Paint me ‘Warts and All’

The saying ‘Warts and all’ comes from the time in 1653 when Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell was painted ‘as he was/the whole thing; not concealing the less attractive parts’.

The portrait of Oliver Cromwell by Peter Lely.

Oliver Cromwell (1599 – 1658) served as Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland from 1653 until his death.  This was following the English Civil War (1642-49) in which the Parliamentarians defeated the Royalists led by King Charles I, with Charles eventually being executed.

When in 1653, Cromwell sat for his portrait by Dutch artist Peter Lely, it was common for portraits to flatter the subject by softening or removing any blemishes (like early photoshopping).  Lely’s painting style was, as was usual at the time, intended to flatter the sitter. Royalty in particular expected portraits to show them in the best possible light.

But for Cromwell, there was no better way to distance himself from the vanity and self-indulgence of the monarchy than by having his likeness as accurate as possible.  Cromwell did have a preference for being portrayed as a gentleman of military bearing, as a ‘puritan Roundhead’ rather than a ‘dashing Cavalier’.

When Lely (who had also been the portrait painter to King Charles I), was brought before Cromwell, therefore, he was supposedly told by Cromwell:

“I desire you would use all your skill to paint your picture truly like me… but remark all these roughness, pimples, warts and everything as you see me. Otherwise, I will never pay a farthing for it.”

Lely did just as he was told.

Peter Lily self-portrait.

Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Lely was appointed as Charles II’s ‘Principal Painter in Ordinary’.

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