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2. “The Dyer’s Hand”: Colours in Early Modern England
I/ Early Modern Aesthetics: Light and Lustre

The Colour of Lustre: Limning by the Life

Anne-Valérie DULAC


Le présent article interroge la polysémie du « lustre » dans deux traités sur l’art de la miniature composés par Nicholas Hilliard et Edward Norgate. Dans un premier temps, la recension de toutes les instances du terme figurant dans ces textes permet d’identifier les sens historiquement spécifiques du « lustre » dans la pratique et la théorie de ces deux spécialistes du portrait en miniature. Cette enquête préliminaire révèle le lien essentiel mais non intrinsèque que le lustre entretient avec la couleur, pour finalement envisager la portée mimétique d’un terme désignant alternativement ou simultanément une technique et un concept.

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  • 1 Hilliard never uses the word “miniatura” or its Englished version, “miniature”. About the long and (...)

1The rendering of lustre was a recurring concern to limners in early modern England, as was perhaps most explicitly articulated by Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619) in his Treatise Concerning the Arte of Limning and, years later, by Edward Norgate (1581-1650) in Miniatura or the Art of Limning.1 Nicholas Hilliard composed his Treatise around 1598-1599, “at the request of R. Haydocke who publisht in English a translation of Paulo Lomazzo on Painting” (Kinney and Salamon 15). Edward Norgate drew heavily on Hilliard’s essay and artistry at all stages of his own career, as is attested by the two versions of his Miniatura (the one I will be referring to in this paper, whose final revision is dated around 1648, was preceded by a shorter text written some twenty years earlier). The simultaneous study of these treatises is therefore of particular relevance to anyone interested in limning materials, techniques and history, seeing as Norgate’s text reads as a prolongation of the teachings of “Old Mr Hilliard” (Norgate 80):

Hilliard’s own account, for that it illumines him as a creative artistic personality, remains a frustratingly scrappy, incomplete and rambling account of his working methods. […] Norgate’s first treatise not only corroborates the limited technical details in Hilliard’s account, but elaborates to encompass the whole complex range of techniques he used and passed on to his pupils. (Norgate 21)

2Norgate’s account thereby sheds retrospective light on some of the more obscure parts of Hilliard’s Treatise, while at the same time documenting newer techniques and material innovations. Interestingly enough, most modern editors of Hilliard and Norgate’s treatises have had to abundantly comment upon and explain the use and sense of the word “lustre” by the two limners. This is partly due to the fact that the very meaning of “lustre”, although central to both texts, is complex and at times ambiguous, challenging accepted definitions and straightforward interpretation.

  • 2 I here take “value” as a synonym for the worth or quality of the painting measured by anything but (...)
  • 3 I am greatly indebted to Raphaëlle Costa de Beauregard for her enlightening and in-depth studies of (...)

3Building on this critical history, my contention in this article is to first enquire into the notion of “lustre” as both a limning technique — and one that may even be deemed inherent in the “school of Hilliard” (Norgate 21) — and then to analyse it as a value2 essentially related to colour, whose chromatic impact reverberates upon both the subject and the author of miniatures.3 My intention here is not to delve into the physical or optical properties of colours in Hilliard and Norgate’s approaches, as early modern debates surrounding the light and colour nexus are the subject of Raphaëlle Costa de Beauregard’s contribution to the present volume. My take on this other interplay — between lustre and colour — is mostly and deliberately grounded upon a textual approach, reckoning with the metaphorical and sometimes poetical dimension of the two limners’ written accounts of their techniques and materials. Alternating between two types of pencils, Hilliard and Norgate attach values, properties and words to their silent art, regardless of the difficulties this might entail, something which they sometimes explicitly acknowledge. I here intend to trace the journey of “lustre” as a word, to show it points as much to a technique — covering several fields and contradictory applications — as to a wider conception of their art, and most importantly, to a proper quality attached to their judgment on colours.

4I will thus start by examining the sometimes jarring meanings of lustre by compiling and comparing all uses of the word in Hilliard and Norgate’s texts. I will then show how it is profoundly related to colour, although ambivalently, before finally turning to the qualitative properties of lustre and the way they reflect upon the “purity” and “truth” of the limners’ most “precious” colours.

