Portrait of a young man among roses by Nicholas Hilliard, c. 1587


This miniature portrait (c. 1587) shows a love-sick young man leaning against a tree, entwined in eglantine roses. It is probably the most famous of the miniature paintings that were popular at the court of Queen Elizabeth I. The long-legged youth with his hand on his heart has become a symbol of Elizabethan romance, male beauty and love poetry.

Who was Nicholas Hilliard?

Nicholas Hilliard (c. 1547–1619) was a court miniature painter to both Elizabeth I and James I. Influenced by the painting style of the German Holbein the Younger, Hilliard made a name for himself producing tiny portraits in watercolour on vellum (parchment made from calf’s skin). The ‘Young Man Among Roses’ is barely larger than a £5 note, but most miniatures were even smaller. This meant that they could be concealed in lockets, ivory boxes or private drawers.

What are miniatures?

Miniatures were part of the courtly game of love in Elizabethan England. People gave them away as tokens of respect or forbidden passion, and they often contained secret messages for the recipient to decode. These verbal and visual symbols were meant to be subtle and clever, making it hard for modern critics to agree about what they mean.

Symbolism and secrets: what clues are in this miniature?

In this painting, critics have found clues that the portrait was commissioned by an ambitious young courtier, keen to declare love for his Queen. The youth wears black and white which were Elizabeth’s personal colours. Roses were also symbolic of the Tudor Queen, who combined the white rose of York and the red rose of Lancaster. Eglantines were her favourite, and can often be seen in the artworks of this era. The Latin motto at the top reads, Dat poenas laudata fides, a quote from the Roman poet Lucan, pointing out that ‘faith, though praised, can cause pain’.

Roy Strong and other scholars have suggested that the curly-haired youth is Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex (1566–1601) – a young favourite of the ageing Queen’s in the late 1580s. Devereux was later executed for plotting against Elizabeth I.

Full title:
A Young Man among Roses, portrait miniature, possibly of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, watercolour on vellum
c. 1587
Painting / Image
Nicholas Hilliard
© Victoria and Albert Museum
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© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Held by
Victoria and Albert Museum

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