Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait miniature of a Lady wearing a double sable fur tippet with jewelled clasp 

Samuel Cooper (1609-72)

Portrait miniature of a Lady wearing a double sable fur tippet with jewelled clasp, Samuel Cooper
Watercolour on vellum
17th Century
Oval, 54mm (2 1/8 inches) high
Mrs. Christine Joan Villiers
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Samuel Cooper was the greatest miniaturist at work in Britain in the seventeenth century, and arguably the finest in all Europe. John Aubrey called him 'The Prince of Limners', while Charles Beale described him as 'the most famous limner of the world for a face'. He easily commanded more for his commissions than the leading larger-scale artists of the day, and his reputation spanned the Continent even during the uncertainties of the Protectorate. When Charles II returned from exile in 1660, for example, he sat to Cooper within just ten days. Perhaps a more impressive sign of Cooper's ability to capture likeness and character can be seen in Louis XIV's desire to buy his portrait of Oliver Cromwell. As Walpole said, 'his works are history.'

Cooper's early training was under the guardianship of his uncle, John Hoskins, with whom he collaborated in portrait commissions. He was also undoubtedly influenced by, and knew, Sir Anthony Van Dyck (Cooper painted his mistress, Margaret Lemon). Cooper's partnership with Hoskins did not last long, however, and by about 1642 he was working on his own. By this time, it seems, he had travelled abroad, spoke several languages and was by all accounts a cultured and charismatic man. Cosimo III de Medici described him as, 'a tiny man, all wit and courtesy, as well housed as Lely, with his table covered with velvet'.

By 1650, Cooper was working for the Cromwell family, and portraying the leading figures of the Commonwealth. Clients were often expected to wait months to obtain a sitting. The sitter in this newly discovered miniature of 1653 is unknown. However, uniquely in Cooper's oeuvre, she is shown with an intricately rendered fur, in this case a sable. The sable's mouth forms part of a clasp for an elaborate jewel, and a second sable's head can be seen behind the jewel, over the sitter’s shoulder. A jewelled sable would have been an expensive item, and indeed in the previous century sable was only allowed (under sumptuary laws) to be worn by royalty, and nobles above a certain rank. Although worn furs may have been going out of fashion by the mid-seventeenth Century, the time and skill required to paint the sable here with such fidelity strongly suggests that the commission must have been one of Cooper's more expensive, and that the sitter was perhaps a significant figure in Commonwealth society.

Candidates for the sitter may include members of the Cromwell family, for whom Cooper was mainly working in 1653. Oliver Cromwell's father-in-law, Sir James Bourchier, was a furrier, and while the sitter here is too young to be Cromwell's wife, Elizabeth (1598-1665), it is possible that the sitter may be one of Bourchier’s other daughters. Unfortunately, uncertainty over the iconography of Cromwell’s own daughters and daughters-in-law rules out, for now, any speculation that the sitter may have been a more immediate member the Protector’s family

We are grateful to Professor Aileen Ribeiro for her analysis of the sitter’s costume.
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