My favourite painting: Matthew Girling

'It’s the depiction of the jewels, rubies and pearls that I find mesmerising'

Jewelled locket with a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, about 1600, by Nicholas Hilliard (1542– 1619), 21⁄2in by 2in, V&A, London

Matthew Girling says:
‘This ethereal image of Elizabeth is one of Hilliard’s most enigmatic. But, for me, it’s the depiction of the jewels, rubies and pearls that I find mesmerising. Jewels have always been in my family—my ne’er-do-well grandfather mined sapphires in Australia, only to gamble away the fortune he made. His one legacy was a passion for stones, and I have spent my life working with them. After prospecting for diamonds and working at Garrard, I belatedly went to university and this miniature—iconic in the literal sense—was the subject of my thesis. You could say the picture made me who I am today.’

Matthew Girling is Joint Group CEO of Bonhams and head of jewellery. The Fine Jewellery Sale is at Bonhams New Bond Street, London W1, on April 22

John McEwen comments:
Shakespeare (1564–1616) and Hilliard lived into the Jacobean age, but embody the Elizabethan spirit, described by Sir Roy Strong, with regard to Hilliard’s art, as ‘utter freshness of vision’. Hilliard was the first English painter acknowledged as a supreme master by his English contemporaries. John Donne wrote in The Storm, ‘a hand or eye/ By Hilliard drawne, is worth a history,/ By a worse painter made’.

Hilliard’s father was an Exeter goldsmith and the city’s sheriff. The family were fervent Protestants. In Catholic Queen Mary’s reign, Nicholas—along with his protector, the exiled Exonian John Bodley (father of Thomas Bodley, founder of the Bodleian Library), and family—was received into John Knox’s Geneva congregation.

After Elizabeth I’s accession, he served a seven-year apprenticeship to Robert Brandon, the Queen’s goldsmith and jeweller. By 1572, he was her limner (miniaturist), an art derived from medieval book illumination, and had his own goldsmith workshop.

In his Art of Limning, Hilliard emphasised its respectability—‘fittest for gentlemen’. Often worn as jewellery, miniatures could be as expensive as full-length portraits. Hilliard was, nonetheless, invariably short of money and Brandon, now his father-in-law, had his daughter’s dowry separately managed.

This portrait was made when Elizabeth was about 66. Rubies and pearls boast her wealth; her crown, imperially closed, proclaims her subject to no worldly power. She is inviolate and ageless. Hilliard was jealous of the secrets of his surprisingly, when enlarged, impressionistic technique. His ‘cunning’ can defy any magnification, but we do know he burnished gold with a weasel’s tooth.

This article was originally published in Country Life, April 15, 2015

More from the My Favourite Painting Series