The Wizard Earl & his miniature conundrum

This painting has intrigued me since I first saw it, and I’ve included it in lectures on both Elizabethan gardens and art history, for reasons that I hope will soon become apparent.  The sitter [or rather the recliner] is Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland and the artist Nicholas Hilliard.  The painting showing Henry in an unusual  garden setting is now in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam having been sold by the family in 1937.

Of the two, Hilliard is, of course, the far better known. He was the most famous artist of his day in England and well known for his championing of the miniatureasan art form, although this picture is a little larger. But the Earl was equally distinguished in his day and lived a very intriguing, and often dangerous, life.  

Before you read on take a close look at the picture and see if anything strikes you as in any way unusual or odd.  If it’s doesn’t look again because I suspect it might be  the most cryptic of all Elizabethan paintings.

[Unfortunately there are not as many images as usual in this post. The details of the painting are from  the Rijksmuseum website]


The late 16thc was an age when English painting flowered in a new and unusual way. Apart from the many magnificent large propaganda portraits of Elizabeth herself  the chances are that if you know any images from the period they’ll be small oval or circular miniatures by one of a small school of artists including Hilliard who recorded the leading figures of the day. They almost all tend to be just head and shoulders portraits with little in the way of background, and were commissioned by the sitters for sharing privately with friends.  

As an art form the miniature developed from the illumination of manuscripts, the practice of which for obvious reasons  had declined dramatically with the invention of printing. The term miniature comes from Latin luminare, to illuminate, and it’s likely the modern use of the word derives from its use in painting rather than the other way around.   The new form of painting maintained the same underlying emphasis as illumination : private contemplation.  

Such pictures had grown in popularity from the early 16thc as they were easily portable  and could be used as diplomatic presents in negotiations about royal marriages or  political affairs, and were also a more intimate, personal form of portraiture,  which could be shared or given to family members, close friends or lovers.  As Hilliard said in his  Treatise Concerning the Arte of Limning (c1600) these tiny objects needed to be seen “near unto the eye”.  They were often set in ornately decorated frames set with jewels or even hidden in a small box  so only  revealed to a chosen few. The painters were often also jewellers or goldsmiths and it was a very high status form of artwork with Hilliard, claiming it ‘excelleth all other painting whatsoever in sundry points’.  


Henry Percy had such a picture painted probably in the gardens at Syon House, his family home on the western outskirts of London. It shows the young Henry’s head and upper body with, in the background, a book with pink ribbons, and a single glove  on a lawn dotted with flowers. It’s painted on vellum and stuck to a playing card to strengthen it. 

But there were other times when this intimate form and size was not suitable for the sentiments that the person commissioning the painting wanted to express,   and that’s definitely the case with the portrait of Henry Percy that I’m writing about today.  Instead it is somewhat larger,  but at just 257 mm × w 173 mm [about 10 x 7 inches] still  smaller than a sheet of A4 paper.  These were known  as cabinet miniatures. Hilliard painted several in this format but only for a  few years in the late 1580s to the late 1590s  before abruptly stopping,  probably according to Roy Strong for commercial reasons, although the style continued to be used by his pupil Isaac Oliver.  Strong also thinks that while Hilliard is rightly highly praised for his miniatures his larger work leaves a lot to be desired technically. In particular he thinks Hilliard  has little or no understanding of perspective.  

Henry Percy was the latest of the powerful, but often ill-fated Percy family to hold the title Earl of Northumberland.   The Percys were traditionally Catholics and had taken part in rebellions in defence of their faith. Although Henry was himself  a Protestant he maintained close links with the Catholic community and so, until the last few years of Elizabeth’s reign, remained on the political and courtly sidelines.  He had succeeded his father at the age of 21, travelled abroad but generally  divided his time between the north and his southern estates at Petworth and Syon. In the 1590s he seems to have begun a slow return to royal favour and was made a Knight of the Garter in 1593.  This led to a celebratory poem written for him by George Peele, who was rewarded with a gift of £3.  The poem also lends clues to the portrait.

All the while Henry  was pursuing a scholarly path and became renowned for his interest in the realms of science, maths, alchemy and the occult. He read Galileo and had a telescope with which he not only mapped the moon but is also thought to have noted sunspots.  His extensive knowledge and interest in these fields gained him the nickname of the ‘wizard earl’.

