When we think of Elizabethan miniatures we tend to think of the wonderfully Hilliard portraits with their stunning azure backgrounds. However before Hilliard there was a professional female artist who created some equally evocative images. The image at the start of this post shows a young Elizabeth Tudor and is the work of Levina Teerlinc.
Levina started work for Henry VIII and in the twenty-first century in an era when we are still talking about the “pay gap” it’s worth noting that such was her repute as an artist was such that her pay was more than that of Holbein who had recently died and vacated the position of court artist. Levina was born in Flanders, the eldest of five daughters to Simon Benninck, a renowned illustrator of manuscripts. Simon must have seen talent in his daughter just as Holbein’s father saw talent in him because Levina trained to be an artist under her father’s tuition in their home town of Bruges.
In 1545 she is seen in the official record with her husband dealing with her father’s accounts suggesting that Simon may have died at this time. This in its turn might suggest why the daughter rather than the father arrived in London. In any event, even if Simon was still alive he may not have been of a mind or in sufficient health to make the journey.
In November 1546 Levina and her husband, George Teerlinc, arrived in London where Levina was paid forty pounds year to be Henry VIII’s court artist. Levina’s salary would go up every year and she would work for every one of the Tudors from Henry VIII onwards. She received £150 after the death of Mary Tudor suggesting that although she was much loved by the queen that her salary hadn’t always been paid. The only problem for art historians is that she did not sign her work.
Teerlinc in her turn was followed by Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver. Hilliard thought that creating miniatures was the work of a gentleman rather than a woman not that it seems to have stopped some of the leading women of the period for sitting for Levina. Indeed, it may be that as a woman in Mary and then Elizabeth Tudor’s household that women were more able to sit for their portraits. It was Levina who painted the miniature of Lady Katherine Grey and her son (above). It should be noticed that she is wearing a ribbon round her neck from which a glimpse of another miniature can be seen – of her husband Edward Seymour. It should also be noted, I think, that this image is the first well-known secular image of a mother and child in the brave new Protestant world of Tudor England.
This image of Mary Dudley, Lady Sidney is painted in water-colour in vellum but rather than being mounted on ivory or precious metal the image is stiffened by playing cards.
The miniatures themselves are a bit different from Holbein’s portraits. They were designed to be given as gifts that could be worn, often tucked out of sight. Several of Levina’s appear to have been commissioned as New year gifts. They are painted on vellum in the style of a manuscript artist. In addition to being exchanged by lovers and friends Teerlinc’s works formed the basis for other jewellery as well as for the Great Seal. She may have even written a text on how to make a limning as these miniatures were known and trained Hilliard who gained prominence in the 1570s.
She did not only paint miniatures in 1556 her New year’s gift to Queen Mary was a picture of the Trinity and in 1561 she gave Queen Elizabeth a “finely painted” box. It is possible that the majority of her work was destroyed in the Whitehall fire. There is also the possibility that since she did not sign her works some of the earlier ones have been ascribed to Holbein whilst the later ones may now be viewed as the work of Hilliard.
Levina died on 26 June 1576 when she was about sixty-six. I love the fact that her father as an illuminator of manuscripts was working in an artistic tradition that went back to the seventh century and that in training Levina, her miniatures which became so popular during the Tudor period, are a clearly route-marked bridge between traditions and art forms. I also love the fact that she was paid more than Holbein. It seems a shame though that although we have heard of Hans Holbein and Nicholas Hilliard that Levina is not so well remembered in popular memory.
James, Susan E. (2009) The Feminine Dynamic in English Art 1485-1603, Aldershot: Ashgate.
Bergmans, Simone. “The Miniatures of Levina Teerling.” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, vol. 64, no. 374, 1934, pp. 232–236. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/865738.