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Is this life size portrait of Elizabeth I by our greatest painter of miniatures? 2

a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I in her royal dress and ruffles

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

The restoration of portraits of Elizabeth I and one of her courtiers has got scholars excited about the hand that painted them

Nicholas Hilliard (1547 – 1619) is famous for his miniatures of the courts of Elizabeth I and James I, painted in watercolour on vellum, and for painting a beautiful miniature of Elizabeth I from life – apparently en plein air to avoid shadow, which the Queen disliked. But archival documents suggest that he also made paintings ‘in greate’ – full-scale portraits in oil paint.

Scholars have suggested various oil paintings that might have been painted by, or under the direction of Hilliard. One of the most famous being the ‘Phoenix Portrait’ of Elizabeth I at the National Portrait Gallery, so called because of the jewel the Queen holds to her breast, which is shaped like the mythical bird symbolizing rebirth and chastity. Hilliard, who was a trained goldsmith, is renowned for his detailed treatment of jewels in the his paintings.

Similarly the ‘Pelican Portrait’ held by the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, in which the Queen holds a pelican pendant, has been attributed to Hilliard, but these attributions rely heavily on stylistic comparison with his miniatures and it is hard to make conclusive comparisons between works of such different scale, type and medium.

But at Waddesdon Manor, where a new display explores the court paintings of Elizabethan England, they think they might have tracked down two of Hilliard’s elusive large scale portraits, which they say can attributed to “England’s greatest painter of miniatures” with “unprecedented confidence”.

a painted portrait of a man with a beard and ruffled collar

Attributed to Nicholas Hilliard, Sir Amias Paulet, 16th Century. Waddesdon (Rothschild Family) ® Hamilton Kerr Institute

The Rothschild portraits of Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Amias Paulet, Elizabeth I’s resident ambassador to France, also share many similarities of style and technique with Hilliard’s miniatures, particularly the treatment of the faces, hair, lace and jewels.

But what makes them so exciting, according to experts, is the scientific analysis carried out at the Hamilton Kerr Institute at the Fitzwilliam Museum that shows they are painted on panels constructed of French oak rather than the Baltic oak the English painters usually used.

Paulet was ambassador to France from 1576 to 1579 and for some of this time Hilliard (who was in France from 1576 to 1578) was a member of his retinue. Experts also point to details in the paintings that highlight a French context, such as the French Order of Saint Michel worn by Paulet and the fleur-de-lis worn by Elizabeth.

a close up of ginger curls on the head of a painting of Elizabeth I

Hair detail, attributed to Nicholas Hilliard, Queen Elizabeth I, 16th Century. Waddesdon (Rothschild Family) ® Hamilton Kerr Institute

In 1578 Paulet was negotiating a possible marriage between Elizabeth I and The duc d’Anjou, the younger brother of Henry III of France, which may also explain why two such similar portraits of Elizabeth and one of her ambassadors were painted. Perhaps Paulet commissioned them to hang in his Ambassador’s residence in Paris?

Taken together with the stylistic affinities with Hilliard’s miniatures, including details like the eyes and the way he painted the Queen’s curls, the evidence that links these paintings with Hilliard’s time in France has allowed scholars to attribute the paintings to him.

The queen’s face – luminous and inscrutable

The red velvet curtain that serves as the background to the Paulet portrait also appears in the portrait of Elizabeth. However, unlike the monarch, Paulet looks directly at the viewer with the steely-eyed stare of the diplomat/negotiator. Close inspection of the painting reveals how Hilliard used fine brushstrokes to delineate individual hairs (some greying) and the stubble on Paulet’s cheek. He used thick paint to raise the stiff, spiky lace of the ruff from the surface.

In the Elizabeth I portrait the relative flatness of the queen’s face – luminous and inscrutable – contrasts with the texture and modelling of the clothes. The elaborate jewel hanging below the Queen’s ruff incorporates a pelican, which is emblematic of the passion of Christ and self sacrifice. It was believed that the bird fed its young with blood from its own breast.

a painted portriat of a man in Elizabethan court dress

Anglo-Netherlandish School, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (1532-1588), c. 1564. Waddesdon (Rothschild Family) ® National Trust, Waddesdon Manor

a portrat of an Elizabethan gentleman

Hans Eworth Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk 16th century. Waddesdon Rothschild-Family acc.no.-377.2015. ® Ruth Bubb Conservation Ltd

The powerful portraits, shown together in Waddesdon’s Power and Portraiture exhibition, show how Elizabeth I and her courtiers used portraits to fashion their public image and to promote themselves in a glamorous, dangerous world.

As well as Sir Amias Paulet, Elizabeth is flanked by an imperious portrait of her charismatic suitor, the Earl of Leicester, and the doomed Duke of Norfolk.

Norfolk was imprisoned and executed at the Tower for his scheme to marry Mary, Queen of Scots as his fourth wife, as part in the Ridolfi plot to put Mary on the throne and restore Catholicism to England.

Take a look at some of Hilliard’s stunning Elizabethan court miniatures in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery:

a round portrait of Elizabeth I in a gold frame

Queen Elizabeth I, by Nicholas Hilliard. Watercolour on vellum, NPG 108 © National Portrait Gallery, London. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.

a miniature portriat of Rober Dudley looking dapper with a ruffled collar and black velvet hat

Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester by Nicholas Hilliard. Watercolour on vellum, 1576. NPG 4197
© National Portrait Gallery, London. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.

a minaiture oval painting of Sir Walter Raleigh with ruffled collar and beard

Sir Walter Ralegh (Raleigh) by Nicholas Hilliard. Watercolour on vellum, circa 1585 NPG 4106 © National Portrait Gallery, London. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.

an oval miniature portrait of Sir FRances Drake with ruffled collar and beard

Sir Francis Drake by Nicholas Hilliard watercolour on vellum, 1581 NPG 4851 © National Portrait Gallery, London. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.


Power & Portraiture: painting at the court of Elizabeth I is at Waddesdon from June 7 – October 29 2017, Wed-Sun, 12pm-4pm. Free with house admission.


Waddesdon Manor - National Trust

Nr Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire

Waddesdon Manor is a magnificent French Renaissance-style château housing the Rothschild Collection of art treasures. The garden is renowned for its seasonal displays, colourful shrubs and mature trees. There is an ornate Rococo-style Aviary housing rare and exotic birds, a superb cellar of wines, licensed restaurants, gift and wine shops.…



2 comments on “Is this life size portrait of Elizabeth I by our greatest painter of miniatures?

  1. Katya Bauer on

    Can you tell me why the photos of the paintings are almost impossible to see? It’s as if a white scrim is in front of them. It would be lovely to see color and detail clearly.

    • Richard Moss on

      Hi Katya, apologies, we saw the scrim too – it was because of a technical fault caused by a film embed we tried, but we thought we fixed it before go-live, so you shouldn’t be seeing it. We are looking into it now. Regards Richard (editor).


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