His household accounts seem to point to the cabinet portrait dating to  this period with payments to Hilliard in both 1595 and 1596. Its style and complexity marks it out from other paintings of the period and it’s clear that Northumberland himself chose the various elements and masterminded the composition, presumably as  a reflection of his intellectual and philosophical beliefs.  


Henry Percy, by Nicholas Hilliard c1595, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


This picture is more than just a portrait: it is an impresa. This was defined by the Elizabethan antiquarian William Camden as “a device in picture with his Motto or word, borne by Noble for Learned persons” In other words it includes  symbols and a word or short phrase that convey a  message to the viewer. Unfortunately precisely what Henry’s  message  is unknown because  he didn’t leave us a key! 

The earl is dressed in sober black and white clothes – doublet, trunk hose and stockings – rather than the much more usual colourful, often flamboyant colours, normally associated with Elizabeth aristocrats.


His reclining pose  is usually associated with  contemplation and that favourite mood of the late 16thc/early 17thc : melancholy.   There are lots of other portraits of the time posed in similar manner. This reflects two fashions: one a means of showing unrequited love,  and the other  a philosophical melancholy around the idea of Platonic love. [Far too complicated to go into here so  if you want to know more about the intricacies of this look at the ideas of Marsilio Ficino who coined the term] .   Northumberland was later to write a meditation on friendship which  recounts his youthful disappointments in finding true friends and his realisation that the perfect friendship extolled by poets and philosophers is in fact a mirage that precludes human happiness. No wonder he was melancholy!

Normally melancholic sitters are shown in wildernesses or  forests where they  contemplate nature in its raw uncultivated state. Such portraits reflect what Burton was later write in his Anatomyof Melancholy [1621 ] about the pleasure of  ” walking alone in some solitary grove, betwixt wood and water, by a brookside, to meditate upon some delightsome and pleasant subject.”   This can be seen in this image of Lord Herbert of Cherbury, a soldier and diplomat. Although his pose is pensive and melancholic there are clear hints that Herbert has another, more active, side to his life. He is wearing elaborate fashionable clothes, more associated with dancing attendance on the queen than meandering through woodland, and in the background his servant can be seen hanging up his armour alongside a heavily accoutred horse.

But Percy isn’t shown in such a wild setting, instead he chose to be painted in a plain but formal garden space. Percy’s choice of setting is not accidental. This is a place where art has conquered or at least controlled nature, and cut it into geometric shapes in contrast to the wilderness outside.   The garden also seems remote and unattached to any house. This contrasts sharply with another contemporary  image, that of the  unknown young man sitting leaning against a tree in woodland, who has only temporarily escaped from the very ordered formal garden behind him.

The  garden is also  a strange shape and configuration with two distinct rectangular enclosures, one raised up inside the other. The outer one merely grass and the inner  apparently lined with bushes. Roy Strong is convinced that these spaces should be squares and thinks that the mistake is due to Hilliard’s inability to understand or use perspective correctly.  The square was, according to the earl’s contemporary George Puttenham, author of the influential handbook on poetry and rhetoric, The Arte of English Poesie (1589)”  accounted the figure of most solidity and steadfastness… and requireth no other base but himself.”  So being in a square garden would imply the earl was a ‘constant minded man, even equal and direct on all sides.’ This would also tie in another complicated element of contemporary philosophy:  Hermeticism   [check out Hermes Trimegestus if you want to know more]    

[ I confess that  the more I looked originally the more I thought it was Hilliard since  if you look at the hedges they just don’t seem right visually, nor does what I can only assume is a gravel path running around at the foot of the hedge….  but to be fair maybe it’s at least partly the constraints of the image format.]

And the remote setting with its  steep drop, fits with George Peele the poet’s lines in his poem: 

Leaving our schoolmen’s vulgar trodden paths,
And following the ancient reverend steps
Of Trismegistus and Pythagoras,
Through uncouth ways and unaccessible,
Dost pass into the spacious pleasant fields
Of divine science and philosophy

Did these gardens represent those spacious pleasant fields only reached through uncouth ways and that unaccessible steep drop?

