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painting Portrait of Charles Fleetwood

Object number
Walker, Robert - Artist
Production date
Mid 17th century
Oil Paint
Oil on canvas
Height: 755mmmm
Width: 625mmmm
Height (of frame): 980mmmm
Width (of frame): 860mmmm
    Charles Fleetwood (c 1618 - 92), English Parliamentarian cavalry commander and politician, son-in-law of Oliver Cromwell (1599 - 1658) and nominally Lord Deputy of Ireland 1654 - 1657, led the military junta that seized control of government on the eve of the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Fleetwood aligned himself with the anti-monarchist cause early in the Civil War (1642 - 51). In 1644, he commanded a regiment in the Eastern Association, defending Parliamentarian interests in East Anglia. An Independent Congregationalist, Fleetwood was popular with religious radicals in the army. He became Member of Parliament for Marlborough in 1646. Under the Commonwealth (1649 - 53), following Charles I’s execution, the governorship of Ireland passed to Fleetwood after Henry Ireton’s death in 1651. In 1652, Fleetwood, a widower, married Ireton’s widow, Bridget (d 1662), Cromwell’s eldest daughter. Fleetwood’s administration of the Act of Settlement in Ireland, entailing the transfer of Catholic holdings to Protestant colonists, led to unrest. When the lapsed title of Lord Deputy of Ireland was reintroduced in 1654, Fleetwood adopted it but was recalled the following year and effectively replaced in 1657. Under Cromwell’s Protectorate (1653 - 8), Fleetwood had responsibility for East Anglia during the short-lived Rule of the Major Generals (1655 - 6). He became Commander-in-Chief of the British army in 1659 but the newly reinstated ‘Rump’ parliament withdrew his commission when he resisted their attempts to constrain him. Parliament itself was then ousted by a military regime, headed by Fleetwood. This was widely condemned and Fleetwood’s commission was terminated. Though not accused of regicide, he was obliged to withdraw from public life after the Restoration.

    This bust-length portrait of Fleetwood shows him at the age of about forty, against a subdued, ochre-coloured background. He is wearing armour and is turned to his left, looking back toward the viewer. His ‘buff’ coat, the cavalryman’s customary brown leather tunic, can just be made out behind his right shoulder. Worn by cavalry officers on both sides of the political divide in mid-seventeenth-century England, armour of this kind can be seen equally in portraits of royalists, such as Thomas Wentworth and Edmund Verney, and in those of Fleetwood’s fellow Cromwellians, Henry Ireton and Arthur Haselrig. Although Fleetwood’s appointment as Commander-in-Chief of the army in 1659 might have been the occasion for the painting, it is more convincing as the portrait of a suitor for Cromwell’s widowed daughter in the early 1650s than as the image of a powerful military leader or religious zealot.

    The attribution of the Society’s picture to the English artist Robert Walker (c 1595/1610 - c 1659) goes back at least to Thomas Kerrich’s day and presumably derives from the fact that, in the caption to Houbraken’s published engraving, Walker is cited as the artist responsible for the portrait on which the print was based. Although an alternative ascription to the contemporary English portraitist John Hayls should be noted, the attribution to Walker is plausible. Walker’s self-portrait, in London’s National Portrait Gallery, certainly exhibits qualities also found in Fleetwood’s picture, such as the romantic pose, hollow-cheeked and brightly lit face, dark eyes and freely painted wavy hair.