Portraits of Oliver Cromwell (Classroom Activity)

In December 1653, the army decided that Oliver Cromwell should become England's new ruler. Some officers wanted him to become king but he refused and instead took the title Lord Protector of the Commonwealth. However, Cromwell had as much power as kings had in the past. When the House of Commons opposed his policies in 1655, he closed it down.

Cromwell now imposed military rule. England was divided into eleven districts. Each district was run by a Major General. The responsibilities of these Major-Generals included maintaining order, collecting taxes, granting poor relief and imposing Puritan morality. In some districts bear-baiting, cock-fighting, horse-racing and wrestling were banned. Betting and gambling were also forbidden. Large numbers of ale-houses were closed and fines were imposed on people caught swearing. In some districts, the Major-Generals even closed down theatres.

In 1655, three veteran Levellers, Edward Sexby, John Wildman and Richard Overton developed a plot to overthrow the government. The conspiracy was discovered and Sexby fled to Amsterdam. It was later discovered that Overton was by this time acting as a double agent and had informed the authorities of the plot.

In May 1657 Sexby published, under a pseudonym, Killing No Murder, a pamphlet that attempted to justify the assassination of Oliver Cromwell. Sexby accused Cromwell of the enslavement of the English people and argued for that reason he deserved to die. After his death "religion would be restored" and "liberty asserted". He hoped "that other laws will have place besides those of the sword, and that justice shall be otherwise defined than the will and pleasure of the strongest". The following month Edward Sexby arrived in England to carry out the deed, however, he was arrested on 24th July. He remained in the Tower of London until his death on 13th January 1658.

Primary Sources

Oliver Cromwell
(Source 1) Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper (1649)
© National Portrait Gallery


(Source 2) Sir Philip Warwick, a Royalist, made these comments on Oliver Cromwell in 1640.

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... his face was swollen and red, his voice sharp and untunable, and his speech full of passion.

(Source 3) John Maidston, letter to John Winthrop (24th March 1659)

His body was compact and strong, his stature under 6 foot (I believe about two inches) his head so shaped, as you might see it a storehouse and shop both of vast treasury of natural parts. His temper exceeding fiery as I have known, but the flame of it kept down, for the most part... He was naturally compassionate towards objects in distress, even to an effeminate measure; though God had made him a heart, wherein was left little room for any fear, but what was due to himself, of which there was a large proportion, yet did he exceed in tenderness towards sufferers.

(Source 4) Ann Sumner, Robert Walker : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

Robert Walker's poses are often stiff and his colour schemes limited compared to Van Dyck's. A prolific artist, his style is much more obviously derivative than that of his royalist counterpart William Dobson. This is evident in, for example, his portrait of Cromwell in the Cromwell Museum, Huntingdon, in which the pose is closely based on that used by Van Dyck in his portrait of Sir Kenelm Digby in armour (NPG). Though his work lacks any of the painterly qualities of Dobson, Walker occasionally demonstrated wit and originality, and his portraits possess a distinctive soft quality that is his own.

Oliver Cromwell
(Source 5) Oliver Cromwell by Robert Walker (c. 1649)
© National Portrait Gallery


(Source 6) Diana Dethloff, Peter Lely : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

During these years Lely seems to have played a strategic game, working for important former court patrons in London, possibly maintaining links with exiled royalists at The Hague, where he had family property, and developing contacts with influential parliamentary and Commonwealth figures. In 1653, together with Geldorp and Sir Balthasar Gerbier, he petitioned parliament, unsuccessfully as it transpired, for the commission to decorate Whitehall Palace with a series of paintings celebrating parliament's civil war victories and inset with portraits of its generals and commanders.

The following year Lely painted Oliver Cromwell (Birmingham City Museums and Art Gallery), versions of which are in the Pitti Palace, Florence, and the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, although the face probably derived from a Samuel Cooper miniature rather than a fresh ad vivum sitting with the Protector.... Two years later, on 20 June 1660, he had established sufficient reputation and influential supporters to be sworn in to the post of Charles II's principal painter, although he was not formally appointed by the king's letter of privy seal until 25 February 1662.

(Source 7) John Murdoch, Samuel Cooper : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

By the mid-1640s he (Samuel Cooper) was adapting himself and his style successfully to suit the prevailing conditions of patronage in London during the civil wars and interregnum, building a reputation for good likenesses, brilliant execution, and great personal charm. His ‘parliamentary’ output - portraits of men in armour usually against a dark background, and women whose tenue remained relatively unaffected by the circumstances of war - culminated in the paintings of Oliver Cromwell in the early 1650s...

Cooper seems to have taken various likenesses of Cromwell for various purposes, including formal portraiture, for which he made the ad vivum sketch now in the collection of the duke of Buccleuch and on which Lely may have relied for the surviving oil painting. There are also images made apparently for use on medals or coins, a good example of which is an ad vivum profile in the National Portrait Gallery.

Oliver Cromwell
(Source 8) Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper (c. 1650)

(Source 9) Melisa Thomas, Samuel Cooper Portrays Oliver Cromwell's Warts and All (6th December, 2013)

The intriguing exhibition at 29 Dover Street, Warts & All takes its title from Oliver Cromwell’s controversial request to be painted realistically as opposed to idealistically.

