Nicholas Hilliard (British, 1547-1619) Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603), wearing black figured dress studded with jewels and a fine white lace ruff, gold and ruby crown, seven sapphires in her curled red upswept hair

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Lot 22
Nicholas Hilliard
(British, 1547-1619)
Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603), wearing black figured dress studded with jewels and a fine white lace ruff, gold and ruby crown, seven sapphires in her curled red upswept hair

Sold for £ 40,800 (US$ 53,136) inc. premium
Nicholas Hilliard (British, 1547-1619)
Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603), wearing black figured dress studded with jewels and a fine white lace ruff, gold and ruby crown, seven sapphires in her curled red upswept hair.
Watercolour on vellum, gilt-mounted in turned ivory frame.
Circular, 32mm (1 1/4in) dia.
Provenance: J.J. Foster
Robert Bayne-Powell Collection, Sotheby's 11 October 1994, lot 22
Exhibited: Exposition de la Miniature, 1912, no.184
Literature: The Connoisseur, vol.XXXIII, p.161
Roy Strong, The English Renaissance Miniature, London, 1983, p.195, note 66 to chapter 5


  • The present lot can be closely compared with Hilliard's portrait of the Queen from 1586-7, which was presented to Sir Francis Drake by the Queen. At this period, Hilliard had evolved a formula for producing portraits of the Queen, whereby he could concentrate his efforts on her costume and jewellery. These portraits have an almost mechanically produced 'face mask' typically facing to her right. The present lot, whilst falling into this period of Hilliard's output, is unusual in that the Queen faces to her left.

    Born in 1533, Elizabeth was the only child of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. At birth, Elizabeth was the heiress presumptive to the throne of England. Her older half-sister, Mary, having lost her position as legitimate heir when Henry annulled his marriage to Mary's mother, Catherine of Aragon. The same fate happened to Elizabeth when her father had her mother beheaded. Eleven days after Anne Boleyn's death, Henry married Jane Seymour who died just 12 days after the birth of their son, Prince Edward. Edward VI succeeded his father in 1547, but died in 1553, aged 15 and Lady Jane Grey was proclaimed queen by the Privy Council. Her support quickly crumbled, and she was deposed after reigning nine days. Mary rode triumphantly into London, with Elizabeth at her side. The show of solidarity between the sisters did not last long due to their differing faiths. Mary, the country's first queen regnant, was determined to crush the Protestant faith which led to uprisings in early 1554. Upon the collapse of the uprising, Elizabeth was brought to court, interrogated and imprisoned in the Tower of London. On 17th April 1555, Elizabeth was recalled to court during the final stages of Mary's supposed pregnancy. When it became clear that Mary was not pregnant, no one believed any longer that she could have a child and Elizabeth's succession was assured. When Mary died at St. James's Palace on the 17th November 1558, Elizabeth became queen at the age of 25.

    From the start of Elizabeth's reign, the question arose about whom she would marry. She only seriously considered three or four suitors for any length of time. Of these, her childhood friend Lord Robert Dudley probably came closest. She turned down Philip II's offer in 1559, his cousin Archduke Charles of Austria; and the two French Valois princes in turn, first Henri, Duke of Anjou, and later, his brother François, Duke of Anjou. In 1566, she confided to the Spanish ambassador that if she could find a way to settle the succession without marrying, she would do so. By 1570, senior figures in the government privately accepted that Elizabeth would never marry or name a successor.

    Elizabeth's unmarried status inspired a cult of virginity. In poetry and portraiture, she was depicted as a virgin or a goddess or both. At first, only Elizabeth made a virtue of her virginity but later on, particularly after 1578, poets and writers took up the theme and turned it into an iconography that exalted Elizabeth. In an age of metaphors and conceits, she was portrayed as married to her kingdom and subjects, under divine protection. As Elizabeth aged and marriage became unlikely, her image gradually changed. She was portrayed as Belphoebe or Astraea, and after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, as Gloriana, the eternally youthful Faerie Queene of Edmund Spenser's poem. Her painted portraits became less realistic and more a set of enigmatic icons that made her look much younger than she was. In fact, her skin had been scarred by smallpox in 1562, leaving her half bald and dependent on wigs and cosmetics. Elizabeth was happy to play the part, but it seems that in the last decade of her life she began to believe her own performance. She became fond and indulgent of the charming but petulant young Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. Essex took liberties with her for which she forgave him, repeatedly appointing him to military posts despite his growing record of irresponsibility. In February 1601, the Earl tried to raise a rebellion to seize the Queen but few rallied to his support, and he was beheaded on the 25th of that month.

    Elizabeth's most trusted advisor, Lord Burghley, died on the 4th August 1598. His political mantle passed to his son, Robert Cecil, who soon became the leader of the government. One task he addressed was the succession. Since Elizabeth would never name her successor, Cecil was obliged to proceed in secret. He therefore entered into a coded negotiation with James VI of Scotland, who had a strong but unrecognised claim. The Queen remained well until the autumn of 1602, when a series of deaths among her friends plunged her into a severe depression. In February 1603, the death of Catherine Howard, Countess of Nottingham, was the last straw and in March, Elizabeth fell sick and remained in a "settled and unremovable melancholy". She died on the 24th March 1603 at Richmond Palace and a few hours later, James VI of Scotland was proclaimed king of England.
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