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This article is taken from
100 Best Paintings in London

Text by Geoffrey Smith


Arcadian Dreams / Symbolist Visions


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Nicholas Hilliard: Young Man leaning against a Tree among Roses - c.1585–9

London, Victoria and Albert Museum

This image is an example of that characteristically Elizabethan preoccupation with staging courtly protestations of devotion to the queen’s majesty.

A young man gazes dolefully at nothing in particular, engrossed in a private misery and with his hand on his heart. We are therefore left in no doubt as to the cause of his suffering. However, the object of his desires may be less easy to divine and this gem of a picture may fulfil a dual role. The sitter is dressed in black and white, the queen’s colours, and he is surrounded by the barbed beauty of the eglantine rose, also associated with Elizabeth, but at the same time, a reference to the pains of love.

It is possible that the young man might be identified as Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, a particular favourite of the queen, who had incurred Elizabeth’s wrath when he married in secret. It has been postulated that this picture could have been a small part of Essex’s strategy to restore his position at court but it has to be said that there is no evidence for this and there is equally no evidence that the subject is Essex. The cryptic legend at the top of the picture which may be translated as ‘a praised faith is its own scourge’ is of little help. It is a quote from Lucan in a piece which goes on to recommend a political assassination (which sits rather uneasily above a lovesick youth) so it may be urging the viewer to think along lines of political loyalty; or it may merely be a quote which holds a special private significance for two or more people. Perhaps it is best to think of it straightforwardly as the image of a man who wishes to appraise his lady of the depth of his feelings, and at the same time needs to reaffirm his fidelity to the queen — Hilliard was after all painting almost exclusively for court circles and we must not forget the heightened political and patriotic atmosphere of the period in which it was probably produced — in or around 1588 — the year of the Armada.

This piece was probably the first of a series of larger scale miniatures for which Hilliard usually chose a rectangular format — in this case he has used an elongated oval. The style of the picture betrays the influence of his stay in France during the mid–1570s when he would have seen the palace of Fontainebleau. The sinuous and attenuated outline of the young man is reminiscent of the mannerist proclivities of the Fontainebleau school and it fits perfectly into his chosen oval format. This most charming miniature has become deservedly famous not only as a near perfect and original example of the limner’s art but as embodying the quintessence of a heady period of English history.

Contemporary Works

1586 El Greco: The Burial of Count Orgaz, Toledo, Santo Tomé

1587 Jacopo Tintoretto: Flight into Egypt, Venice, Scuola di San Rocco

1595 Caravaggio: The Lute Player, St Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum


Further Paintings of Interest