Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Elizabeth Cromwell, Mrs Claypole (1629-58), 1658 

John Michael Wright (1617–1694)

Portrait of Elizabeth Cromwell, Mrs Claypole (1629-58), 1658, John Michael Wright
Oil on oak panel
17th Century
20 x 17 ½ in (50.7 x 44.3 cm)
Probably Weston Collection, West Horsley Surrey 1767; Private Collection USA
Probably Horace Walpole's Journals of Visits to Country Seats Walpole Society Vol. XVI p.61 Hence David Piper Catalogue of the seventeenth century portraits in the National Portrait Gallery Cambridge University Press 1963 p.73
Version National Portrait Gallery London NPG 952 (Signed)

Upon the death of his sister Elizabeth on August 6th 1658, Richard Cromwell wrote: ''It is one thing to have the greatest bough lopt off, but when the axe is laid to the root, then there is no hope remaining such was our real fear.''

He recognised that despair at this premature death might well do lasting harm to Oliver Cromwell, who was devastated by the loss of this his favourite child. The poet Andrew Marvell noted how the Protector gave up public business during the crisis of his daughter's illness in July 1658, and how, ''She lest he grieve, hides what she can her pains,
And he, to lessen hers, his sorrow feigns.''1

Cromwell was hard hit by her death, and some nine days later the Quaker leader George Fox records seeing Cromwell at Hampton Court, where he ''saw and felt a waft of death go forth against him that he looked like a dead man.'' On September 3rd, the anniversary of the Battle of Dunbar, Oliver Cromwell died.

This highly unusual portrait - it was certainly produced posthumously, most probably after the death not only of its subject but also of her father - appears at first glance to be a conventional allegorical portrait of a young woman. The portrait clearly displays an emblematic programme of some complexity, which one might expect to be an encomium of its subject, and an allusion to her beauty and virtue. Curiously it is nothing of the kind, and touches on Mrs Claypole only by association. The entire programme, instead, may be read as a panegyric of her father the late Protector.

It is suggested that Mrs Claypole is shown in a cuirass as Minerva, goddess of wisdom and daughter of Jupiter. Certainly the cameo that Mrs Claypole wears at her breast is in the traditional position of Minerva's aegis, although where that depicts the face of Medusa, this example shows the profile of Oliver Cromwell. The excusable linking of Cromwell with Jupiter is reinforced by the relief against which she is leaning, which represents Jupiter armed with his thunderbolts. This stele is topped by two unusual objects, the obsidian crown, that was awarded to Roman generals who had been victorious in battle, and the mural crown given to a general who had captured a city. Either of these awards would have been fitting for Cromwell, and might have marked his victories over the Royalists, the Scots, the Irish and the Dutch. That Minerva is depicted in the very act of emerging from her father''s skull, makes explicit the connection that is suggested between the families of Cromwell and Olympus.

Behind the stone rises an olive tree, an obvious play on the family name, and perhaps incorporated by Wright following the allegorical programme of Louis de Gand's Parallelum Olivae Nec Non Olivarii… (1656) (The full title is worth quoting in translation, as it gives an indication of the royal style that Cromwell had appropriated: The Equation of the Olive and Oliver by the Grace of God the Most Serene, Most High and most Puissant Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland). Wright owned this book, although it is not certain whether he had acquired it by the date of this painting. The thematic arrangement of the frontispiece engraved by William Faithorne is not unlike that of this painting. It groups Minerva - driving her spear into the ground from which springs an olive branch - with Neptune, tutelary deity of Britain''s naval victories, whilst in a compartment below a coastal scene with warships alludes perhaps to Cromwell's most famous victory, the combined operations at Dunbar in July 1650. It is likely that this is the intended reference in the present case also.

There is a dolorous cast to the imagery, however. It is difficult - as some have1 - to see in the ships the suggestion of a wreck, and thus the shipwreck of state that Oliver's death portends, and the ruin of John Claypole's personal hopes that lies in the deaths both of his sovereign and his wife. Clearly, though, the occlusion of the sun intimates waning and death. It is also suggested that the mural crown refers not only to military victory, but also - as the small tower attribute of Saint Barbara - to chastity. Similarly it has been suggested that the olive may be taken also as a laurel, which is an attribute of Matrimonial Chastity, according to the precepts of Cesare Ripa''s Iconologia.2

The iconography tends towards a surprising end. It is not enough to recognise that it is a posthumous and mourning image. It becomes apparent that it is a memorial less of its sitter, than of her father and -perhaps - the best part of the Good Old Cause that he was believed to embody. When this painting was executed in late 1658, it must have been apparent to most in the Protector's circle that without Cromwell himself, much of the impetus and power of English Republicanism had been lost forever. It had been a revolutionary movement, and its initial appeal had been sufficient in contrast to what was seen as a capricious and arbitrary royal government. But without the staying hand of its founder the Republican Experiment was doomed. Only the force of Oliver Cromwell's personality could animate a system which lacking an instinctive emotional appeal to Englishmen, and without the authority of tradition to sustain it, soon seemed alien and unappealing. The elegiac tone of the painting shows the recognition of the patron, most probably John Claypole, that the world in which he has achieved such prominence is passing away. It is worth remembering that the unchristian vocabulary used in this lament is entirely compatible with contemporary religious sensibilities. The majority of educated Puritans saw no contradiction between their religious orthodoxy and the employment of pagan mythology as the standard expression of their duties towards state and family.

