the National Portrait Gallery: Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver (21 February – 19 May 2019). The exhibition displays Nicholas’s works alongside those of his contemporary Isaac Oliver, exploring what these paintings tell us about 16th century society and visual culture. At RAMM we are delighted to be hosting Nicholas Hilliard: The extraordinary life of an Exeter man, a talk by Dr Elizabeth Goldring (Centre for Renaissance Studies, University of Warwick). The talk will explore Nicholas’s early life, showing how events in and around Exeter shaped his career. It will take place on Tuesday 11th June. Dr Goldring’s new book Nicholas Hilliard Life of an Artist is also now available.