Is there any symbolism in the personal objects he has with him? Laurence Shafe points out  that “whether the science of mechanics was an intellectual or manual activity was much debated in the sixteenth century as Aristotle had said the intellectual arts are nobler than the manual arts.”  Is it possible to see both in the painting with the intellectual side summed up the book by his head and the manual effort involved with  the discarded gloves? CertainlyGeorge Peele thought that the earl was  on both sides of the debate as he was 

“The Muses’ love, patron, and favourite,
That artisans and scholars dost embrace”.

Of course the most obviously strange object in the painting is what is hanging from one of  the trees. It’s a balance, but not a typical one. Instead of a central hanging point it has what seems to be a globe on a very short length of the bar at one end, and  a white feather on the opposite end at a much greater distance. There are several possible, and possibly complementary explanations.   The most obvious is a reference to a recently published work by Galileo. His treatise La Bilancetta, [The Little Balance] of 1586  looked at Archimedes work on levers, balances and displacement.  Think of the  famous quote from Archimedes:  “give me a place to stand on, and I will move the world.” and now re-look at the painting.  Was the globe the world?  

There may be word play going on too.  The world is a sphere, or espere in old French which is very similar in look and sound to espoir meaning  hope.  It’s being balanced by a  feather or penne which looks and sounds like the word peine for pain or a legal penalty.   This pun had already been used by the French writer Rabelais.  There is also another verbal association, this time with the Percy’s motto ‘Esperance en Dieu‘  or ‘Hope in God’.    Under the feather is TANTI another word with several possible meanings. In Italian it means so many [usually in number] but in Latin it translates as so much, but in a trifling sense. The earl would certainly have known of this use because he was a friend of Christopher Marlowe who used Tanti in that sense in his play Edward II  

Quite what the earl wanted us to think was being balanced no-one knows for sure.

The other, not quite so obvious symbolic element in the picture is the tree with  the sawn off branch.  Could this refer to the truncation of Percy family itself?  Henry’s father, the 8th Earl of Northumberland, died in mysterious circumstances in the Tower, quite possibly murdered,  while his uncle the 7th Earl was executed for treason, as was his great uncle.   There is however a flourishing lower branch on the tree – is this Henry?

Almost every bit of the painting has got potentially several interpretations and it’s likely that it was planned by Northumberland himself as a deliberately cryptic puzzle for which many levels of meaning would have been expected.  Was it just for personal amusement or contemplation or was it for sharing and if so who with? Once again who knows?

To round off the story – the earl was given a seat on the Privy Council on the accession of James I  but everything took a sharp turn too the worse when his kinsman Thomas Percy got involved in the Gunpowder Plot. Thought to be implicated the earl was arrested, fined heavily and then confined to the Tower for 15 years, not leaving until 1621. This was more like luxurious house arrest than a lonely cell. He had a suit of rooms built up a massive library, and kept a small army of servants. He also had a laboratory where he  worked with  fellow philosophers on alchemical experiments.  

On his release he lived quietly,  but continued his scientific work. One can only wonder where he kept the cabinet portrait and what use he made of it?  Unfortunately we have lost the key to the puzzle and all we’re left with of tantalising glimpses of hidden meaning so if you have any bright ideas let me know….

If you want to know more good places to start are: Fumerton, P., “Secret” Arts: Elizabethan Miniatures and Sonnets, Representations, No. 15 (Summer, 1986), pp. 57-97Peacock, J., The ‘Wizard Earl‘ Portrayed by Hilliard and Van Dyck, Art History, Vol. 8, No. 2, June 1985, pp. 139-157, Strong, R., The English Renaissance Miniature, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1983), pp. 108- 109 Strong, R., Nicholas Hilliard‘s miniature of the ‘Wizard Earl‘, Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum, Vol. 31(1983), No. 1, pages 54-62; Shafe. L., Secret and Puzzling Tudor Art,


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1 Response to The Wizard Earl & his miniature conundrum

  1. Michael Leslie Squires says:

    I’m wondering if the doublet worn by Lord Herbert is an arming doublet. It seems to have ties for arm harness descending from the shouldes. If this was his equipment for the annual tournament held by the Queen (the shield may be an “impresa” shield, the helmet and horse are caparisoned for an important tournament) and the boots can be worn under greaves and have spurs attached).

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