Historical Portraits Picture Archive

A self-portrait of Samuel Cooper (1607/8-1672), wearing jacket embroidered with silver lace and white lawn collar 

Matthew Snelling (1621-78)

A self-portrait of Samuel Cooper (1607/8-1672), wearing jacket embroidered with silver lace and white lawn collar, Matthew Snelling
Watercolour on vellum
Oval, 2 7/8 in (62 mm) high
Christie’s, London, 16th November 1976, lot 69
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The identification of the self-portrait by Samuel Cooper in the collection of H.M. the Queen, from which the present portrait is copied, is a relatively recent one. It was first noted in the Royal Collection by George Vertue, who saw it at Kensington Palace in 1734. From at least 1881, the identity of the portrait was lost and it was believed to represent the artist Robert Walker (?1595/1610 - ?1659). That the miniature was a self-portrait was never in doubt – the artist’s position as he looks over his right shoulder is unmistakably that of holding his own gaze. The slightly raised arm emulates the same pose struck by his fellow artist Sir Anthony van Dyck in his final self-portrait of 1640-41.

Snelling was certainly well acquainted with Cooper and the younger man may have been both a patron and admirer of the established artist. The substantial bequest that Snelling received upon the death of his brother in 1641 meant that he had no need to earn a living from his paintings, but was part of a circle of gifted amateur artists who both taught the gentlemanly skill of limning and took on the occasional commission. His London lodgings in Long Acre were a stone’s throw from Cooper’s house in Henrietta Street.

The present work was attributed to Matthew Snelling by Jim Murrell (1934-1994), the conservator of portrait miniatures at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in 1976. Murrell had access to the small collection of Snelling’s miniatures at the museum but also to other works by him in public collections. Like most artists of the period, Snelling’s technique owes a great debt to Cooper’s free brushwork and apes his distinctive brown and ochre palette.

Snelling also dabbled in collecting art, perhaps with a view to dealing in paintings, and is recorded as offering a disrespectfully low price for a painting to the Beale family and on a separate occasion buying a work by the German artist Hans Rottenhamer (1564-1625).

George Vertue describes a portrait by Cooper of Snelling dated 1644 – close in date to Cooper’s own self portrait copied by Snelling here. This portrait of Snelling was described by Vertue as ‘chiaro[scuro]…about 8 inches by 6, finely drawn.’ This was probably one of Cooper’s chalk drawings, of which so few survive. The dimensions are extremely close to the beautiful drawing of Thomas Alcock in black chalk heightened by white on buff paper and dating to circa 1650. The close dating between the two portraits suggests that they may have been exchanged between the two artists. The existence of Snelling’s copy of Cooper’s self-portrait may further indicate that he owned the portrait himself or at least had access to it during Cooper’s lifetime. Again, this is mirrored by the practice of other artists – for example, the copies made by Sir Peter Lely (1618-1680) after Van Dyck’s last self-portrait, which was in his possession until his death. The copy of Cooper’s self-portrait presumably early in Snelling’s practice may pre-date a copy dated 1647 of a Charles I after Van Dyck.

The present work may add a layer of certainty to the self-portrait of Cooper in the Royal Collection, which lost its identity for so long and remains inexplicably absent in any contemporary references to Coopers oeuvre. It is also further evidence of the close relationship between Cooper and Snelling and an insight into the practice of the ‘gentleman amateur’ limner of the mid-seventeenth century.
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