A previously unknown miniature portrait by one of England’s most celebrated artists of the 16th century is to go on show after being discovered at a French auction.
The work by Nicholas Hilliard, estimated to be worth at least £750,000, is revealed for the first time today ahead of its appearance in the National Portrait Gallery.
The portrait of Henri III of France, once a possible suitor for Elizabeth I, is described by art historians as an “astonishing masterpiece in superlative condition.” It will go on display at the gallery’s new exhibition, Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver, which opens next month.
It has been dated to the late 1570s, having been wrongly catalogued as “19th century” when it was auctioned in France in 2013. It was then that an unidentified individual spotted its potential and a British dealer acquired it, bringing it to the attention of miniatures expert Emma Rutherford.
She told the Standard: “In terms of miniatures, it’s like unearthing the biggest diamond you’ve ever seen. You cannot believe this has been hidden, not commented upon, not exposed as the wonderful Renaissance portrait that it is ever before.
“It’s literally been hidden from view for over 400 years. Henri III was a very hated monarch, so lots of images of him were destroyed when he was assassinated. Then you have the French Revolution where, if you were caught with an image of a monarch from any period it was destroyed. So it’s survived two great iconoclastic times in France.”
She added: “We call these miniatures jewel-like. This is the epitome of that. It’s Hilliard at his finest … absolutely glorious.” Despite extensive research, the miniature is seemingly unrecorded before its appearance in 2013. One theory is that it is “the picture of the frenche Kinge in a rounde case of tinne” recorded at Leicester House in London around 1578.
The 50 x 37mm portrait is now owned by the Djanogly Collection, assembled by art philanthropist Sir Harry Djanogly.
Catharine MacLeod, the NPG exhibition’s curator, said: “When I saw it, I was astonished. A lot of Hilliards are very faded from having been exposed to daylight. This is such a vivid and beautifully preserved example of Hilliard’s work.” Its full story will be published for the first time in the February edition of The Burlington Magazine, after three years’ research by five co-authors, including Ms Rutherford.
Last year a 1610s miniature by fellow artist Isaac Oliver was acquired by the National Trust for £2.1 million.