Blazing love: a portrait by Isaac Oliver at Ham House

A Man Consumed by Flames by Isaac Oliver

Despite fitting neatly into the palm of one’s hand, Oliver’s portrait of a man shown burning with the fire of love is one of the most arresting objects at Ham House. Dressed like a classical hero in an antique blue mantle, and wearing an earring of two linked gold hoops, the sitter gazes intently out as flames lick around him. Painted over 400 years ago, the presence of this long dead man nevertheless feels startling fresh.

Painted by the renowned miniaturist Isaac Oliver, its expressiveness shows Oliver’s technique at its most vivid and miniature painting at its most intimate.  The portrait is in excellent condition with only minor loss to the red pigments of the flesh tones and lips. Miniatures were often given as love tokens.  In looking upon this image we occupy the place of the intended recipient of this exquisite jewel whose identity, like the sitter’s own, remains a mystery.

A motto, lettered in black to stand out from the flames above his head, reads 'Alget qui non ardet' (he becomes cold who does not burn), expressing a lasting love that perhaps only death can cool.  For me this must be one of the most vivid portraits produced in any media in the history of art. 

While the metaphor of the burning lover was common in Renaissance literature and later emblem books, painted allusions to this theme are rare.  This is one of only two such portrait miniatures known to exist (an earlier example by Oliver’s tutor, Nicholas Hilliard, is in the collection of the V&A).

The intimacy of the miniature is enhanced by its location in the Green Closet at Ham, the only place in Britain today where one can view an original seventeenth century ‘cabinet room’ in anything like its original form.