Born in Exeter, Hilliard spent much of his childhood in Geneva after he and his Protestant family fled the Catholic Queen Mary I. He trained as a jeweller before becoming an artist and his work was influenced by that of Hans Holbein. During his career Hilliard worked for Elizabeth I and James I and established the English school of miniature painting - a style of art for which he is renowned. However, he never became a court artist and complained of always having to tout for trade. In 1617 he was imprisoned because of financial problems and died in London two years later.