1. “True lustre”

5The word lustre appears twice in Hilliard’s account and is tellingly used by the limner in these two instances as being specific to limning, by contrast with other painting formats and techniques. The first time the word appears is in an opening passage of the text:

  • 4 “Chargeable” here means “which the surface involved can bear, or is adapted to receive (see OED und (...)

[Limning] excelleth all other painting whatsoever, in sundry points, in giving the true lustre to pearl and precious stone, and worketh the metals gold or silver with themselves which so enricheth and innobleth the work that it seemeth to be the thing itself, even the work of God and not of man: being fittest for the decking of princes’ books or to put in jewels of gold and for the [imitation] of the purest flowers and most beautiful creatures in the finest and purest colours which are chargeable […].4 (Cain and Thornton 44-45)

6Nicholas Hilliard here provides an outwardly clear-cut distinction between three of the most crucial elements in a miniature for it to excel “all other painting”: true lustre, noble metals, and pure colour. I will discuss each of these briefly, in different order from the one chosen by the miniaturist, for reasons which will emerge over the course of my development. First (but second in The Arte of Limning) gold and silver are presented as essential to the limner’s excellent art for at least two reasons. They are initially said to contribute to “enriching” and “ennobling” his work, which may refer literally to the exquisiteness of these metals, intended to reproduce the precious embellishments worn or owned by sitters (silver and gold may have been used to paint jewels, lace, armour and other such rich ornaments). As such, they also gave the miniature a jewel-like quality, reflecting their own jewelled setting, the golden pendant they were sometimes enclosed into. Hilliard’s added comment on these metals, consisting in asserting that gold and silver make the “work […] seem […] like the thing itself” (Cain and Thornton 44) provides a second argument, besides the value attached to the materials proper. Hilliard here includes the use of gold and silver into a greater conception of the art of the limner. The latter needs to aim at rivalling God himself, through the subtle interplay of art and nature, of the representation of jewels “with themselves”, in their own “true” material: “Hilliard offers the ‘princely’ viewer a chance to play between the real and the feigned and to delight in this paradox between the two” (Chirelstein 46). In this regard, Hilliard’s position is neither different from full-scale painters nor formulated in different words from most Renaissance discussions of mimesis.

7Yet the materials mentioned and techniques related to them do set the limner apart in his quest for the “perfect picture” (Sidney 90). As some commentators have noted, “the use of gold is a retardataire touch, recalling manuscript illumination as one principal source for the limner’s art” (Kinney and Salamon 85). Representing gold with paint of finely powdered gold leaves on an initial layer of ochre applied to the ground belonged indeed to the medieval tradition of limning, in which the metal pigment was obtained with gold “itself”, to paraphrase Hilliard’s definition (Cain and Thornton 44). Yet, although Hilliard is commonly figured as “the great neomedievalist of English art, a magnificent digression before the arrival of a true Renaissance sensibility” (Hulse 151), his Art of Limning and Norgate’s Miniature make it clear that he was responsible for some technical innovations which may at least partially explain his enduring legacy in the first half of the 17th century, once the “Renaissance sensibility” had emerged in England. The development of limning and in particular of the portrait miniature is indeed often seen as a badge of “aesthetic insularity” resulting from the country’s political and above all religious situation. This is the reason why Roy Strong notes for example that the “fashion of portrait miniatures begins more or less simultaneously with the advent of the Reformation when England from the 1530’s onwards went into virtual aesthetic isolation” (Strong 9). This is not to say that Hilliard only perpetuated a medieval tradition: as a neomedievalist rather than just an anachronistic medieval painter, he departed from or added to some age-old limning techniques. This was precisely and notably the case in his treatment of gold or silver:

  • 5 This is an often-noted innovation about Hilliard’s craftsmanship. See this relatively more recent a (...)

Hilliard used gold and silver paint in his miniatures with a lavishness unprecedented in the art and unlike earlier limners he burnished them so that instead of appearing as metallic coloured pigments they represented surfaces of gleaming metal. (Strong 16)5

  • 6 For further information on the history of the manuscript and its subsequent editions, see Cain and (...)

