This watercolour is a significant addition to Isaac Oliver's oeuvre which adds to our knowledge of watercolour painting at the start of the seventeenth century, and to the reception in England of continental models of art prior to the accession of Charles I. Oliver learned the art of painting miniature portraits in watercolours from its leading Elizabethan exponent, the Exeter-born Nicholas Hilliard and, through his more naturalistic and vibrant portrait style from the late 1580s, rivalled the more conservative Hilliard before eclipsing him after the old Queen's death. He achieved an international reputation during his own lifetime, reflected in his inclusion as the only English painter in the who's who of northern European artists, Hendrick Hondius's Pictorum (1610). Edward Norgate boasted that 'the English as they are incomparably the best Lymners in Europe, soe is their way more excellent, and Masterlike, Painting upon a solid and substanciall body of Colour much more worthy Imitation then the other slight and washing way.'
Yet for all the extraordinary qualities of his portrait limnings, Oliver's innovation was to establish in England the genre of the history limning - better known as the cabinet miniature - by adapting portrait miniatures to the more intellectual demands of biblical and classical subjects. Always outward looking, Oliver may have known the work of the limner Giulio Clovio and on his visit to Venice in 1596 probably encountered the examples of Hans Rottenhammer, Adam Elsheimer and Paul Bril, who made small cabinet paintings in oil on copper. Even so, to contemporaries in London for whom limning was England's chief claim to artistic excellence, the cabinet miniature was a distinctive national contribution. Oliver's cabinet miniatures are exceptionally rare - the present watercolour is only the third example to emerge - and it is likely that, within the demands of a busy portrait practice, his opportunities to work on them were limited. As Norgate observed, they were the products of 'more study of designe, more varietie of Colouring, more Art, and invention, and more patience and dilligence, than in any Picture by the Life.' Norgate mentioned two examples, both of which can be identified today: 'a Madonna of Mr Isaac Oliviers Lymning [which] cost him two yeares as he him self told me.' and an Entombment, now at the Musée des Beaux- Arts, Angers, which he began in the year before his death and was completed by his son at the command of Charles I. The difficulty of completing such painstaking work is implicit in Oliver's bequest to his son and pupil Peter of 'all my drawinges allreadye finished and unfinished and lymming pictures, be they historyes, storyes, or any thing of lymming what soever of my own handeworke yet unfinished.' It is interesting to see how prominent the genre of history had become by the end of his career, for he makes no mention of portraiture in the will.
Isaac Oliver's importance as a painter of cabinet miniatures has been overshadowed by his son's better known copies after Italian paintings owned by Charles I and his circle. Norgate celebrated these 'Histories in Lymning [which] are strangers to us in England till of late Yeares it pleased a most excellent King to comand the Copieing of some of his owne peeces, of Titian, to be translated into English Lymning which indeed were admirably performed by his Servant Mr Peter Olivier.' However, the small body of histories by Isaac Oliver must have served as an example to the limners of his son's generation and demonstrates that he merits recognition as founder of this tradition of painting.
As a limner, Oliver made the large circular format his own. Indeed, apart from the present watercolour, only two other circular watercolours five inches in diameter are known from the early Stuart era, and both of these are also significant works by Isaac Oliver. Based largely on a dating of the costume, Unknown Woman, formerly called Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset in the Victoria and Albert Museum is catalogued as a work of the late 1590s, shortly after Oliver's visit to Italy. It exhibits a 'concern with chiaroscuro... and with a strong recollection of North Italian painting in the form of Leonardo, his followers and Correggio.' The portrait now in the Fitzwilliam, Unknown Woman, perhaps Lady Lucy Harington, Countess, of Bedford is - again based on the costume - given to c. 1605-15. Circular watercolours of any size were rarely made in the early seventeenth century; indeed, the only example present in the royal collection under Charles I was almost certainly influenced by Oliver's Annunciation to the Shepherds, for it was a watercolour of the same subject by his son and pupil, Peter Oliver, described by Abraham Van Der Dort as 'a little round peece in / a square frame where divers Angells appeares / to the sheppards wth a shiver to it, don upon / the [space] light [in the margin] Bought by yor Maty Don by -- Peter Oliver.' Oliver probably saw round paintings such as the Allegory of Passion by Holbein in the collection of King James I's elder son, Prince Henry. However, more influential was his exposure to late sixteenth century prints by and after Hendrik Goltzius, who used it frequently, in series such as The Four Disgracers (1588), The Four Evangelists (1588), The Seasons (1589) and The Creation of the World (1589-90) and in individual biblical subjects such as The Blind leading the Blind (Matthew 15:14) (1586) and The Holy Family (circa 1600). Such prints were 'commonly to be had in Popes-head-alley' opposite the Royal Exchange, according to Henry Peacham in 1622, who recommended to his readership of gentlemen artists that 'for a bold touch, variety of posture, curious and true, imitate Goltzius.'
