Oliver Cromwell - warts and all (learning from the Old Masters)


Oliver Cromwell famously insisted on being depicted 'warts and all'. This portrait, by Sir Peter Lely (1618-1680), painted in 1654, demonstrates that Cromwell's ideal was not so dissimilar from what portrait painters were already doing. Although most of the people purchasing portraits will always have done so with a fair degree of what we would today call vanity — rather like getting personalised number plates for your car — painters themselves were drawn to unusual figures. Pieter Brueghel's depictions of peasants, for example, or Jeroen Bosch's famous depiction of Christ carrying the cross, shows the degree to which painters have looked for distinctive faces.

Lely probably thought that his 'boat had come in' (as we say in Flemish, and no doubt he did too, since his original name was Pieter van der Faes) when Cromwell instructed him to paint 'warts and all'. Here was the single most remarkable political figure of the past thousand years, a man who overthrew the king, and, instead of making himself the new king, proclaimed a commonwealth, desiring not to be modelled as a god, which was the pattern of the Roman emperors, nor as an athlete, like many of the portraits of Robert Dudley, Elizabeth I's favourite, nor yet as a man of exquisite manners and sensibilities, in the way that Charles I and later Charles II insisted on being represented.

You may not be able to see it in the rather poor lighting I had to capture this image (more paintings presented under glass, after the lamentable British tradition), but Cromwell has a big wart between his mouth and his chin. He looks downwards, and to our right, not quite along his nose, but as if he has seen something which troubles him, and demands his attention.

Cromwell is presented in this picture in a combination of a puritan's humble collar, and the plate steel cuirass which he wore into battle as captain of his Ironsides. The light glinting off it takes the eye to the point of intersection with his gaze, which is just on the edge of the picture, inside the artificial frame. What is Cromwell looking at? We will never know, but it is part of the mystery and compulsion of this particular picture.

As photographers, we face many of the same problems that Lely and his contemporaries faced. Someone commissions a portrait. Good. How do they want to look? They may say 'photograph me as I am', but when they arrive in the studio, they have had their hair elaborately done, make-up is perfect, clothes are their best (not always the most flattering) — evidently, what they are saying is "make me look very good indeed — I want to believe that that's the real me". Or, alternatively, you turn up at their place of work, and are shown into a sumptuous office, which has evidently been tidied and polished for your visit. A variety of trophies and awards are neatly displayed on the shelf. The sitter wants them in the picture, whether they make photographic sense or not. Again, the words say 'warts and all', but the actions speak louder.

Meanwhile, we are fiddling with the lights (always an issue when you go on location), which are stubbornly refusing to work, checking the camera settings, finding the focus, setting the aperture, attempting to get the person to pose in a natural stance for them. By the time we are ready to take the shot, we are nervous, and so is the sitter. The temptation is very great at that point to play it safe, and capture a pleasing image, rather than a revealing one. But portraiture is all about revealing the person — and simply clicking the shutter with them present does not automatically catch them in a characteristic way.

Cromwell, as I say, must have been a relatively easy prospect. He really did want the wart painted (how many of us would have felt tempted to remove that particular facial feature?), he chose to put on his armour along with his puritan collar, he looks pensive, rather than triumphant. Of course, he was also a man who had personally killed many, had led the regicides, and was more than capable of making his displeasure felt…

What do we take away from this painting? It (and others like it) are iconic. Like Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Charles II, anyone who knows English history can instantly identify them from their pictures. We might struggle rather more with King John, Richard III, Henry V, and William the Conqueror. Very few people could identify any of Charles II's successors from their pictures, right up until the time of Victoria, another iconic portrait sitter. 

To a very large extent, Cromwell knew exactly what he wanted in his portrait. We can imagine him turning up, on time, ready dressed, standing patiently while the painter made the preliminary sketches, and then leaving until the next session. Probably a dummy was used to support his clothes in the mean time for reference purposes, but Cromwell is on record as exactly describing the stye that he wanted. Far from depriving Lely of the freedom to paint the way he wanted to, the discipline enabled him to create a masterpiece and an icon.

Understanding what the sitter really wants is crucial to a portrait which is art, rather than merely a piece of optical flattery. The portrait of John Ash, the first in this blog series, flatters by surrounding him with his accomplishments. Cromwell, whose battles are still famous, does not have a background of smoking buildings, or the palace of Westminster. Simplicity is his goal. 

Last time we talked about the importance of a preliminary study before going on to extensive postprocessing. This reflects the practice of the portrait painters — first a sketch, then the portrait. But we would be wise to also invest in an intensive conversation with the sitter before they ever sit for the portrait, perhaps in a format similar to how a journalist would interview them. There are three key things to be understood: first, what the sitter is really like. Second, what they think they are like, and, third, how they want others to think of them as a result of the portrait. Not every beautiful woman wants to be photographed as if she were a model. Not every athlete wants the focus to be on his physique. These are stereotypes we easily fall into. It is up to us, as portraitists, to climb out of them.

Not everyone should be painted warts and all. But every sitter deserves to be represented in the way that they see themselves being seen by others — modified a little, if you will, by how you, the artist, perceive them.