8Burnishing was achieved thanks to the use of a tooth burnisher made from the tooth of a “ferret or stoat or other wild little beast” attached to a wooden piece (Thornton and Cain 79). This specific technique, which had thereunto not been used in portrait miniature, was also applied to the treatment of pearls and stones — which leads me to the second “excellent” aspect of the miniature listed in Hilliard’s definition. Giving “true lustre to pearl and precious stone” (Cain and Thornton 44) comes first in the artist’s proud claim of the superiority of his format, materials and techniques over others, and is in fact fundamentally related to the presence, preparation and application of gold in portrait miniatures, as is made clear by Norgate. Indeed, “the Norgate tradition documents the next stage of technical innovation in English limning” among which we find most outstandingly “Nicholas Hilliard’s inventions for the painting of such lustrous surfaces as gold, gems, pearls” (Norgate 26). One of these texts from the “Norgate tradition” and supporting the association of gold and lustre in limning is a passage from a very short essay which Thornton and Cain have added to Hilliard’s own and refer to under the title A More Compendious Discourse Concerning Ye Art Of Liming. This discourse was appended to Hilliard’s Arte of Limning in an Edinburgh manuscript dating from 1624.6 The last part of the essay deals with how “to make armour” and prescribes the use of the following recipe: “[T]here is a stone growing in the ox’s gall which they call a gall-stone, which if ground and tempered with gold is of excellent lustre and beauty […]” (Thornton and Cain 105). This technique is mentioned again by Norgate in the second version of his Miniatura, where it is described at greater length, if in very similar terms:

And for gold you may lay a flat ground with English Oker tempered with liquid Gold. Yet there is a stone growing in the gall of an Oxe, that being ground and tempered with Gold, is excellent for all Gold works, and gives a very good lustre, the deepning being made with Lake and burnt Umber, the heightning of pure Gold the manner of the working I shall tell You within a few Leaves as I had it from Old Mr Hilliard. (Norgate 80)

9The explicit attribution of at least part of this procedure to Hilliard makes it possible to appreciate the latter’s own version of “lustre” as applying not only to gold, but also to pearl and stone. In this specific instance, and as is noted by the editors, lustre is understood “in its more precise sense to indicate reflection on a smooth and polished surface” (Norgate n. 116, 150). Pearls were equally to be represented as such surfaces, as reflecting lustrous elements in the picture — the realistic glistening of which was obtained by polishing silver, this time, rather than gold: “give the light of your pearl with silver, somewhat more to the light side than the shadow side and as round and full as you can” (Thornton and Cain 79). This “precise sense of lustre” is repeatedly cited as belonging to Hilliard’s unique and distinctive approach to limning:

Hilliard’s particular genius was for the invention of new techniques of miniature painting which would render more exactly the various textures of fabric, the lustre of metals and the transparent beauty of precious stones. These techniques soon began to appear in his works of the 1570’s and soon translated the limning from its previous role as a small portrait into something precious and jewel-like […]. (Strong 16).

10Although lustre characteristically belongs to the depiction of “pearls and precious stones” (Cain and Thornton 44), it therefore also affects the treatment of metal pigments and metals themselves. Revealingly enough, this idea must have been so critical to Hilliard that only some pages after his preliminary statement on the merits of limning, he offers yet another comparison of his art with other types of painting which again places lustre first in the list of limning’s essential qualities:

Take this for a general rule, that limning must excell all painting in that point, in that it must give everything his proper lustre, as well as his true colour, light and shadow. (Cain and Thornton 71)

11Lustre here no longer pertains to an exclusive category of visual objects only but to “everything”, thereby confirming the non-restrictive use of this word by Hilliard. Another striking point in this sentence is that the adjective “true” is now ascribed to “colour, light and shadow” rather than to lustre, as was the case in the previous description of how and why “limning must excell”. In this slightly shorter passage, all things have to be granted “proper lustre” (my emphasis), meaning, perhaps, that there may be different ways of achieving, rendering and representing “lustre”, and that there may be different kinds of lustre.

2. “Life and lustre”

12The possibility of an alternative definition of lustre appears precisely when looking at the way this notion is related to colours, the last — but not least — aspect listed among the unique qualities attributed to limning. Hilliard’s point regarding “proper lustre” comes immediately after a discussion of “blackes” (as the word appears in the margin of the manuscript), and more specifically after very detailed instructions regarding the preparation needed to obtain “the best black”, i.e. “velvet black” (Thornton and Cain 71). Hilliard was well aware of the debates surrounding the definition of black and white — which, to some painters, were not considered as colours — but still included his description of blacks and whites within his “coullers” section (Thornton and Cain 71), a decision he justifies as follows:

