Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) with a Page 

Studio of Robert Walker (1599-1658)

Portrait of Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) with a Page, Studio of Robert Walker
Oil on canvas
17th Century
48 ¾ x 39 ¼ inches, 124 x 99.5 cm
Traditionally, by descent from Henry Cromwell, the sitter’s son, and thence to his sister; Frances Cromwell (1638-1720), wife of Sir John Russell Bt; Thence by descent to their daughter; Elizabeth Russell, wife of Sir Thomas Frankland (1665-1726), 2nd Bt, of Thirkelby Hall, Yorkshire; Thence by descent; The Thirkelby Trust Sale, Phillips, London, 25th April 1961; Private Collection, UK.
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This portrait is a contemporary variant of Walker’s celebrated likeness of Oliver Cromwell. It is probably one of a number of high quality examples done by Walker and his studio to meet the demand for portraits of Cromwell during the interregnum, and was traditionally held to have been in the possession of his son, Henry, a leading statesman of the Protectorate and lord lieutenant of Ireland. Unlike the majority of Walker’s Cromwell portraits, in which the page boy is seen on the left tying a sash at the waist, this example shows the page on the right.

The predominant feature of the portrait is of course its martial spirit. Here, Cromwell is being prepared for battle by a page, who attaches an identifying coloured sash to his left arm. Almost all parliamentarian portraits were defined by a similar military spirit, even if, as in this case, the armour and sword were outdated and unsuited to the actual battles of the Civil War that the sitters had fought in. This curious fact was due not to fashion or tradition, but to the more prosaic reality that the portrait poses, and costumes, were in fact direct copies from Van Dyck’s portraits of the 1630s. That these Van Dyckian poses had previously bee used to depict staunch royalists is an irony that seems not to have bothered the victorious parliamentarians. Instead, they saw the Van Dyckian model as symbolic of the governing class, and thus fit for adding an aura of power to their own images, just as Oliver Cromwell adopted the monarchical practice of placing his own portrait, in profile, on the coinage.

Despite his prodigious output, little is known of Robert Walker’s career. We cannot even be specific about his date of birth, nor his upbringing and artistic training. His oeuvre, particularly after the Civil War, is almost exclusively formed of portraits of parliamentarian figures. His portraits of Cromwell have come to be known as the definitive likenesses of the Protector, and have entered the public imagination more than examples by other artists such as Peter Lely, and perhaps even the small scale by Samuel Cooper. Walker’s success in becoming effectively the official artist of the Protectorate lay, probably, in the fact that he was English. But we may also judge from his self-portrait at the Ashmolean Museum, in which he follows Van Dyck’s self-portrait with a sunflower but replaces the flower (a symbol of royalist loyalty) with the more mischievous Mercury, that he was sympathetic to the rebellious cause.

A nineteenth century inscription on the bottom of this portrait relates that it belonged to Cromwell’s son, Henry. By the tradition, the picture descends from Henry to his sister, Frances Russell (1638-1720, Cromwell’s youngest child), and thence to her son-in-law, Sir Thomas Frankland. While such a provenance is, while ancestrally correct, rather indirect, an examination of the families and wills involved lends credibility to the traditional descent. First, Henry married into the same Russell family that his sister married into – Henry marrying Elizabeth Russell (1637-1687) in 1653, while Frances married Elizabeth’s sister, John Russell (1632-1670) – so that the portrait could quite easily have been passed from Henry or Henry’s widow to his sister’s family. Thereafter, Frances’ will specifically bequeathes the majority of her estate to her son-in-law, Sir Thomas Frankland of Thirkelby Hall, where the picture hung from the eighteenth century until it was sold in 1961.

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