In anticipation and celebration of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s new British Galleries, today’s picture is one of the most exquisite objects destined to be displayed there: an Elizabethan miniature of A Man Against a Background of Flames, painted in about 1600. Although the V&A’s catalogue tentatively attributes this picture to the miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard, many experts now believe that only Isaac Oliver could have painted it. I agree with them.
The identity of the sitter remains unknown, but he was almost certainly an Elizabethan nobleman. Only someone very wealthy and well-connected could hope to acquire a portrait of such quality. The picture is tiny, painted on a piece of vellum the size of a small child’s hand, which makes the fineness of the artist’s technique all the more impressive. Working in watercolour and using the finest squirrel-hair brushes, he has “limned” the features and captured the character of this passionate, milk-skinned young man with breathtaking delicacy. Hold the image in your hand and tilt it from side to side so that it catches a raking light – as I had the privilege of doing a few years ago, while making a television programme about Elizabethan art – and you will see glinting touches of gold leaf laid into the orange and red brushstrokes in the background, as if to duplicate the heat and light of a real fire.
Conservation work on the picture has revealed that the backing to which it is pasted is a playing card. This was common practice among miniaturists, although it may well be significant – given the Elizabethan fondness for hidden layers of meaning – that in this case the playing card was the ace of hearts. It has been suggested that the painting commemorates a man who died in a fire, which is an ingenious but implausibly literal explanation. The meaning of Elizabethan miniatures like this is almost always to be found in symbolism. It is much more likely that the sitter commissioned the work himself, and did so to express his passion for a woman. It would probably have been presented to her as a token of his affection. The gift of such a keepsake might also have been intended as a sexual proposition. “Here I am, burning in the flames of love. What are you going to do about it?”
The artist did his utmost to ensure a favourable response. He has made the sitter seem almost touchably attractive, in a romantically dishevelled way. He shows him with his fine, lace-trimmed linen nightshirt open almost to the waist. He captures not just his prominent goatee beard and moustache but also the traces of a stubble shadow creeping along the fine line of his jaw. Tousled hair adds to the endearing impression of a man who has been up all night, tossing and turning, sleepless with desire. The sitter’s intensely melancholic, yearning expression is complicated by his slightly raised left eyebrow, which gives him a look of piercing and quizzical intelligence. He comes across as a man of wit as well as a languishing lover.
This combination of passion and ingenuity is also to be found in the Elizabethan love sonnet, a literary form comparable to the miniature in that it too compresses a powerful feeling into a small space: fourteen lines of verse. Some of the sonnets of Shakespeare, in particular, seem extremely close in mood to Elizabethan miniatures. In Sonnet 24, he explicitly compares the experience of falling in love with that of painting a picture:
“Mine eye hath play’d the painter and hath steel’d
Thy beauty’s form in table of my heart;
My body is the frame wherein ‘tis held…”
The idea expressed here, that the lover has gazed with such intensity upon his beloved that her image has become engraved on the “table” (meaning tablet) of his heart, is also implied in our picture. With his left hand the young man has meaningfully withdrawn a closed locket on a chain from inside his open shirt. This can be assumed to contain a miniature of the selfsame lady to whom his lovelorn gaze is directed. He has worn her portrait close to his heart, held her image so dear that now he does not even need to look at it. The implication, as in Shakespeare’s sonnet, is that he sees her image always, within the very frame of his being.
A Frenchman by birth, Isaac Oliver was from a Protestant family who sought refuge in England from religious persecution. Thanks to his travels in Italy, he was able to introduce Elizabethan patrons to the unfamiliar subtleties of High Renaissance art. The miniature shown here is an English equivalent to the Italian Renaissance medal, itself a classically inspired revival of antique commemorative bronzes and coins. Renaissance medals have two sides, the front showing the patron’s head, the reverse displaying his impresa or emblem, a pictogram or heraldic device of a learned and frequently tantalising nature. Because a miniature only has one side, Oliver combined both portrait and impresa – the young man together with the raging fires of love which he has adopted as his emblem – within a single image. The source for this Italianate innovation is admittedly to be found in miniatures by Oliver’s teacher, Nicholas Hilliard. But there is no equivalent in Hilliard, or in the work of any earlier English artist, to the softness and delicacy of Oliver’s painting style. His sfumato blending of light and shade suggests familiarity with the work of Leonardo da Vinci. So does the subtly sad half-smile which plays, Mona Lisa-like, on the lips of the anonymous young man. He seems on the point of speech.
When I think of what he might be saying, another of Shakespeare’s sonnets, number 153, the penultimate poem in the cycle, comes to mind. Its subject is love’s inextinguishable flame:
“Cupid laid by his brand and fell asleep.
A maid of Dian’s this advantage found,
And his love-kindling fire did quickly steep
In a cold valley-fountain of that ground;
Which borrow’d from from this holy fire of Love
A dateless lively heat, still to endure,
And grew a seething bath which men yet prove
Against strange maladies a sovereign cure.
But at my mistress’ eye Love’s brand new fir’d,
The boy for trial needs would touch my breast.
I, sick withal, the help of bath desir’d,
And thither hied, a sad distemper’d guest:
But found no cure: the bath for my help lies
Where Cupid got new fire – my mistress’ eyes.”