Portraits of Oliver Cromwell (Commentary)

This commentary is based on the classroom activity: Portraits of Oliver Cromwell

Q1: Study sources 2 and 3. Both of these passages were written by people who knew him. What do these sources tell you about his personality?

A1: Oliver Cromwell was a Puritan and thought it was morally wrong to spend too much money on his appearance. This is reflected in the comments made by Sir Philip Warwick (source 2): "He wore... a plain cloth-suit, which seemed to have been made by a poor tailor; his shirt was plain, and not very clean; and I remember a speck or two of blood upon his collar."

John Maidston (source 3) points out that Cromwell had a "temper exceeding fiery" but was able to show great sympathy for people in trouble "he was naturally compassionate towards objects in distress, even to an effeminate measure" and had "tenderness towards sufferers".

Q2: Study the portraits of Oliver Cromwell painted by Samuel Cooper, Robert Walker and Peter Lely. Read sources 9, 11 and 12 and explain which painting was likely to be the least accurate representation of Cromwell?

A2: The painting by Robert Walker (source 5) is based on the type of paintings produced by Anthony Van Dyck, the artist employed by Charles I. For example, the pose is very similar to the one used by Van Dyck for his paintings of Thomas Wentworth (1639) and Kenelm Digby (1640).

Cromwell was very unhappy with Walker's painting and as Alastair Smart (source 11) points out that when he commissioned his portrait to be painted by Peter Lely (source 13) he gave him firm instructions to "use all your skill to paint my picture truly like me and not flatter me at all. Remark all these roughness, pimples, warts and everything as you see me. Otherwise I’ll never pay a farthing for it."

Samuel Cooper (source 8) painted the most portraits of Cromwell. In all his paintings the wart is clearly shown. Maev Kennedy (source 12) argues that Cooper also showed his "bald patch, creased forehead and roughened cheeks". She quotes Bendor Grosvenor on the painting: "It is the best painted wart in English art, if not the only painted wart in English art. When you see it close up in high definition the top is all white and flaky, absolutely repulsive."

Q3: Explain the historical background to the commonly used phrase "warts and all". It will help you to read the biography of Peter Lely.

A3: Peter Lely painted portraits of Charles I before he was overthrown and executed. Lely's painting style, as was usual at the time, intended to flatter the sitter. Cromwell was opposed to all forms of personal vanity and therefore he asked Lely to paint him showing his "roughness, pimples, warts and everything as you see me" (source 13).

It has been pointed out that plainness had a political purpose, presenting Cromwell as a "sober, honest alternative to the tradition of royal vanity, excess and arrogance he’d just replaced".

A wart is a small hard lump which grows on the skin and looks unpleasant. If you describe or show someone or something "warts and all", you do not try to hide the bad things about them.