Open main menu

OLIVER, OLIVIER, or OLLIVIER, ISAAC (1556?–1617), miniature painter, appears to have been of French origin, and to have been born about 1556. Sandrart, in his 'Teutsch Academie,' speaks of him as 'membranarum pictor Londinensis,' and in the inscription below the portrait of him engraved by Hendrik Hondius he is styled 'Isaacus Oliverus, Anglus.' His contemporaries appear to have all regarded him as an Englishman (see Peacham, Treatise on Drawing and Limning, 1634). On the other hand, when he signs his name in full he always spells it 'Olivier' or 'Ollivier.' There is some ground for supposing that he is identical with 'Isaac Olivier of Rouen,' who on 9 Feb. 1602 was married at the Dutch Church, Austin Friars, London, to Sara Gheeraerts of London (Moens, Registers of Dutch Church, Austin Friars). The siege and capture of Rouen by the Guises in 1562 drove many huguenots to take refuge in London, among whom may well have been Oliver's parents, with their boy of five or six years old. Moreover, in the portrait by Hondius mentioned above there is seen through a window a river scene resembling nothing in England, but very like the scenery of the Seine near Rouen; this may indicate the place of his birth. This identification would possibly lead also to that of the anonymous author of a treatise on limning (Brit, Mus. Harl MS. 6000), who alludes more than once to his late cousin, Isaac Oliver. Sara Gheeraerts, Olivier's wife, appears to have been daughter of Marcus Gheeraerta the elder [q. v.], by his second wife Susanna De Critz, who was certainly related to John De Critz [q. v.], serjeant-painter to James I. Francis Meres, in his 'Palladis Tamia' (1598), selects the three, 'Hilliard, Isaac Oliver, and John De Critz' as especially excellent in the art of painting. Assuming De Critz to be a cousin by marriage of Isaac Oliver, he may well have been the author of the said treatise on limning. There seems no ground for connecting Oliver with the family seated at East Norton in Leicestershire, as stated in Burton's manuscript collections for that county (Nichols, Hist. of Leicestershire, vol. iii. pt. i. p. 489).

Oliver was the pupil of Nicholas Hilliard [q. v.], as we learn from R. Haydocke s introduction to Lomazzo's 'Art of Painting.' He followed Hilliard's manner in miniature-painting very closely, and often excelled him. Their works, being very similar and contemporaneous in many cases, have been frequently confused. Like Hilliard, Oliver painted most of his miniatures on a light blue ground (no doubt adopted by Hilliard from Hans Holbein), and sometimes on a crimson satin ground. The actual portrait often forms but a small portion of the miniature, great attention being given to the details of costume, armour, jewels, and other accessories, with a decorative purpose. Oliver's portraits are to be found in nearly every important collection, such as those of the queen, the Duke of Buccleuch, the Duke of Devonshire, the Earl of Derby, Mr. James Whitehead, Dr. Lumsden Propert, &c. They have always been highly prized, and figured conspicuously at the exhibitions at South Kensington in 1862 and 1865, at Burlington House m 1879, at the Burlington Fine Arts Club in 1889, and other exhibitions. He painted James I, his family, and most of the court and nobility of the time. Among the best known is the full-length portrait of Sir Philip Sidney, formerly Dr. Mead's, and now in the royal collection at Windsor. A big limning of Henry, prince of Wales, in gilt armour, was in the collection of Charles I. A. series of miniature portraits of the family of Sir Kenelm Digby [q. v.] and his wife Venetia Stanley, done by Isaac and Peter Oliver, was formerly at Strawberry Hill, but is now divided between the collections of Mr. Winfield Digby and Baroness Burdett-Coutts. Oliver usually signed with his initials in a monogram. Perhaps the earliest miniature known with a date is that of Sir John Clench (1583), in the collection of the Duke of Buccleuch. An interesting group of the three sons of the second Viscount Montagu, painted by Isaac Oliver in 1598, was one of the few treasures saved from the disastrous fire at Cowdray House in 1793. It is not certain whether Oliver painted any miniatures of Queen Elizabeth, though there are some of her attributed to him. He certainly drew the portrait of her in the richly ornamented robes supposed, without ground, to be those in which she went to St. Paul's Cathedral to return thanks for the defeat of the Spanish Armada. This portrait was finely engraved by Crispin Van de Passe the elder, and a pen drawing on vellum in the royal collection at Windsor may be Oliver s original drawing (see O'Donoghue, Portraits of Queen Elizabeth, p. 70, No. 160). Several pen drawings by Oliver exist, some being copies from old masters. Six drawings by him are in the print-room at the British Museum, two of which are signed 'Ollivier.'

Vertue states on the authority of Antony Russel, a painter, that Oliver also painted larger pictures in oil, and he mentions two pictures of 'St. John the Baptist' and 'The Holy Family' as then in Russel's possession (Brit. Mus. Add. MS. 21111. f. 50). Russel was doubtless well acquainted with Oliver's work. His grandfather, Nicasius Roussell or Russel, jeweller to James I, seems to have been a kinsman of Oliver. To Nicasius's son, Isaac Russel, Oliver stood godfather in 1616, while Oliver's widow stood godmother to Nicasius, another of Nicasius's sons, in 1619. A portrait of Sir Thomas Overbury (1581-1613) [q. v.], on a blue ground, in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, is attributed to Oliver.

In 1610 Oliver had commenced a large limning of 'The Entombment of Christ,' with a great number of figures. This be left uncompleted at his death, and it eventually passed into the royal collection, where it still remains: it was the subject of unstinted admiration from his contemporaries. Oliver, who resided in Blackfriars, died on 2 Oct. 1617, aged about 61, and was buried in the of St. Anne, Blackfriars, where a monument was erected to his memory, with a bust and epitaph. This was destroyed in the great fire of London; but Vertue saw a clay model of the bust in the possession of Russel, with several leaves from Oliver's sketch-book (loc. cit. f. 62). By his will, dated 4 June, and proved 30 Oct. 1617 (P.C.C. 93 Weldon), Oliver appointed his wife Elisabeth his executrix, and bequeathed all his 'drawinges allreadye finished and unfinished, and Lymminge pictures, be they historyes, storyes, or anything of Lymming whatsoever of my owne hande worke as yet unfinished,' to his 'eldest sonne Peter, if he shall live and exercise that arte or Science which he and I nowe doe;' and failing him, 'to suche another of my sonnes as will use and exercise that arte or Science.' As his younger sons appear to have been under age at the time of his death, they must have been sons of a later wife than the mother of Peter Oliver [q. v.] If the identification given above is correct, it would show that Oliver was twice, if not thrice, married—a not uncommon event in the small community of artists in London. He further mentions his kinswoman Judith Morrell, and signs his will 'Isaac Oliver.' Oliver painted his own portrait in miniature more than once; one example is in the royal collection at Windsor. Russel (loc. cit.) also possessed an oil painting of Oliver by himself, with those of his wife and children. Two engravings by Hondius and Miller are mentioned by Bromley.

[Walpole's Anecdotes of Painting (ed. Wornum, pp. 176-83) contains all that was known of Oliver from Vertue and other sources to the present time; other anthorities cited in the text.]

L. C.