Restoring Cromwell

6th July 2017 - 3 minutes read

Cromwell Fittingly, in this the 500th anniversary year of the Reformation, a seventeenth-century portrait of the first Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell appeared in the studio this month. The second period of Reformation opened with Jenny Geddes remarkable exclamations in Edinburgh, preceded the eventual institution of Cranmer’s 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and was certainly framed by Oliver Cromwell’s stepping into the breach of leadership in England. After the cruel tyrannies of Charles I, that included the terrors of the Star Chamber, the indiscriminate seizing of land, arbitrary taxation and the banning of newspapers, the Long Parliament set in motion events that would lead to the signing of the King’s death warrant for treason in 1649.

This oil on canvas painting is an early copy, probably after Lely, whose famous portrait in the National Portrait Gallery collection it closely resembles. Robert Walker, Peter Lely and the miniature painter Samuel Cooper painted the best-known depictions we have of Oliver Cromwell. Cooper excelled in capturing detail, demanding an exhaustive eight sittings from his clients, produced ‘warts and all’ studies of the statesman. However, the true and unflattering approach was famously requested by Cromwell of Lely, a seasoned court painter given to more generous portrayals. Cromwell is typically depicted in his role as a highly able and astute military commander.

Walker, chiefly a parliamentary painter during the Commonwealth period, sets his composition at three-quarter length, in cuirassier armour and holding the baton of authority. In this portrait, also in the National Portrait Gallery, Cromwell is front facing, with shoulders and body at a three-quarter view. Lely’s bust portrait is similar in composition but faces the sitter three-quarters to the viewer.

This little painting is an early copy that, to my humble observation, seems closest to Lely’s portraits in compositional style and facial character. Now rectangular, the picture was cut down in the past from a larger oval, as evident from age cracking patterns in the paint apparently following the arc of a long-gone oval stretcher. As cleaning progresses, the spandrels of the original oval composition, the uncompromising detail of the sitter’s face and his red hair are now emerging from the gloom of a very darkened varnish.

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