I will speak of white and black, whether they be the only colours, or no colours at all, as many others say. For my part, I think them worthiest to be first placed, being the most used. (Thornton and Cain 71)

13His favoured “velvet black”, thus treated as colour indeed, is achieved by burning ivory in a crucible before sealing it with clay mixed with salt. It is then heated for a quarter of an hour, before being left to cool and thereafter ground with gum water. Once the mixture is “as thin as ink”, it has to settle for a whole afternoon and skimmed of its upper layer of “gum and foulness”. Hilliard makes it very clear that one should then not add too much gum to the resulting ground powder, seeing as “if you put too much gum, then it will be somewhat bright, like oil colour, which is vile in limning” (ibid.). Lustre in everything therefore does not equate with systematic glistening, thus opening onto another conception of lustre altogether:

The difference between glistening and “lustre” is an essential one which lies at the core of the beauty of black as a colour. Glistening refers to the aspect of the coat of paint once it has been applied and has dried: it should not reflect the light and it should remain “unpolished” in aspect, as opposed to the burnished gold he uses. Hilliard insists that all colours should have this unreflecting aspect, what he calls “his proper lustre, as well as his true colour. […] Lustre therefore implicitly refers to another mode of painting a reflected light which does not depend on an “oily” surface but on its actual painting or imitation. (Costa de Beauregard 2000, 85-86)

14Although “everything” has to be rendered with “his proper lustre”, not all things have the same lustre, as appearing from the comparison between Raphaëlle Costa de Beauregard’s analysis of colours and the previously mentioned definition of lustre emerging from Norgate’s description of Hilliard’s techniques (“reflection on a smooth and polished surface”, Norgate n. 116, 150). Norgate did know about this “proper lustre” (Cain and Thornton 71), as is made plain through his use of the word in a sense differing markedly from his paragraph on armour. Unsurprisingly, given that he was following in Hilliard’s footsteps — or brushstrokes — the other two passages from Miniatura where he broaches the subject of lustre are simultaneously concerned with colouring techniques and their effects upon the viewer:

[W]orke over your face againe, giving more perfection to every part, and now the strongest, deepest touches in the Face would be brought in, to give it that roundnes and strong colouring as may bring forward and advance the face above the ground, and make it appeare in the due lustre and Life it should have. (Norgate 77)

15Lustre, here applying to the sitter’s face, comes as the result of “strong colouring”, and is paired with “Life”, as is also the case in a passage closely following this one:

[I]n case after the first or second sitting your picture doth not appeare with that fleshlines, lustre and Life, that you desire and expect, but happely for all your Paines doth present you with an appearance pale, chalky, leane and dry, which many times happens to the disheartening of Neophite in Art or practise, yet iz there no cause for such ill conceit, but if you continue working upon the same peece, you will find that the very tracts draughts and often touches and wipes of your pencil, will of it selfe produce that lively colouring much to your content and wonder. (Norgate 78)

16This description is even more useful than the preceding one to fully grasp what Norgate means by “lustre” in colouring. The reader first discovers that a painted face endowed with lustre is presented as an antonym of “pale, chalky, leane and dry”, all adjectives conjuring up the representation of a dead person rather than a picture of life. By pairing it with “fleshlines” and “Life”, and then mentioning “lively colouring”, Norgate corroborates the idea that giving proper lustre to a face animates it somehow, bestowing upon it a visual efficacy and vital energy whose impact on the viewer (“content and wonder”) testifies to its near-magical and unspeakable power. Norgate even advises aspiring limners failing to add this lively lustre to their works to

[…] retou[ch] and revi[sit] with your strongest shadowes, the Eyes, Eyebrowes, the bottom of the Nose, the dimples of the Chin, and mouth, and other shadowie places easier for you to find and doe then to write. (Norgate 77, my emphasis)

