Flemish-born Michael Rysbrack is considered to be one of the most talented sculptors of mid-18th Century England. He combined the animation of the Flemish late baroque tradition with a sensitivity for the newly popular classicism, and had a prodigious working career which spanned nearly fifty years. His reputation waned somewhat in the early 19th Century, when critics such as Thomas Banks referred to English sculpture of the 18th Century as a 'torrent of false taste', the impurities of which had been filtered out by the neo-classical style. However, the sheer quality of Rysbrack's numerous terracottas and marbles, many of which remain today in the possession of the families for whom they were commissioned, ensured his rehabilitation as an artist of the first order.
Although the attribution of the present model to Rysbrack is completely accepted among scholars, remarkably little is known about the origins of this particular bust of Cromwell. It corresponds exactly to a terracotta version, today in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich (illustrated in Baker, op. cit., fig. 104), which seems to have been bought by Rysbrack's patron, Sir Edward Littleton, in one of Rysbrack's sales of the late 1760s (14 February 1767, lot 61). In another of these sales (Langford and Son, 1765, op. cit.), lots 74 and 75 are listed as bronze busts of Cromwell and Newton. The present bust, which was sold together with a pendant bust of Newton in 1967 (Christie's; The remaining contents of Cornbury Park, Charlbury, Oxfordshire, Sold by order of the Trustees and Beneficiaries of the Late O.V. Watney, Esq.) therefore almost certainly represents the bust of Cromwell which was sold from Rysbrack's own sale in the 18th Century. It is a beautiful quality cast of this heroic portrait of the 17th Century soldier and politician.
Although the appearance of the present bust, with the pendant bust of Newton, is first recorded with certainty in the collection of O.V. Watney, there is an interesting possibility that it passed to him from the collection of the Earls of Portsmouth. Watney's mother, Lady Margaret, was a daughter of the 5th Earl of Portsmouth. In the 18th Century the Portsmouths had acquired, by marriage to a great-niece of Sir Isaac Newton, Rysbrack's celebrated marble version of the bust of Newton mentioned above, along with a number of other Newton-related items . It is therefore possible that the Portsmouths had, at one time, also owned the bronze version of the bust of Newton - along with the present bust of Cromwell - and that the two passed through the family to Watney through his mother.