Monday, December 24, 2012

Nicholas Hilliard and the Armada Perm

I’ve often wondered why Nicholas Hilliard isn’t more famous, because he certainly was a genius, one of England’s few indisputably great painters.  That he was a miniaturist who painted his portraits the size of an egg appears to have disqualified him over time from the greatness we bestow upon less gifted artists.  This would have shocked Hilliard, for during his day the portrait miniature was held to be among the most elevated art forms.  At the height of his power, when he was the official court painter for Elizabeth I—who famously told him to leave out the shadows—only nobles were deemed worthy of the liquefied silver, gold, and pearl Hilliard anointed onto the back of playing cards with his stoat-toothed tools.
During the three years 1586-1589 all the jacks Hilliard painted were awaiting the Spanish Armageddon—the end was near, all the astrologers agreed—and so every nobleman in a panic to die fashionably spent his last farthing on a lusty perm and a shiny set of French armor to die under and inside of when the Spanish hoards finally washed ashore. 
Hilliard immortalized this generation of doomed spit-curled knights awaiting their glorious deaths.  Without the armada perm, Hilliard would not be remembered as the greatest of the English miniaturists and instead his apprentice Isaac Oliver would rightly wear that crown.  The armada perm was to Hilliard’s career what the great tragedies were to Shakespeare’s.

Note to Oxfordians: the above portrait of Edward de Vere is controversial as the sitter appears to be too young for de Vere, who was 38 in 1588, the year Hilliard painted the portrait.  The inscription states the sitter is 30, which, if correct, obviously eliminates de Vere.  However it's not that simple.  I'll post more next week on the controversies surrounding this possible de Vere portraitWith many side-by-side comparisons to rare, and curious, portraits, including the oldest known photograph of the miniature.

Update: new post on the above Hilliard miniature here.  Is it Edward de Vere, Shakespeare, both, or neither?  
unknown man (left) and Sir Charles Blount (right) Elizabeth's greatest general 

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