17In all three of the above quotations, lustre works as the visual expression and rendering of living subjects, and as the application of “strong” and “lively” colours, as opposed to “pale” ones. As a result, gloss or refulgence is not essentially linked to lustrous colours. Conversely, the liveliness in colour, its “proper lustre” is produced by a play on intensity, resulting from “the contrast of deeper shadows” and “the strengthened illusion of forceful relief and tonal range, the face of the portrait regain[ing] the animation lost by the laying of a background colour” (Muller and Murell n. 116, 150). The “animation” conferred to the picture by lustre serves the highest goal of the limner, which is to imitate life itself: “Now know that all painting imitateth nature, or the life […]. But of all things the perfection is to imitate the face of mankind” (Thornton and Cain 55). The specific lustre imparted by strong and lively colour to a portrait miniature may also account for the then current use (by limners and oil painters alike) of the phrase “dead-colouring” to refer to the “first or preparatory painting, [which] is so termed because the colours are laid cold and pale to admit of the after-paintings” (Gullick and Timbs 230). Norgate uses the term “dead colour” in his Miniatura only slightly differently, to describe “the first roughing in of the various tones” (Norgate n. 92, 147). In other words, lustre is not inherent in colouring, but it designates a particular stage in the limning process and a certain “strong” type of colour (Norgate 77). As Norgate explains, lustre is usually made apparent only “after the first or second sitting”. For a limner to excel in creating a true-to-life imitation of the “face of mankind” rivalling god’s own creations, abiding by the strict order of composition was key:

The Order to be observed in a picture by the life is […] the same with oyle Painters […], which is the first sitting to dead colour. […] The second sitting ordinarily takes up three or fower howres, or more, for in that time you are to goe over the face, very curiously, observing what soever may conduce to the likenes (which is the principall) or to the judicious and fleshly colouring […]. (Norgate 72)

18“Fleshly colouring”, as I have just shown, can here be taken as a synonym for “lustrous colouring”. Lustre is a chromatic ornament that may be added, should the artist be expert enough, to a roughly coloured ground or paler sketch. Then only can “dead colour” be brought to life. And although the limner shares the same phrases with “oyle painters”, the techniques thereafter applied to bring in the lustre, such as the making of “velvet black”, were specific to the limner. The liveliness of lustre could therefore be an allusion to both the fact that the energy of life can only be created in a picture by the application of “strong” and “true” colouring upon the preliminary paler carnation and to a more practical notion, that of the contrast with the “dead” colours of carnation. This terminology shows how some words used for technical stages of limning were infused with the very effect or impact they were expected to have. This could also be the reason why some words, appearing in Hilliard and Norgate’s treatises, seem to have taken on some very specific — not to say unique — senses, under the pencil(s) of the two limners. Such is therefore remarkably the case of the word “lustre” itself, as the difference between the two techniques and respective meanings of lustre “has disappeared (if it ever existed otherwise than in Hilliard’s treatise?) in ordinary English” (Costa de Beauregard 2000, 86). Could it be that the adjective “proper”, in the phrase “proper lustre”, referred also at least partially to its etymological sense of “elegant, meticulously neat” or “immaculate” (OED, proper, adj., n., and adv., etymology), which it already sometimes carried in the French equivalent, propre? Although this definition was not as common in early modern French as it later became, Hilliard, who spent two to three years in France, between 1576 and 1578 or 1579, and spoke fluent French, might have been aware of this other meaning. In any case, and regardless of whether this hypothesis may be validated, cleanness and neatness were major concerns of Hilliard, when it came to colouring techniques.

3. Pure lustre

19Immediately after having gone into the detail of the preparation of “velvet black”, Hilliard adds: “[t]hus a limner should do; but for sparing time and cost some use to work out of their old shells of colours, though they be naught and dusty” (Cain and Thornton 73). Hilliard’s reproving tone in this sentence is unmistakable, and may be substantiated by his constant preoccupation with cleanliness. At the time Hilliard opened his shop in Gutter Lane, off Fleet Street, around the 1570’s, London was one of the most heavily polluted and dirtiest city in Europe:

[…] the new fuel, coal, was being used in fireplaces and chimneys which had been intended for burning wood and as a result the levels of sulphur and soot pollution were probably as high inside the houses as they were in the outer atmosphere. (Strong 13)

20Hilliard was not just personally obsessed with hygiene but was also fully conscious of how such an urban and polluted environment may result in altering his pigments, and consequently, the colours and lustre he could work out from them. Hilliard, because he “was perhaps the earliest artist to associate the discolouration of pigments with sulphurous pollution” (ibid.), was therefore adamant that a limner had to be cautious in the extreme when it came to the cleanliness of his or her workshop:

  • 7 Cain and Thornton note that “straight” could possibly mean “loose-fitting”, “although OED does not (...)

