Tiny portraits capture England's aristocracy

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''Limning excelleth all other painting whatsoever,'' said Nicholas Hilliard, whose own career as a limner, or miniature portrait painter, began in 1571 and stretched for nearly half a century.

These tiny portraits of ''noble persons'' done in ''private manner'' in the late 16th and early 17th centuries give the observers of today an invaluable glimpse into the costumes and characters of Tudor and Jacobean England.

Nearly 200 of these exquisite portraits have been on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London's South Kensington. The exhibit, entitled ''Artists of the Tudor Court - the portrait miniature rediscovered, 1520-1620,'' was organized by the director, Sir Roy Strong, after 10 years of research.

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Collectors such as Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Juliana of the Netherlands lent items; so did museums from Stockholm to Kansas City. Works by limners Hornebolte, Holbein, Teerling, Hilliard, Lockey, and Oliver spanned the eras of three kings and two queens, including Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth I.

Limning was England's unique contribution to Renaissance art, unique to the Tudor and early Stuart courts. For the first 50 years, it was exclusively a regal art, kept for the monarch and his family. The mini-portraits were very detailed and normally true to life, such as the portrait by Lucas Hornebolte of Catherine of Aragon.

Married at 16 to Arthur, Henry VII's son, and widowed at 17, she became the first bride of her brother-in-law, Henry VIII, when he succeeded to the throne. Her picture shows her with her pet marmoset and agrees with a description written about her in 1531 that ''if not handsome she is not ugly; she is somewhat stout and has always a smile on her face.''

Nicholas Hilliard is perhaps the most famous of the limners. He was born in 1547 in the West country, the son of a goldsmith. At the time of the Protestant persecutions his family escaped to Geneva. On his return to England, he became apprenticed to Queen Elizabeth's goldsmith for seven years. His talents also included decorative painting, panel portraits, woodcuts, and jewelry.

In 1570 he made a dramatic move that changed the tradition of courtly painting - he opened a shop. Now anyone who could afford his price could have a portrait done. Now there were to be records of lives outside the court.

The paintings were often extremely personal, with varying aspects of the sitter's life included, and not necessarily just head portraits.

Perhaps Hilliard's most famous painting is the one of the ''Young Man among Roses,'' thought to be the second Earl of Essex, lovelorn swain of Elizabeth I. With his hand over his heart, he leans against a tree looking suitably romantic.

Hilliard stressed the need for ''cleanliness'' when painting and urged all artists to ''let your apparel be silk,'' since the slightest whisker, grain of dust, or smut could mar the portrait.

The appeal was necessary because Elizabethan England was known for its pollution and squalid streets, and hygiene was at a very low level.

Hilliard had a particular genius for developing new techniques - in making jewelry and metals look realistic and lace ruffs stand up in relief by using a thick mixture of white lead and painting each fine line.

The finished portraits were real treasures, encased in turned ivory boxes with crystal shields to protect them and lids to keep out dust and light. They would be put away somewhere private. Elizabeth I kept hers individually wrapped and labeled in her bedroom. Later, it became fashionable to put the pictures into lockets and to wear them around the neck.

During the Spanish Armada, the pictures became almost like icons. Sailors carried their own portraits of their Queen into battle.

The exhibition, which began July 9, ends Nov. 6.

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