British Portraits Collection
Focus on Samuel Cooper's portrait of Oliver Cromwell
This superb miniature of miniature of Cromwell by Samuel Cooper of 1657, on display at Compton Verney, represents one of the first truly parliamentary portraits. Its forthright, honest style was a deliberate break with the flattering royal portraits that preceded it – most notably Antony Van Dyck’s sumptuous, romanticised and symbolically-laden royal images of the 1630s. As such, it is of central importance to the nation’s Parliament Week.
In 1628 King Charles I dissolved parliament and proceeded to rule in the manner of a continental, absolutist monarch – without consulting parliament or any other representative body – for the next twelve years. During this period, court painter Sir Antony Van Dyck was commissioned to fashion an image of a cultured monarch on the contemporary European pattern.
In 1640, however, a financial crisis forced Charles I to recall parliament, and the floodgates opened. In 1642 (a year after Van Dyck’s death), the first battle of the English Civil War was fought a few miles from Compton Verney, at Edgehill. By 1645 the tide had turned against the king’s armies, and on 30 January 1649 Charles I was executed in London. The venue chosen by Parliament was the nearby Banqueting House so recently built by Van Dyck’s friend and colleague, Inigo Jones – a work which, like Van Dyck’s sumptuous portraits of Charles I, symbolised what many Britons saw as the royal family’s dangerously absolutist and Catholic sympathies.
Oliver Cromwell, who made himself the nation’s Lord Protector in 1653, carefully avoided such politically-charged imagery. He shunned the flattering sophistication and Baroque symbolism of Van Dyck, and sought to have himself painted for posterity just as he was – even if that depiction did not show him in the best light. The famous picture of Cromwell by the distinguished miniaturist Samuel Cooper shows a disillusioned Lord Protector, just as he requested, with ‘pimples warts and every thing as you see me’. In a year in which Cromwell declined the offer of the English crown, it is an emphatically parliamentary portrait.