Nicholas Hilliard

The plaque is located on a pillar in an arcade in the Guildhall Shopping Centre, close to St Pancras Church

It reads:

Nicholas Hilliard 

Portrait Miniaturist at the royal courts of Elizabeth I and James I and goldsmith
Son of Richard Hilliard c1519-1594, Exeter goldsmith.
Both owned property in this parish 
and were patrons to the living of St Pancras

Self-Portrait, by courtesy of V&A Museum
Hilliard self-portrait by courtesy of the V&A Museum

Nicholas Hilliard was possibly the first British artist to gain an international reputation for his work. His work is still much admired, and examples are held by The Royal Collection, the National Portrait Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum and other museums and galleries in the UK and abroad.

Hilliard was born in Exeter, but made his career as both a goldsmith and a painter in London, where he became known for excellence in painting portrait miniatures, or “limnings”, as they were known at the time. His skill was such that he was employed by both Queen Elizabeth I and James I as “limner to the monarch”. In addition to portrait miniatures, he and his workshop produced other high-quality work including medals, jewels (elaborate settings for miniatures), illuminated manuscripts, full-size oil paintings, and prints.

He came from a family of goldsmiths. His father, Richard Hilliard was an Exeter goldsmith, as was his grandfather, John Wall. The Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter holds two silver communion cups made by Richard. Richard married John Wall’s daughter Laurence, and it is probable that it was in the house of John Wall that Nicholas was born, as there is no record of Richard and Laurence Hilliard living elsewhere in Exeter at that time.

The Wall/Hilliard connection to St Pancras’ parish and church relates to some property there, first held under lease by John Wall, then later owned outright by Richard Hilliard, who then left it to Nicholas in his will. The patronage of the living of St Pancras was associated with the freehold of this property, which meant that both Richard and Nicholas were patrons of the living during the time that they owned it.

As an apprentice, Nicholas Hilliard would have learned to make jewellery and plate. But learning to paint miniatures was not part of a normal goldsmith apprenticeship, and it is not known for certain how he did acquire the necessary techniques. Hilliard claimed in his later autobiography that he had taught himself. However he learned to paint, he appears to have gained a good reputation for portraiture by the time his apprenticeship was completed, because it was not long before he was painting portrait miniatures of some quite eminent people. Some early commissions came from Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, the Queen’s favourite.

Dudley became a patron of Hilliard, commissioning further work, and recommending him to others. Not long afterwards Queen Elizabeth herself had him paint a miniature of her, to be sent to the French royal court where there were ongoing marriage prospects. The painting evidently met with Elizabeth’s approval, because he went on to paint numerous further portraits of her, both miniature and conventional size, and to do other work for her, such as manuscript illumination and medal design.

In return he was generously paid by the Queen so long as she felt that she could afford it. In addition to money, his reputation as “limner to the Queen” brought him further work from the nobility, gentry, and rich merchants. Notable non-royal sitters include Robert Devereux Earl of Essex, Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Thomas Bodley, founder of the Bodleian Library.

James I continued Nicholas Hilliard’s employment as the royal limner, and among Hilliard’s later works are several miniatures of James himself, and of his children. But he began to be eclipsed by a former apprentice of his, Isaac Oliver, whose style was preferred by James’ wife Anne of Denmark, Prince Henry and others.Towards the end of his life Nicholas moved to the parish of St Martin in the Fields, where he died and was buried on 7th January 1619.

Nicholas Hilliard never returned to Exeter to live. A younger brother, Jeremy, carried on the family business as a goldsmith in Exeter. At the time of his death Jeremy owned property near the South Gate of the city. Another brother, Ezechial, became a clergyman and was rector of Stoke Climsland in Cornwall.