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Apollo Awards 2019

Book of the Year

21 November 2019

Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist
Elizabeth Goldring

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This year was the 400th anniversary of the death of the miniaturist, medallist, illuminator and painter Nicholas Hilliard, arguably the first internationally acclaimed English artist. This art-historical biography is both timely and exemplary. It presents Hilliard as a man and an artist, exploring his life in unprecedented depth but also with remarkable breadth. It creates an endlessly fascinating context for his extraordinary works, which are lavishly illustrated and perceptively analysed, and it casts new light on all sorts of other issues, events and individuals connected with Hilliard’s life and artistic output.

There is more surviving documentary evidence about Hilliard than about most of his artistic contemporaries, in part because he worked for the Crown, but also because he was frequently in debt and in court, and because he loved to complain. Elizabeth Goldring is at home in archives, and she has plumbed them fully for her study, correcting mistakes in previous biographies and making significant new discoveries. There are important additions to our knowledge about Hilliard’s relationship with and work for the French court and the details of his ill-fated gold-mining investments, among other events. Inevitably, there are still gaps in his history, and here Goldring is judiciously speculative, creating a richly detailed and engaging narrative.

Unknown Young Man against a Background of Flames (c. 1600), Nicholas Hilliard. Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Unknown Young Man against a Background of Flames (c. 1600), Nicholas Hilliard. Victoria and Albert Museum, London

One of the most impressive aspects of the book is the wealth of contextual material, which never feels digressional but illuminatingly sets the scene for Hilliard’s remarkable life and achievement. His early life in Exeter; the family networks of goldsmiths in Devon and London; the political, religious and cultural worlds he would have encountered in London, Geneva, Paris and also – usually overlooked – in Wesel and Frankfurt; all make for compelling reading. This book is not just the definitive biography of Hilliard but essential reading for anyone interested in late 16th- and early 17th-century England.

Catharine MacLeod is senior curator of 17th-century portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, London.

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