The exhibition features several seventeenth-century miniature paintings, mainly by Samuel Cooper, who famously painted Cromwell with the prominent wart on his forehead, credited as “Britain’s first internationally celebrated artist”.

Upon entering the gallery, you’re invited to pick up a magnifying glass with which to study the miniatures. If you look towards the end of the room you can see Sir Peter Lely’s famous painting of Oliver Cromwell and Cromwell’s death mask.

But before you reach these there are a number of miniatures to examine, and each artwork has been annotated with interesting historical and technical information...

Unsurprisingly, the miniatures of Cromwell (including Cooper’s version (c. 1653) complete with the notorious wart) feature by the side of the Lely portrait and death mask of Cromwell at the end of the room.

The second room explains that not only was Cooper commissioned to paint Cromwell and his family in the early 1650s, he was later chosen by Charles II upon his acquisition to the throne in 1660. Cooper was called upon to paint miniature portraits of Charles II, as well as his mistresses and children, as part of the King’s endeavours to establish power and influence during the Restoration period.

Oliver Cromwell
(Source 10) Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper (1656)
© National Portrait Gallery

(Source 11) Alastair Smart, The Daily Telegraph (11th October, 2014)

Charles II’s propagandists cast Cromwell as a brutal despot who’d dispatched testy civilians at will, most notoriously all the Irish Catholics at the Wexford and Drogheda massacres of 1649. Nowadays critics tend to focus on his Puritan fundamentalism, which outlawed the celebration of Christmas. This, apparently, was a dour, austere man – who censored playwrights, disdained culture and showed no interest at all in the visual arts.

Certainly he had no official painter, and portraits of Cromwell are few and far between. The most famous is by Robert Walker, from 1649, in the National Portrait Gallery: a proud, if shaggy-haired, figure in cuirassier armour, holding a baton of authority in his hand.

The image is clearly inspired by the poses in aristocratic portraits by van Dyck – Walker’s predecessor and superior, who died before the outbreak of Civil War, in 1641 – specifically his paintings of Sir Kenelm Digby and Sir Edmund Verney.

Insofar as it existed at all, Cromwellian portraiture, it seems, was merely an extension of portraiture under Charles I.
Peter Lely and miniaturist Samuel Cooper were others who depicted him, but Cromwell’s attitude to his own image is summed up by his request to Lely 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." (This, slightly modified, is the origin of the expression "warts and all".)

Lely duly captured Cromwell in sober black armour, without a hint of decoration. And with the receding hairline and blotchy cheeks – not to mention, pronounced wart on his chin – Cooper rendered Cromwell most candidly of all.

There might be more to these portraits than meets the eye, however, if another of Cromwell’s famous quotes is anything to go by. In the New Model Army, he said he’d “rather have a plain, russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for… than that you call a Gentleman and is nothing else.” In other words, he chose soldiers on merit not class.

The broad meaning of the word “plain” is key here. Cromwell sought men who were plain both in character (ie, pious) and in clothing too. Plainness thus had a political purpose, presenting Cromwell as a sober, honest alternative to the tradition of royal vanity, excess and arrogance he’d just replaced.

Sir Philip Warwick recalled, the first time they met, that Cromwell wore a “plain-cloth sute, which seemed to have bin made by an ill country-taylor; his linen plain and not very clean”.

Is it possible then, that warts-and-all portraiture was very deliberately adopted rather than a product of indifference? Part of a plain-style aesthetic to reflect a plain-style politics, refuting any notion that Cromwell had lofty monarchical aims in the process?

(Source 12) Maev Kennedy, The Guardian (8th November, 2013)

Samuel Cooper was regarded as the best portrait painter of his day, but only worked in miniatures. The Cromwell is best known from a full-size version painted by Peter Lely, where the wart appears as a mere smudge over the Lord Protector's right eyebrow. The face in Cooper's original, in watercolour on vellum, is the size of a 50p piece but miraculously detailed – from the bald patch, creased forehead and roughened cheeks to the jowly five o'clock shadow.

Cooper had painted an earlier portrait of Cromwell soon after he came to power, in which he appears almost Botoxed, the face longer and more conventionally noble. When Cromwell came to his London studio – Cooper demanded that his clients, even royalty, come for an extraordinary eight sittings – he gave the famous order for less flattery and more accuracy.

"It is the best painted wart in English art, if not the only painted wart in English art," Bendor Grosvenor, head of research at the gallery, said. "When you see it close up in high definition the top is all white and flaky, absolutely repulsive."

When Cromwell died his son came to the studio to buy the sketch: Cooper's usual price was £20, but he demanded and got £100.

Oliver Cromwell
(Source 13) Oliver Cromwell by Peter Lely (c. 1657)
Questions for Students

Question 1: 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?

Question 2: 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?

Question 3: Explain the historical background to the commonly used phrase "warts and all". It will help you to read the biography of Peter Lely.

Answer Commentary

A commentary on these questions can be found here.