The story of the annunciation to the shepherds, taken from Luke chapter 2, was known in early seventeenth-century England through treatments by the Venetian artist Jacopo Bassano and the Haarlem mannerist Abraham Blomaert. Although Charles I owned an example by Bassano, 'where a Shipheard lyeing on the ground with Some 13 Sheepe and a dogg by the Sheepheard hyding his eyes from ye glorie that shines in his face', Oliver is more likely to have been exposed to the visual tradition on his travels abroad - which included time in Venice in 1596 - and through prints circulating in London, such as an engraving by Aegidius Sadeler of another of Bassano's treatments of this subject and Jan Saendredam's 1599 engraving after Bloemaert. Sadeler's engraving was certainly known to Rowland Buckett, whose Annunciation to the Shepherds painted circa 1612 for the chapel at Hatfield House, is partially based on it. Oliver follows the conventions of this subject as articulated in these two engravings with his inclusion in the central mid-ground of two men engaged in discussion. Their function is similar to the pair on the right hand of Sadeler's print, whom Buckett copied in his Hatfield House painting, and the men behind the cow at the left of Saendredam's engraving. However, the only part of Oliver's watercolour that could be considered a direct quotation is his sleeping head on the extreme left, which seems to derive from the shepherd in the right foreground of Saendredam's engraving after Bloemart.
The northern mannerist influences of Oliver's work are unmistakable in the muscularity and gestures of the shepherds, such as the right forearm of the man in red. These present a striking contrast to the genre of cabinet miniature painting which emerged a few years later under Charles I in the 1620s and 30s, when his son Peter Oliver became well-known for his copies after Titian and other sixteenth century Italian painters. Alexander Browne may well have been alluding to this change in taste when he wrote in 1675 that works influenced by Goltzius and other mannerists 'were so extravagantly strain'd and stretcht to that degree beyond Nature... which mode was afterwards laid aside, and the works that those masters afterwards made were incomparably good, by their embracing more the ancient Italian way of DESIGNING, which was more Modest, Gentile, and Graceful'. Oliver's reception of Flemish mannerism was surely a result of contact with French court artists such as Ambrosius Boschaert and Martin Freminet, the latter of whom was in Venice in 1596, the year also of Oliver's visit to the city. For, as Raphelle Costa de Beauregard has put it in the context of Oliver's Entombment watercolour at at Angers, 'seul un séjour en France à Fontainbleu a pu donner à Oliver l'occasion d' acquérir pour ainsi dire trois savoir-faire en un, puisque cette montre à la fois le réalisme flamand, le sfumato italien et l'élégance du Primatice.' Although documentary evidence to support Oliver's presence in France is lacking, Peter Oliver was employed as one of the French Queen's 'peintres ordinares' in 1611 and two years later received the huge fee of 6,000 livres from the French crown.
The watercolour has many parallels with other examples of Oliver's work. Oliver was fond of introducing a sleeping figure in the foreground with a challenging foreshortening or leg posture, such as in his A Party in the Open Air: An Allegory in the Danish National Gallery and the drawing of Nymphs and Satyrs in the Royal Collection. Oliver can bridge the fore- and mid-grounds by including mediating figures who are standing beyond the nearest part of the pictorial space and placed lower down, such that their lower bodies are cut off. In the present watercolour the two conversing shepherds perform this role; in the drawing of Nymphs and Satyrs Oliver has placed two figures at the lower centre of the composition and in the Resurrection drawing in Edinburgh is a soldier whose legs are hidden from us. There is a rapid sense of recession so that the figures beyond those in the foreground are much smaller and treated in a more summary fashion, and we see this also in the drawing Nymphs and Satyrs and in the large watercolour of Henry, Prince of Wales. The awkward posture of the shepherds in red and blue call to mind the soldiers in the Resurrection at drawing and the mounted soldier gesturing to his left in the drawing of Moses Striking the Rock in the Royal Collection, in which additionally the caliper-like arms of the woman on the left are reminiscent of the archangel in our watercolour. Oliver's extraordinary sfumato in the sleeping head in our watercolour is reminiscent of his head of Christ at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The early history of this watercolour was summarised by Jane Keate née Hudson, wife of the writer, collector and friend of Voltaire, George Keate, who wrote on the back of the frame that the picture had belonged to Keate's ancestors. Martyn Fonnerau MP, who was executor to both her and her husband, added that George Keate was descended from Sir George Hungerford of Cadenham, 'in whose family this picture had been preserv'd for many years.' The watercolour's earliest ownership, though, is unclear. Although Fonnereau mentioned in his note that Frances, Sir George Hungerford's wife, was the daughter of Charles Seymour, 2nd Baron Seymour, he probably meant simply to promote Keate's Hungerford's ancestry through its connection with one of England's highest-ranking families. Even so, Oliver does appear to have worked for the Seymours, in the mid-1720s Vertue saw two Seymour portraits by Oliver, one of which was probably of Charles Seymour's uncle, William Seymour, 2nd Earl of Hertford whose patronage of the portrait painter William Larkin is documented.
