November Artwork of the Month: Bust of Oliver Cromwell

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02 November 2015

Artwork of the month: Between 28 October and 9 November 1647, after the defeat of King Charles I in the first hostilities of the Civil War, representatives of Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army and radical Levellers met in a church in Putney to debate on the constitution and future of England. These became known as the ‘Putney Debates’ and are considered one of the central events in the development of our democracy.

There was much to discuss: who should be eligible to vote, civil liberties and religious freedom. The debates were inconclusive, but the ideas aired in Putney had a considerable influence on centuries of political thought.

Parliament had negotiated with the Scottish Presbyterian army for custody of Charles I, whom the Scots had captured at Newark.  With Charles I safely in captivity, the Parliamentarians under Oliver Cromwell were eager to negotiate a settlement to the conflict. 

The Levellers, and their followers, argued that, in the words of Colonel Thomas Rainsborough, ““For really I think that the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he…every man that is to live under a Government ought first by his own consent put himself under that Government.”  Universal male suffrage was a key part of their proposals, which was opposed by Cromwell and his followers.  They believed that the franchise should be confined only to those men who owned property, who, in their eyes, had a stake in the future of the kingdom.

Cromwell wound up the debates and members of the New Model Army were returned to their regiments. The Army was needed now more than ever as a second civil war threatened. Charles I evaded his captors on November 11th and the Levellers’ demands went unmet.

This marble bust of Oliver Cromwell is situated in Parliament’s Lower Waiting Hall. In 1899, Lord Rosebery drew attention to the calm feeling towards it being placed in the very heart of the Houses of Parliament, in contrast to the ‘furore’ aroused by William Hamo Thornycroft’s famous Cromwell statue outside the Palace. Along with other works of art, the Cromwell bust was removed from the Palace for safe keeping during the war. It was temporarily transferred to the Piccadilly Underground in 1939.

The early history of the bust is unknown. A sale at Christie’s in 1893 attributed it to the renowned sculptor, Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini. The bust was bought by Charles Wertheimer for 1000 guineas and presented by him to Parliament in 1898. The ascription to Bernini was later found to be indefensible on both stylistic and historic grounds. Bernini was expressly forbidden by the Pope to execute any busts of Englishmen, other than the King.

The bust’s support was commissioned in 1898 by Wertheimer and bears the Protectorate Arms, copied from the Great Seal of the Republic under Cromwell, and the motto ‘Pax quaeritur bello’ (peace is sought in war).

The sculpture bears some resemblance to the 1672 bronze bust of Cromwell by Edward Pierce at the Museum of London, in turn based either on Cromwell’s life-mask or funeral effigy. Many 18th century cult busts of Cromwell were made, probably during the period between the Jacobite rebellions. They were based on Pierce’s posthumous marble bust.  Further electrotype copies were made in the 19th century after the invention of the electroform process and the publication of Thomas Carlyle’s ‘Cromwell’ in 1845.

As part of a year-long series of events commemorating Parliament in the Making, the Putney Debates are one of 18 subjects interpreted by contemporary artists for a large-scale banner exhibition currently on display in Westminster Hall.

Image: ‘Bust of Oliver Cromwell 1599-1658 Lord Protector’, carrara marble bust by unknown sculptor, c.18th c. (WOA S28)

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