Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester was the greatest private collector of paintings in Elizabethan England. Many items in his collection were portraits and, being fond of everything Italian, he had a predilection for the Venetian school. It is intriguing to know that his favourite nephew Sir Philip Sidney, travelling Europe on his uncle’s behalf, had himself painted by Paolo Veronese – sadly if unsurprisingly, the painting is lost.1
Due to his closeness to Queen Elizabeth Leicester was the ideal patron for a young artist, and so he was to Nicholas Hilliard. A trained goldsmith, Hilliard made a ‟booke of portraitures‟ for the earl in 1571, the year of his first known work as a ‟limner“ or painter of portrait miniatures. The next year he obtained his first commission to paint the queen, most probably through Leicester’s influence.2 A decade later, when Elizabeth had granted Hilliard a property lease, the respective letters patent became stuck in the Exchequer office: On 24 June 1582 Leicester wrote to Sir Walter Mildmay, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to expedite Hilliard’s case: ‟wherefor I heartily pray your good favour towards him for his speedy going through therewith; it is now a good while ago since her Majesty did grant him relief“. Within another four months Hilliard had his patent.3 From 1582 the Earl and Countess of Leicester, as well as the countess’ daughter Penelope Rich, may have stood as godparents to several of Hilliard’s children: their names were typical of Leicester’s family circle, like Lettice, Penelope, and Robert.4
The earliest of Hilliard’s known likenesses of Robert Dudley (bottom) was painted around 1572, when the earl was forty; it was probably a gift of Leicester’s to his sister Mary, Lady Sidney.5 With 4.44 cm (1.75 inches) in diameter it is of a standard size and belongs to the collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum.6 An especially delightful pair of miniatures of Queen Elizabeth and Robert Dudley (left) seems to have been commissioned in connection with the grandiose Kenilworth festivities in July 1575, which were the scene of the earl’s final, allegorical bid for the queen’s hand. The two pictures are only three-quarters of an inch in size (c.1.9 cm), and most likely they were incorporated into a piece of jewellery.7 Like all Hilliard’s miniatures they were painted with watercolours on vellum, and the liveliness of the tiny portraits is striking. This pair of miniatures is not the only example of a set of likenesses of the queen and her favourite; over the decades their unique relationship was expressed visually in numerous instances, in many materials and forms.
The best known of Hilliard’s miniatures of the earl (top), from the collections of the National Portrait Gallery, London, is inscribed ‟Ano.Dni.1576 Aetatis Sue 44“.8 This inscription would settle the earl’s otherwise unknown birth year in 1532,9 as it can be assumed that Hilliard would have been told a correct date by his client. With 4.5 cm (1.77 inches) in diameter this picture is again of standard proportions. Hilliard also painted Leicester around 1585–1588, the last years of the earl’s life, a miniature now at the Sidney family home, Penshurst Place, Kent.10 In 1588, Hilliard also made a miniature of Leicester’s stepson and political heir, the young Earl of Essex.
1 Hearn 1995 p. 152; Haynes 1987 p. 199
3 Jenkins 2002 p. 283
4 Jenkins 2002 p. 283
5 Haynes 1987 p. 104
7 The Telegraph
8 Hearn 1995 p. 124
9 Adams 2004
10 Adams 2004
Adams, Simon (2004): ‟Dudley, Robert, earl of Leicester (1532/3–1588)“. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.
Haynes, Alan (1987): The White Bear: The Elizabethan Earl of Leicester. Peter Owen.
Hearn, Karen (ed.) (1995): Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530–1630. Rizzoli.
Jenkins, Elizabeth (2002): Elizabeth and Leicester. The Phoenix Press.
‟Stamp-sized Elizabeth I miniatures to fetch £80,000“. The Telegraph. 17 Nov 2009. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-news/6582953/Stamp-sized-Elizabeth-I-miniatures-to-fetch-80000.html
V&A Search the collections. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O78130/miniature/