Then the first and chiefest precept I give is cleanliness, and therefore fittest for gentlemen; that the practicer of limning be precisely pure and cleanly in all his doings: as in grinding his colours in place where there is neither dust nor smoke; the water well chosen, or distilled most pure […]; the gum to be gum arabic of the whitest and brittlest, broken into white powder on a fair and clean grinding stone; and white sugar candy in like sort to be kept dry in boxes of ivory; the grinding stone of fine crystal, serpentine, jasper or hard porphyry at the least. Let your apparel be silk, such as sheddeth least dust or hairs; wear nothing straight.7 (Cain and Thornton 53)

21The “pure colours” of the excellent artificers may also have been related to the purity of the very workshop they were produced in: one striking fact in this list of instructions is that all instruments involved in the preparation of pigments are mentioned, therefore very early and “chiefly” attaching the necessity of purity to colouring techniques, more than to any other moment in the limning process. In Hilliard’s perception and conception of his craft, only such neat and gentlemanly surroundings could give rise to “lustrous” colours, to the intensity and purity needed to confer life on his portraits. By the mid-17th century, at the time when Norgate was revising his own treatise on limning and going over the teachings of “Old Mr Hilliard”, lustre had become a verb, derived from lustrate, meaning to purify (OED, lustre, v.).1 Once again, although the terminological journey from one recorded sense to the next remains somehow obscure and difficult to trace, the idea of purity is undeniably associated to lustrous colours in the two limners’ works.

22At this point, I have given only one example of such “pure” colours apt at animating a miniature, i.e. velvet black. I will now be looking at other colours on Hilliard and Norgate’s palettes to see whether lustre is attached to their whole polychromic rhetoric. Following his discussion of black and white, Hilliard moves on to “five other colours which are colours of perfection in themselves, not participating with any other, nor can be made of any other mixed colours” (Cain and Thornton 73). He then enumerates these five colours: murrey, red, blue, green, and yellow (ibid.). What is mostly interesting in this choice for our analysis of lustre is the fact that Hilliard later brings evidence of their perfection by comparing them to precious stones. The beginning of this second passage, strikingly similar to the previous one, is written as a continuation of sorts, as though he were taking up his demonstration where he had left off:

I say for certain truth there are besides white and black but five perfect colours in the world, which I prove by the five principal precious stones bearing colour, and which are all bright and transparent stones, as followeth. These are the five stones: amethyst orient for murrey, ruby for red, sapphire for blue, emerald for green, and hard orient topaz for yellow. (Cain and Thornton 81)

23The mention of these “precious stones” takes us back to the very first use of the word “lustre” in Hilliard’s treatise, in which he claimed the limner was to excel over all other painters in giving “true lustre to pearl and precious stone”. The choice of such stones, thereby associated to his own chromatic range, opens up another connection between colours and lustre. If, according to Pope-Hennessy, Hilliard “only conceives the five precious stones as the bodies towards whose properties the five colours used by the miniaturist aspire” (Cain and Thornton 114), it then follows logically that one of these properties is their lustre. Although these stones are described as sharing a common “bright and transparent” quality, this may not be the only reason to consider them as an efficient way of rendering lustre. Bearing in mind the distinction between each thing’s “proper lustre”, it is then possible to interpret the reason why Hilliard deems them so perfect and precious as equally and perhaps simultaneously pertaining to another property of lustre, different from the idea of brightness or reflection:

The most precious stones […] are those five only which I have named, and which have their proper colours only in them, and that of more substance and beauty, transparent and pure, not of a thick or troubled water, but clear, and yet not pale. (Cain and Thornton 83)

24The editors of the Arte of Limning gloss the comparison with water as a call for “transparency and lustre” (Cain and Thornton n. 72, 115). I do think that lustre is indeed here essential to grasp Hilliard’s description, as this paragraph strikingly mentions all its properties — the “proper lustre” — we have come across thus far. Capturing lustre in its “OED meaning”, i.e. picturing lustre as emanating solely from the transparent quality of water and henceforth from its potentially reflecting power, would fail to account for at least two more qualities mentioned by Hilliard. First, Hilliard’s admiration of the fact that these stones “have their proper colours only in them” and are “pure” may stem from the need of contrast and intensity to achieve lustre: “the heightening of one pure colour is obtained by its proximity with another, which will give it its ‘lustre’” (Costa de Beauregard 2000, 86). Secondly, Hilliard’s insistence upon the needed strength of the colour (“but clear, and yet not pale”) echoes Norgate’s elucidatory comment on his predecessor’s mastery of “Life and lustre”. Lustre can indeed never develop from the pale colours he associates with “dead colouring” (Norgate 72). Lustre, which shares a common etymology with limning, therefore emerges as central to all aspects in which the limner “excels” (Cain and Thornton 71), provided that the reader of these Arts of Limning is ready to take in the many different usages of the word along with its metaphorical and at times poetical import.