Keate must have shown this watercolour to Horace Walpole after the publication of his Anecdotes of Painting, because Walpole expressed a wish that 'if he should print another edition of the Lives of the Painter he should be obliged to Mr Keate if he would permit him to give a description of it.' Walpole wrote about Isaac Oliver in volume one of the Anecdotes, first published in 1762 with a second edition in 1765, so perhaps Keate approached Walpole after receiving the watercolour from George Hungerford's (d. 1764) executors in the mid 1760s. The watercolour acquired its current black frame around this time, which is probably also when the gold border was added over an earlier layer of paint.
- Edward Norgate eds Jeffrey Muller and Jim Murrell, Miniatura or the Art of Limning, New Haven and London, 1997,p.68.
- Edward Norgate eds Jeffrey Muller and Jim Murrell, Miniatura or the Art of Limning, New Haven and London, 1997, pp.89-90.
- Edward Norgate eds Jeffrey Muller and Jim Murrell, Miniatura or the Art of Limning, New Haven and London, 1997, pp.89-90. One was offered at Sotheby's, New York, 26 January 2011, lot 517, the other is Musée des Beaux-Arts, Angers, museum no.MBA J 415 (J1881)P Dép.
- Quoted in Mary Edmonds, Hilliard and Oliver, London, 1983, p.172.
- Edward Norgate eds Jeffrey Muller and Jim Murrell, Miniatura or the Art of Limning, New Haven and London, 1997, p.89.
- The burst of scholarship on early watercolour painting of the 1970s and early 1980s - such as Jill Finsten's 1981 monograph on Oliver, The English Miniature (1981) by John Murdoch, Jim Murrell, Patrick Noon and Roy Strong, and Mary Edmond's Hilliard and Oliver (1983) - predated the re-emergence of Oliver's masterpiece, the Entombment, which was only recognised in 1983 as having been at Angers since at least 1797.
- Victoria and Albert Museum, museum no.P.12-1971. Roy Strong, Artists of the Tudor Court: The portrait miniature rediscovered, exh. cat. London (Victoria & Albert Museum), 1983, cat. no. 271.
- Fitzwilliam Museum, museum no.3902. The sitter's identity is discussed in ed Karen Hearn, Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Stuart England (1530-1630), exh. cat., London (Tate), 1995, p.140.
- Oliver Millar, ‘Catalogue of the Collections of Charles I, by Abraham van der Doort’, Walpole Society, 1958-60, vol.37, p.123. Van Der Doort's reference to 'divers Angells' probably rules out the possibility of Peter Oliver's version being identified with the present watercolour, in which only the archangel appears.
- J.Paul Getty Museum, museum no.80.PB.72. On circular portraits by Holbein and others, see ed Karen Hearn, Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Stuart England (1530-1630), exh. cat., London (Tate), 1995, p.104.
- Henry Peacham, The Compleat Gentleman, London, 1622, p.128.
- Oliver Millar, ‘Catalogue of the Collections of Charles I, by Abraham van der Doort’, Walpole Society, 1958-60, vol.37, p.44 no.13.
- Historic Manuscripts Commission, Calendar of the Cecil Papers in Hatfield House, London, 1976, vol 24, pp.194-210, payment of 9 March 1612. Buckett's painting is reproduced in ed Karen Hearn, Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Stuart England (1530-1630), exh. cat., London (Tate), 1995, p.171, fig 46.
- Alexander Browne, An Appendix treating of The Art of Painting in Miniature or Limning, London 1675, p.6.
- Raphelle Costa de Beauregard, 'Un miniaturiste français à la cour d'Angleterre: Isaac Oliver', Journal of the British Institute in Paris, Autumn 1993, no 16, p.58.
- Jeremy Wood, 'Peter Oliver at the Court of Charles I: New Drawings and Documents', Master Drawings, Summer 1998, vol 36, no 2, p.126, citing L. Batiffol, La vie intime d'une Reine de France au xviie siècle, Paris, 1906, pp.435, 521-2. Peter's presence in France may explain the absence of his signature from Isaac Oliver's will of 1617.
- Statens Museum for Kunst, museum no.kms6938 and Royal Collection, museum no.RCIN 913528.
- Royal Collection, museum nos.RCIN 913528 and RCIN 420058.
- Royal Collection, museum no.RCIN 913529.
- Victoria and Albert Museum, museum no.P.15-1931.
- Vertue, vol.I, p.146. Vertue's note is ambiguous: it states that the portrait was of the Earl of Hertford, son of the Lord Protector's son, but the Earl was a grandson. Mary Edmonds, Hilliard & Oliver: the lives and works of two great miniaturists, New Haven and London, 1983, p.170.