About the artwork
The central figure in this painting is Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658). After his death Cromwell gained a highly negative reputation as a ruthless tyrant. It was not until the publication of Thomas Carlyle’s 'The Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell' in 1845 that this image of him began to change. Carlyle (1795-1881) was one of the most influential essayists and historians of the nineteenth century. He focused on Cromwell’s positive achievements and portrayed him as a self-made man and a reformer of passionate moral conviction. Cromwell became the hero of the reformers, liberals and new men of nineteenth-century England.
Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893) was enormously impressed by Carlyle’s books. In 1855 he referred enthusiastically to Carlyle as a ‘glorious kind hearted old chap’ and ‘sage teacher.’ From this time onwards the historian’s name appears several times in Brown’s diary and he included a portrait of him in Work (1852-1863, Manchester City Art Gallery), one of his most important paintings. Brown read 'The Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell' in the early 1850s when he was suffering from severe melancholy. Inspired by Carlyle’s reassessment of Cromwell Brown began composing this painting in 1853. He first made a small watercolour of the subject (now in Manchester City Art Gallery) choosing to show Cromwell on his farm in St Ives in 1630 before the first Civil War when he too was suffering from low spirits. In fact, Brown so revered Cromwell that he named his first born son Oliver.
However, it was not until 1873 that William Brockbank, a Mancunian Pre-Raphaelite patron commissioned Brown to complete the picture for £400. Cromwell is shown sitting on his horse. In one hand he holds an oak sapling, symbolic of moral strength and his future power, and in the other he holds a book of common prayer. In the distance behind him stands his wife and child whilst all around him farm activities are taking place. However, he is lost in a religious trance pondering over the Bible passages: ‘Lord, how long? Wilt thou hide Thyself for ever?’ ‘And shall thy wrath burn like fire?’ after coming across a patch of burning stubble. He is oblivious to the noise around him including the maid shouting him for dinner, the squealing pigs and the large herd of cows behind him. Carlyle and Brown were both interested in exploring the lives of ordinary people in the past. For this reason Brown made sure to include farm workers and a domestic servant in the painting as well as the future Lord Protector.
Brown liked to research his paintings thoroughly. He used the latest sourcebooks to find the correct historical costumes and accessories. He even made a trip to St Ives using Carlyle’s work as a guide book. In June 1873 he stayed with his close friend Dante Gabriel Rossetti in Kelmscott Manor, Oxfordshire. The countryside was similar to that around St Ives and allowed him to paint directly on to the canvas from nature. The artist designed the frame and included the two related Bible passages as part of the decoration. The painting was completed in a year and first shown at the Royal Manchester Institution in 1874 where it was enthusiastically received by the critics.