Conclusion: the limner as writer, the writer as limner

25Although Hilliard and Norgate’s treatises are at times extremely technical (Norgate’s treatise being the most precise of the two), some of the concepts they used and shared with other artists at the time defied their minute pencils, challenged description and instructions for use. To paraphrase the two limners together, “giving his proper lustre” (Cain and Thornton 71) to everything” may be “easier […] to find and doe then to write” (Norgate 77). Yet this may be precisely the reason why the limner’s had so many words in common with the poet. Sir Philip Sidney, for instance, found in the limning skills of the “excellent artificer” a colourful and vivid analogy for his own mimetic quest. Lustre is therefore and paradoxically an opaque concept, where technique and “Life” intersect, shedding its energy and “truth” on the miniaturist’s precious colours, visually disseminating its properties through them. Similarly, in The Winter’s Tale, Pauline, describing Hermione’s “dead” colours, exclaims: “If you can bring / Tincture or lustre in lip, her eye / Heat outwardly or breath within, I’ll serve you” (Shakespeare 3.2.203-05). Although the lips call for tincture and the eye for lustre respectively, the alliteration and chiasmic structure of the line mentioning these body parts somehow poetically recreate the intertwining of colours and lustre, the energy of the latter flowing with all due strength and intensity through the picture of the face of mankind.

Haut de page


Cain, T.G.S., and R.K.R. Thornton. Nicholas Hilliard. The Arte of Limning, Manchester: The Midnorthumberland Arts Group, Carcanet Press, 1992. Print.

Costa de Beauregard, Raphaëlle. Nicholas Hilliard et l’imaginaire élisabéthain. 1547-1619, Paris : Éditions du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 1991. Print.

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1 Hilliard never uses the word “miniatura” or its Englished version, “miniature”. About the long and complex story of the words used to designate portrait miniatures in early modern England and their varying meaning, see Dulac 2015 (forthcoming).

2 I here take “value” as a synonym for the worth or quality of the painting measured by anything but a technical standard which, as will appear, is grounded upon a subjective appreciation of the limner’s intended effect and the viewers’ reception.

3 I am greatly indebted to Raphaëlle Costa de Beauregard for her enlightening and in-depth studies of Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver. I am here borrowing her own heuristic distinction between technique and effect as well as between colour and chromatic value and impact (2000, passim).

4 “Chargeable” here means “which the surface involved can bear, or is adapted to receive (see OED under “charge”, v. 4)”, (Cain and Thornton n. 19, 109).

5 This is an often-noted innovation about Hilliard’s craftsmanship. See this relatively more recent analysis of Hilliard’s technique: “the practice of burnishing silver and gold in portrait miniatures was one of Hilliard’s innovations, appearing in his works of the 1570’s, and in his treatise he attaches some importance to it” (Muller and Murell, n. 134, 154).

6 For further information on the history of the manuscript and its subsequent editions, see Cain and Thorntone’s introduction (9-10).

7 Cain and Thornton note that “straight” could possibly mean “loose-fitting”, “although OED does not record this usage until 1893 […], the fact that it appears then as a professional term used by tailors suggests that it may well have survived unrecorded over several centuries” (n. 37, 111). Although they conclude that it would make more sense to opt for the more common Elizabethan usage (meaning “tight-fitting”), this offers yet another example of how technical, sometimes abstruse and difficult Hilliard’s vocabulary is.

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Anne-Valérie DULAC, « The Colour of Lustre: Limning by the Life »e-Rea [En ligne], 12.2 | 2015, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2015, consulté le 16 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Anne-Valérie DULAC

Université Paris 13
Anne-Valérie Dulac is a senior lecturer in early modern literature at Paris 13 University. Her research interests include Sir Philip Sidney’s works and correspondence, visual culture, limning, watercolours and the description and/or use of visual arts and artefacts in travel narratives and diplomacy.

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