Samuel Cooper portrays Oliver Cromwell’s Warts and All

Philip Mould & Co. Gallery

November 13 – December 7, 2013

December 6, 2013
by Melisa Thomas
Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper, 1656

The intriguing exhibition at 29 Dover Street, Warts & All takes its title from Oliver Cromwell’s controversial request to be painted realistically as opposed to idealistically.

The exhibition features several seventeenth-century miniature paintings, mainly by Samuel Cooper, who famously painted Cromwell with the prominent wart on his forehead, credited as “Britain’s first internationally celebrated artist”.

It also includes works by contemporary artists such as Cooper’s uncle and mentor John Hoskins the Elder, and Cooper’s cousin John Hoskins the Younger.

Upon entering the gallery, you’re invited to pick up a magnifying glass with which to study the miniatures.  If you look towards the end of the room you can see Sir Peter Lely’s famous painting of Oliver Cromwell and Cromwell’s death mask.

But before you reach these there are a number of miniatures to examine, and each artwork has been annotated with interesting historical and technical information.

The first is a self-portrait of Samuel Cooper (1645) which shows an attractive young man striking a pose, which apparently was intended to pay homage to Anthony van Dyck (who had died four years earlier).

Another notable miniature on display is John Hoskins the Elder’s portrait of Charles I and Henrietta Maria (1636), a copy of van Dyck’s portrait.  This work stands out for its luminous colour and exquisite detail, particularly in relation to the King’s pink sleeves, the cloth of the Queen’s dress, and the bracelet on the arm of the queen.

The caption describing Cooper’s early 1640s portrait of Elizabeth Howard, Countess of Northumberland states that it has been painted with “sketchy dynamic brushstrokes… quite unlike the controlled technique of Hoskins and more akin to the lively unfinished oil portraits of van Dyck”.

However, when a magnifying glass is held over it, the curls of hair are extraordinarily detailed.

Unsurprisingly, the miniatures of Cromwell (including Cooper’s version (c. 1653) complete with the notorious wart) feature by the side of the Lely portrait and death mask of Cromwell at the end of the room.

The second room explains that not only was Cooper commissioned to paint Cromwell and his family in the early 1650s, he was later chosen by Charles II upon his acquisition to the throne in 1660. Cooper was called upon to paint miniature portraits of Charles II, as well as his mistresses and children, as part of the King’s endeavours to establish power and influence during the Restoration period.

In addition to the several miniatures on display, there is a drawing by Cooper – purportedly his “finest surviving drawing” (c. 1650). Its subject, Thomas Alcock, has a similar gaze and stance to many of Cooper’s painted miniatures, but because of the medium used (pencil), it appears softer, and more natural than the paintings.

Many people will of course be attracted by the tantalising prospect of seeing Cooper’s miniature of Cromwell, famous more for the literary expression connected to it than the actual painting.  It is an excellent way to draw people in and introduce them to the subject of seventeenth century miniature painting.

Thanks to the curator’s detailed narrative, it is more than likely visitors will leave the exhibition having learnt something new.