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Francis Bacon’s Portraits from Life

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Date: 1578 Artist: Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619)
Location: National Portrait Gallery, London
Media: watercolour on vellum mounted on card
Provenance: Prior to 2006, owned by the Duke of
Rutland, Belvoir Castle, Leicestershire
Image credit: Alamy Stock Photo

How fortunate that this fragile, private portrait of Francis in his late-teens by Nicholas Hilliard, one of the great miniaturists or limners of the Elizabethan and early-Jacobean eras, has been preserved for posterity. Hilliard’s biographer, Karen Hearn, states: “The miniatures Hilliard painted in the 1570s, initially still circular but subsequently oval in shape following his return from France (in late-1578), are of exceptional refinement. They included the glamorous image of the influential Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (?1532-88), who was clearly a significant patron and sponsor of Hilliard”. It was through Robert Dudley in the early-1570s that Hilliard became the unofficial court painter to the Queen. He is estimated to have painted her portrait in miniature at least fifteen times, in addition to which are two “in-large” portraits known as the “Pelican” and the “Phoenix”, both painted around 1575. It was on Elizabeth’s command that Hilliard joined the ambassadorial retinue of Sir Amyas Paulet on his mission to France between 1576-79 in the company of Francis Bacon. Prior to his return to London in 1578, Hilliard made this delicate portrait of the young Francis framed by the inscription, “Si tabula daretur digna animum mallem”. Written in gold ink on a rich blue background, the Latin translates as, “It would be preferable if a picture deserving of his mind could be brought about”, or more simply, “If one could but paint his mind”.