Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait miniature in profile of Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), c.1653 

Samuel Cooper (1609-72)

Portrait miniature in profile of Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), c.1653, Samuel Cooper
Watercolour on vellum
17th Century
Oval, 35mm. (1 3/8in.) high
Propert Collection; Northcote Collection; Collection of the late Lady Northcote, Sotheby’s, London, 19th July 1934, lot 84; Thence by descent.
J.J. Foster, ‘Samuel Cooper and the English Miniature Painters of the XVII Century’ (1914-16), illus. pl.29, fig.68. L. Propert, ‘Catalogue of the Miniatures of the Hon. Sir H. Stafford Northcote, BT., C.B.’, illus. pl.21
Fine Art Society 1897 (when owned by Propert); British Fine Art Society Exhibition, 1889, case 34, no.40, cat. p. 100.
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This compelling profile portrait of the English revolutionary, regicide and self-styled Lord Protector is an exciting rediscovery in Cromwell’s iconography, and is most likely a rare ad vivum portrait. It was last recorded in the 1930s, and was thought to have been lost when it was sold from the Northcote collection in 1934. Prior to that it had been in the collection of John Lumsden Propert, whose passion for miniatures led him to acquire probably the most significant private collection of miniatures in the nineteenth century outside the Royal Collection, and whose ‘History of Miniature Art’ (1887) was the first scholarly treatment of the subject published in England.

The miniature is one of very few profile portraits by Cooper, and its sketchy nature suggests that it was probably conceived as a preparatory work for the medalist Thomas Simon (1618-1665), maker of an extraordinary series of Protectorate coins and medals. As such, the likeness was not designed to be reproduced in variants and repetitions like Cooper’s other portraits of Cromwell. It is perhaps the rarest painted image of Cromwell taken during the Protectorate.

Profile portrait miniatures were extremely unusual in the seventeenth century and, almost without exception were produced for other purposes such as coins and medals. Writing in 1938, Derek Allen stated that “the number of profile miniatures by Cooper is excessively small. I have only been able to trace some six such drawings…one must wonder therefore whether all such profile miniatures were not done with a view to their use for coins and medals. None have yet turned up which represent anyone except the Protector and his family or Charles II, people whom one might legitimately expect to be represented on medals.”

The relationship between Samuel Cooper and the Thomas Simon has long been established. There exists a portrait medal of Elizabeth Claypole, Cromwell’s daughter, copied “curl by curl” from the miniature by Cooper. The Royal Collection also houses two profiles of Charles II by Cooper, which Katharine Gibson has reasoned were produced for Thomas Simon in order to replace, with great haste, the Commonwealth currency after the Restoration. In the case of Cromwell, he had allowed Thomas Simon to model him from the life early on in his role as Protector but became increasingly reluctant to sit for him. It may therefore have been necessary to use Cooper, one of the very few artists who had access to Cromwell’s person (and furthermore his complete trust), to provide sketches. Although it is uncertain which medal relates to this miniature, it has been suggested that it is the basis for ‘The Lord Protector Medal’, struck by Simon in 1653.

The present miniature relates to two other versions associated with Cooper. The most significant version is an unfinished profile in the National Portrait Gallery. For a long time this was attributed to Susannah Penelope Rosse (c.1655-1700), the skilled daughter of the miniaturist Richard Gibson, who regularly made high-quality copies of Cooper’s work. However, the NPG version is now catalogued as ‘attributed to Cooper’.

If the NPG example is to be associated more directly with Cooper, then the presence of two versions by Cooper may be explained by his working practice of taking two initial portraits of his most important sitters. The pair of sketched profile portraits in the Royal Collection of Charles II is perhaps the most obvious example of such a practice. Cooper would take an ad vivum sketch of his most important subjects, which he would then repeat. The ‘repeat’ would retain all the esteemed qualities of the first sketch, the highly valued immediacy which John Murdoch coined “the flash of mutual regard between men of genius” , but would be subtly reworked. This perhaps explains the uncertainty surrounding the attribution of the version at the National Portrait Gallery, which is most likely to be the ‘reworked’ version of this ad vivum profile. This would also explain the subtle differences between the two sketches. The flattened face of the NPG version could be said to have lost something of the character of the ad vivum version, but would be more useful in terms of transference to a medal. The strong, dark line running down the profile would also have assisted Simon in his accurate conveyance of the Protector. In the NPG version the hair is worked into clear, separate clumps, ending with a neat curl, whereas the in the present version one is presented with the unbrushed hair of a harried and busy man.

The second repetition of the profile likeness is the larger, monochrome sketch in the Devonshire Collection at Chatsworth, which has long been catalogued as by Cooper. However, this example has now been reassessed as an eighteenth century copy after Cooper, not only because of its inferior quality but also because the dimensions and medium are unlike those used by Cooper, and indeed any major miniaturist working in the seventeenth century.

The Chatsworth example may, however, have an important bearing on the provenance of the present miniature. The Chatsworth example was first recorded by the antiquarian George Vertue (1684-1756). In his notebooks, Vertue records handling:

‘a small head a limning by Cooper. a profil of Oliver Cromwell. finely done only the head finish about this bigness belonging to the Duke of Devonshire boorow’d to Coppy by Mr. Richter who has done it very justly for Mr Howard in whose hands I see it.’

Intriguingly, Vertue’s recorded observations about the profile do not seem to match the portrait now residing at Chatsworth. Firstly, Vertue describes the profile as a ‘limning’, whereas in fact the Chatsworth profile is painted on card, not vellum and is a plain black and white sketch, not a finished ‘limning’ or miniature. He also describes it as ‘finely done’, which would suggest a more subtle, finished miniature than the loose sketch at Chatsworth today. Finally, Vertue recorded the size of the miniature in the form of a quick sketch in the margins of his notebook, and that sketch does not match the Chatsworth profile, which shows Cromwell in armour and is much larger, at 3 1/8in. high. However, while Vertue’s sketch does not match the NPG version, it is almost identical to the present miniature (1 3/8in. high). It is not inconceivable therefore, that having borrowed the original profile by Cooper to copy it, Christian Richter failed to return the correct miniature to Chatsworth. Furthermore, Vertue also concluded that the miniature was “in all probability…done for the coins. towards the latter end of his [Cromwell’s] days. & from this very picture Simons [Thomas Simon] made his dyes-of the crown &c.”

Unlike both the Chatsworth or NPG variants, the present miniature has always been unquestionably given to Cooper himself. It certainly displays many of the artist’s unique characteristics, including the unblended red-brown paint used to describe the contours of the face and the lack of stipple so prevalent in the work of his contemporary limners.

The profile is delicate as though it has been taken as an ad vivum sketch, not yet worked up into a detailed miniature. It can therefore be included in the extremely small group of profile portraits in which Cooper, as “the prince of limners of this age”, was able to rise above political matters. As an ad vivum portrait of Cromwell it is an important addition to an even smaller group. Moving seamlessly from Cromwell the puritanical regicide to the indulgent pomp of the new King, Cooper justified his status as an internationally renowned miniaturist. In his profile sketches, he treated his diametrically-opposed subjects with the same penetrating scrutiny, stripping both of their worldly accoutrements to give the viewer an insight into the ‘true man’, qualities which, through the skill of Thomas Simon, were then successfully reproduced in images seen more widely throughout the country.
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