Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait miniature of Sarah Foote, later Mrs. John Lewis, 1647 

Samuel Cooper (1609-72)

Portrait miniature of Sarah Foote, later Mrs. John Lewis, 1647, Samuel Cooper
Watercolour & bodycolour on card
17th Century
Oval, 54mm (2 1/8 inches) high
The Hon. Felicity Samuel, 1974 The property of a descendant of the 2nd Viscount Bearsted, Christie’s, London, 27 March 1984, lot 298
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Samuel Cooper can justly be called the greatest seventeenth century miniaturist – and he was as brilliant working for the Commonwealth as he was working for the restored king. His reputation was international and he could command more for his commissions than the leading artists of the day. John Aubrey called him ‘The Prince of Limners’, whilst Walpole stated that, “The anecdotes of his life are few; nor does it signify; his works are history.”

Cooper’s early training was under the guardianship of his Uncle, John Hoskins (see cat. no. 19), where he would have been trained in the art of limning. His partnership with his uncle ended when patrons sought only Cooper for their portraits and in about 1642 he set up independently. By this time, it seems, Cooper had travelled abroad, spoke several languages and was by all accounts, a cultured and charismatic man. Cosimo III, upon meeting him, described him as, “a tiny man, all wit and courtesy, as well housed as Lely, with his table covered with velvet”.

Comparisons with Lely at this time are inevitable, but it is perhaps somewhat surprising that a miniaturist should find his equal in the most fashionable and brilliant oil painter of the day. Miniatures, however, were not then considered to be a lesser form of art. They were much valued as sophisticated paintings, precious both for their settings and for the intimacy they afforded the viewer. Their practical aspect is perfectly highlighted by the fact that his miniature of Frances Teresa Stuart was almost certainly sent to France to be copied in enamel by Jean Petitot.

By 1650, Cooper was certainly working for the Cromwell family and being kept busy. Clients were expected to wait months to obtain a sitting. Again, correspondence survives that highlights the intimate nature of the portrait miniature. In writing to her lover in 1653, Dorothy Osborne assures him that she is cajoling Cooper into painting a miniature of her to give to him; “…you shall have it as soon as Mr. Cooper will vouchsafe to take the pains to draw it for you. I have made him twenty courtseys, and promised him £15 to persuade him.”

When Charles II was restored to the throne, it did not take him long to summon Cooper to court, despite the fact that he had been painting portraits of his and his father’s greatest enemies during the Interregnum. This is again an indication both of Cooper’s reputation and his ability, as an artist, to rise above political issues. By 1663, Cooper had been appointed as the King’s limner. From this time on, Cooper was employed painting magnificent portraits of King and Court. His death was recorded by Charles Beale, who wrote in his diary, “Sunday May 5 Mr. Cooper, the most famous limner of the world for a face died”.

In the 1974 catalogue of the Cooper exhibition held at the National Portrait Gallery the sitter in this miniature was called Sarah Foote, who married Sir John Lewis, Bart in or before 1644. It is possible that Cooper was abroad at the time of their marriage, but he seems to have been back in England from about 1646 and was clearly available by 1647 to paint this enchanting portrait of the young Sarah. The quiet background has been used to great effect in showing off the magnificent blue of Sarah’s gown. The date of her birth is uncertain, but she was probably born in about 1628. This would make her nineteen in the present portrait. She had two daughters by her first marriage; the elder, Elizabeth, married Theodophilus Hastings, 7th Earl of Huntingdon; the younger daughter, Mary, married Robert Leke, 3rd Earl of Scarsdale. Sarah was married for a second time in 1660 to Denzil Onslow of Pirford, Surrey, a commissioner in the Navy.

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