An image to hold in the palm of your hand or hang in a jewelled case on a chain around your neck, just hidden under clothes but close to the heart – your symbol of deepfelt emotion. The miniature paintings of Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver in Elizabethan England of the late 1500s are so intricate and fragile, so small and delicate that it is a miracle their intimate visual sonnets survive to this day.
Many, but not all, were commissioned by courtiers. Many, but not all, were tokens of love and friendship. Some were accompanied by fourteen-lined sonnets as the Elizabethans were fascinated by this newly fashionable form of poetry. Sonnet – an ‘inverted’ word, like lyric: sonnet from ‘son’, sound, referred instead to words in a poetic form, as did the ‘lyrics’, presumably words to be accompanied by the popular musical instrument then, the lyre.
Sharp wit was at a premium. It led to the rise and fall of a reputed ancestor – Sir Walter Raleigh. My family history is laden with tales of this handsome, clever and vain adventurer from Devon. The ‘virgin queen’ picked out the tall courtier and awarded him lucrative responsibilities. He was put in charge of the revenue from the Cornish tin mines that were renowned since Antiquity and led to the legend – or true story – that Christ, as a child, accompanied the merchant Joseph of Arimathea to Cornwall and touched a thorn bush at Glastonbury, which has miraculously flowered in winter ever since.
So these small, delicate, precious miniatures were tokens of affection, respect and regard speaking a gentle, private language like visual sonnets, like the whispers and pattering of feet along wooden corridors to secret assignments. Love tokens that can be held in a hand or hung on a chain were even more intimate than the actual words of a sonnet, closer visually to the beloved and physically to the heart.
Words did play a part in these miniatures, usually painted in gold around the edge of the portrait or embossed on a locket. A few words, carefully chosen, often with a hidden meaning known only to the one who gives and the other who receives. Wit was prized. A family legend has it that when the handsome young courtier presented the queen with a poem and a compliment, she responded by writing on a window pane, ‘Sir Walter, thou speak but rawly!’ Hence the family insistence on pronouncing ‘Raleigh’ (or sometimes ‘Ralegh’) to rhyme with ‘rawly’. Sir Walter’s exquisite miniature is by Nicholas Hilliard who, too, was from Devon. It shows him richly garbed. He wrote that he kept jewels sewed into his clothes, like a mobile savings account, so he could sell one if in need of cash. A beguiling, if frustrating figure, he was the more sophisticated rival of Sir Francis Drake, who also came from Devon.
Raleigh’s portrait clearly depicts what was called the ‘ostentatious secrecy’ of the Elizabethan court, almost as if saying, ‘I would like to tell you, but I can’t,’ to stimulate the then current debate on whether language – meaning poetry – or the visual arts were better in revealing people’s character and the contents of their mind. Words, then and now, are common currency, but these images are unique and have survived over four centuries to speak to us.