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Isaac Oliver

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Isaac Oliver

by Isaac Oliver
watercolour on vellum, circa 1590
2 1/2 in. x 2 in. (64 mm x 51 mm) oval
Purchased with help from H.M. Government, 1971
Primary Collection
NPG 4852


Detail of the face showing the stippling and…
Detail of the left eye showing the stippling…
The carnation ground layer has been left unpa…
A thin scumble of paint has been used to show…
The doublet is slashed with single strokes of…

Sitterback to top

  • Isaac Oliver (circa 1565-1617), Miniature painter. Sitter in 5 portraits, Artist associated with 72 portraits.

Artistback to top

  • Isaac Oliver (circa 1565-1617), Miniature painter. Artist associated with 72 portraits, Sitter in 5 portraits.

This portraitback to top

This magnificent miniature is one of two self-portraits by Oliver. It once belonged to Horace Walpole, the antiquarian, who said of it 'The art of the master and the imitation of nature are so great in it that the largest magnifying-glass only calls out new beauties'.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Tudor Portraits Resource Pack, p. 37
  • Bolland, Charlotte, Tudor & Jacobean Portraits, 2018, p. 130 Read entry

    Isaac Oliver was born in Rouen but was brought to England as a child when his Huguenot family was forced to flee religious persecution. He learnt the art of miniature painting from Nicholas Hilliard but developed his own distinct style. He was closely tied to the London community of émigré artists and married Sarah, the daughter of Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder, after the death of his first wife, Elizabeth, in 1599. He was appointed the official limner to Anne of Denmark in 1605 and also received a number of commissions from Prince Henry, to whom he was appointed Painter in 1608. This striking self-portrait was produced when Oliver was around twenty-five years old. It does not seem overtly to assert his identity as an artist, but his clothing could present a dual message. The silk of his doublet is clearly expensive, and appropriate for a man of means, but it is also the type of textile that Nicholas Hilliard recommended should be worn by all aspiring miniaturists since it 'sheddeth least dust or hairs'. Hilliard was keen to present miniature painting as an art form that should only be practised by gentlemen, and part of his argument was that it could only be done far from the messy workshop environment of painters who worked 'in large'. The early provenance of the miniature is not known; it may have been created as a gift, but it could also have acted as a means to demonstrate Oliver's skills to prospective clients.

  • Charles Nicholl, Shakespeare and his Contemporaries, 2015, p. 34
  • Cooper, Tarnya, Elizabeth I & Her People, 2013 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 10 October 2013 - 5 January 2014), p. 176
  • MacLeod, Catharine, Tudor Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery Collection, 1996, p. 37
  • MacLeod, Catharine; Rab, MacGibbon; Button, Victoria; Coombs, Katherine; Derbyshire, Alan, Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures from Hilliard and Oliver, 2019 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 21 February - 19 May 2019), p. 136
  • Nicholl, Charles, Insights: Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, 2005, p. 29
  • Rogers, Malcolm, Master Drawings from the National Portrait Gallery, 1993 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 5 August to 23 October 1994), p. 23
  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 467
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 55 Read entry

    This striking self-portrait was painted when Isaac Oliver was around twenty-five years old. He was born in Rouen and appears to have trained as an artist before he arrived in England with his family as a Huguenot refugee. He joined the workshop of the renowned miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard, later developing the techniques he learnt there by placing more emphasis on painted modelling and blending than on Hilliard’s graphic line, creating a softer, more illusionistic style. In 1605 he was appointed limner, or miniaturist, to Anne of Denmark, the wife of James I, and thereafter to her son Henry, Prince of Wales.

    Although Oliver does not advertise his artistic profession in this image, it is interesting to note the lustre of his silk doublet, a fabric recommended by Nicholas Hilliard as suitable for painting as it ‘sheddeth least dust or hairs’. The miniature once belonged to the eighteenth-century antiquary Horace Walpole, who said of it: ‘The art of the master and the imitation of nature are so great in it that the largest magnifying glass only calls out new beauties’.

  • Walker, Richard, Miniatures: 300 Years of the English Miniature, 1998, p. 22 Read entry

    Oliver's self-portrait was once owned by Horace Walpole, who said in his Anecdotes of Painting in England, 'the art of the master and the imitation of nature are so great in it, that the largest magnifying glass only calls out new beauties'.

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Events of 1590back to top

Current affairs

King James VI of Scotland brings his wife Anne of Denmark to Edinburgh for her coronation at Holyrood Abbey.
Death of Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth I's Principal Secretary and spymaster.
The colonial governor John White returns to Roanoke Island (in present day North Carolina, USA) to find the settlement deserted. The lost colonists include his granddaughter Virginia Dare, the first English child to be born in America.

Art and science

The courtier, poet and soldier Sir Philip Sidney's pastoral romance Arcadia is published posthumously. It is one of the first English vernacular works to achieve a European readership, with translations into French, German, Dutch and Italian.
The poet and administrator Edmund Spenser publishes the first three books of The Faerie Queene, an epic allegorical poem in praise of Queen Elizabeth I.


Henry IV of France defeats the Catholic League under Charles, Duke of Mayenne at the Battle of Ivry. The King marches on Paris before being driven back by Catholic forces sent by Philip II of Spain.
Abbas I, Shah of Persia makes peace with the Ottoman Empire, allowing him to campaign agaist the Uzbeks.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi defeats the Hojo clan at the Siege of Odawara, Japan. The victory completes Hideyoshi's military reunification of Japan.

Tell us more back to top

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