It is apparent in his painting - and in earlier elements of his career, such as his antiquarian employment in the service of the Emperor - that Wright was fascinated by complicated visual allusions and symbolism. This rather old-fashioned preoccupation is noticeable in the busy canvasses of later works such as Sir Neil O'Neil, or King Charles II in Coronation robes, and one feels that Wright was mentally more in sympathy with the painters of half a century before his time. The use of portentous emblems contrives to give his paintings their ghostly, ''otherwordly'' quality, a yearning to communicate what might be discerned only by the erudite.

At the base of the relief there is an inscription which provides the key to this allegory. The words Ab Iove principium are taken from Virgilian elegy (Eclogues 60: Ab Iove principium, Musae: Iovis omnia plena) and make explicit the origin of this family in, and thus the identification of Oliver Cromwell with Jupiter. The referents are flexible, however, and this divine root may also be interpreted - simultaneously - as an allusion to the godly morality that is the Cromwell keystone.

The human feeling that is perhaps lacking in this portrait, which concentrates more on Elizabeth Claypole''s political rather than her personal importance, was less absent from her relations with her father in life. She was the youngest but one of her father's four daughters, and was often described as his favourite. Later writers have been keen to detect in her a more giving heart than Oliver's and she is popularly credited with interceding on behalf of the Protector''s enemies. ''How many of the royalist prisoners got she not freed? How many did not she save from death whom the laws had condemned?'' asks Carrington3.

The truth of this is disputed - a correspondence suggests that Mrs Claypole was eager to believe the innocence of one who plotted against her father - and she was exceedingly conscious of her new dignity. Captain Titus writes to Edward Hyde, the future Chancellor, then in exile on the Continent, of a wedding reception at which the Major Generals had been present but without their wives. ''The feast wanting much of its grace by the absence of those ladies, it was asked by one there where they were. Mrs Claypole answered, I''ll warrant you washing their dishes at home as they use to do. This hath been extremely ill taken, and now the women do all they can with their husbands to hinder Mrs Claypole from being a princess.''4

In 1648 Elizabeth Cromwell married John Claypole (c.1623 - 1688), the eponymous son of a ship money defaulter whom Cromwell had raised to a baronetcy. The younger Claypole had fought on the Parliamentary side at the battle of Newark in 1645 - 46, and in 1651 was engaged in raising soldiers to oppose the march of King Charles II into England from Scotland. From this time his role becomes more prominent at the Cromwellian court, and he earned some credit during this period in opposing in Parliament any institutionalising of the powers of the Major Generals. Certainly he was far from the stereotype of a puritan. He is described as ''a debauched ungodly cavalier,'' and as one ''whose qualifications not answering to those honest principles formerly so pretended of putting none but godly men into places of trust, was for a long time kept out.''5

Claypole was devoted to the Cromwell family, but he was not imprisoned at the Restoration, and was allowed to retire into private life. He kept his ungodly pleasures - Pepys records his ownership of a particular fast-running footman6 - but he also provided shelter for the late Protector's widow, Elizabeth his mother-in-law. This devotion, personal and political, to the Cromwells is the motive behind this painting's remarkably eloquent expression of loss.

The descent of this painting through the seventeenth century is unclear. The signed version in the National Portrait Gallery entered the Pelham collection at Stanmer in the mid-eighteenth century, most probably by descent from Lady Frankland, Mrs Claypole''s niece. It was familiar to Horace Walpole, who was a friend of Thomas Pelham, the husband of Lady Frankland''s granddaughter. At a further house, West Horsley in Surrey, the seat of Mr Weston, he notices a further version, identical save in its lack of a signature: Mrs Claypole with several emblems by Michael Wright.7 Since this is the only other eyewitness account of a second version of Wright's Mrs Claypole there is considerable reason to suspect that the present paining and the Weston painting are the same.

1. Andrew Marvell Blake''s Victory On the Victory Obtained by Blake over the Spaniards in the Bay of Santa Cruz, in the Island of Tenerife, 1657

2. Cesare Ripa Iconologia 1592

2. S. Carrington, Life and Death of his most Serene Highness Oliver, &c. 1659, p. 264

3. Clarendon State Papers, iii. 327; cited in Dictionary of National Biography.

4. Mrs Harrison in the Second Narrative of the late Parliament (Harleian Miscellany, iii. 480; cited in Dictionary of National Biography)

5. Diary 10th August 1660

6. Horace Walpole''s Journals of Visits to Country Seats Walpole Society Vol. XVI p.61
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