Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Oliver Cromwell (1599 - 1658) 1650s

Thomas Wyck 

Portrait of Oliver Cromwell (1599 - 1658), Thomas Wyck
Oil on canvas
17th Century
35 x 29 1/8 inches 88.9 x 74 cm
The Bulwer family, Haydon Hall, Norfolk
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Although Oliver Cromwell refused the title of king when it was offered to him in 1657, his sovereignty was to many an automatic assumption, and attempts to evoke royal imagery in this unusually elaborate painting of the Protector are abundantly clear.

The sitter, in half armour, decorated with a blue sash and holding a marshal's baton has been placed astride a white charger. Behind him and against a mountainous desert background a classically attired black servant prepares to hand him his helmet. Specifically evoking Van Dyck's 1633 depiction of Charles I on horseback being assisted by his groom, Cromwell assumes the exact pose to that of the King. Both sitters also sport sashes denoting their rank, hold military batons, and fix their feet identically in the stirrups (see illustration).

The reference to Charles I would not have been lost to contemporaries. It is known for certain that Van Dyck's painting was hanging at Hampton Court until 1650 and in the Chair Room at Whitehall hung a smaller sketchy-faced modello until sold in 1649. As there is no evidence to suggest that prints after this portrait of Charles I were in circulation prior to the mid 1650's, it is quite likely that these pictures were accessible to the artist. It must also have been the accessibility of these pictures or studio replicas which provided the source for Pierre Lombart''s 1655 ''Headless Horseman'' print which features the head of Cromwell on the neck of the deposed king. While prints of Cromwell in this notoriously triumphant pose later became common during the interregnum, depictions in oil are extremely rare.

Unlike other equestrian portraits of Cromwell where backgrounds vary from English landscapes to scenes of battle, the setting and flavour of this picture is distinctly North African. Behind the sitter spreads the dusty brown shades of the desert punctuated by rock formations and a fortress town. Additionally, in accordance with the backdrop the artist has chosen to depict Cromwell's servant as a Moor. These images certainly evoke a foreign rather than domestic frame of events and quite probably refer to English military action in the Mediterranean in 1655. It was in April of that year when Cromwell ordered the bombardment of Tunis and successfully brought about the release of English prisoners. Here we have not only an image of Cromwell supplanting the King of England but triumphing over his adversaries abroad. Although the tendency for interregnum painters to employ Royalist poses is well established, this fine portrait of Cromwell in the guise of his usurped and beheaded advisory is one of the most dramatic examples.

Although the picture's provenance can be traced to the Bulwer family at Heydon Hall, Norfolk there is little indication of either the circumstances or of the date when the portrait entered the collection. One likely route is via the connection between the Bulwer and the Earle families in 1756. It was at this date that William Wiggett Bulwer married Mary Earle, the co-heiress of her father's fortune and the great granddaughter of Erasmus Earle (1590 - 1667). Erasmus Earle, who purchased Heydon Hall in the mid-seventeenth century, established himself as a supporter of the Parliamentarian cause while acting as recorder for the city of Norwich. When Cromwell assumed the protectorate in 1653 he appointed Earle as a counsel to the state, an office he continued to hold under Richard Cromwell. As Earle had reached the pinnacle of his career by way of the Cromwell family a portrait which celebrated the victories of the Lord Protector would seem a fitting if not essential inclusion in his collection.
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