Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) 

Circle of Robert Walker (1599-1658)

Portrait of Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), Circle of Robert Walker
Oil and Canvas
17th Century
30 x 25 inches, 76.2 x 63.5cms
English Private Collection
This portrait is a contemporary replica of Walker’s celebrated likeness of Oliver Cromwell. As with the tradition of royal portraiture before the Civil War, there was great demand for portraits of Cromwell during the interregnum, as a means of displaying political loyalty to the new regime.

The predominant feature of Cromwell’s portraits is their martial spirit, and he is invariably portrayed, as here, in armour. Almost all parliamentarian portraits were defined by a similar military spirit, even if, as in this case, the armour was outdated and unsuited to the actual battles of the Civil War. 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 royalist portraits of the 1630s. That these Van Dyckian poses had previously been 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. Indeed, Robert Walker has been criticised as unoriginal in finding no new idiom to replace the courtly manner of Van Dyck. He is recorded as saying ''if I could do better I would not do Vandickes'', but this must be seen as testament to the all-pervading influence of Van Dyck whose shadow stretched over English painting for over a century after his death.

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 examples 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.
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.