The composition of the present portrait of Oliver Cromwell derives from van Dyck's celebrated portrait of King Charles I on horseback, Charles I with M. de St. Antoine, of 1633 (Royal Collection). Inspiration may have been drawn from Pierre Lombart's print from 1655, which was originally engraved directly from the van Dyck portrait of Charles I, surplanting the head of Cromwell for that of the deposed King.
The audacity and inference of this painterly reversal would not have been lost on contemporaries. Although Oliver Cromwell refused the title of King in 1657, his sovereignty was to many an automatic comparison.
However, the mountainous desert background, punctuated by dramatic rock formations and a fortress town, evokes a distinctly foreign, rather than domestic frame of events, and a classically attired black servant adds to this exoticism, hinting at an Imperialism that extends beyond Britain.
The descent of the present portrait within the Bulwer family at Heydon Hall in Norfolk leads back to the staunch parliamentarian, Erasmus Earle, a successful lawyer and recorder of the city of Norwich, who purchased the estate at Heydon in 1650. In 1648, he had been appointed Serjeant-at-Law, or counsel, to Cromwell, a post he continued to hold under Richard Cromwell. The acquisition of a portrait of the Lord Protector would have been a particularly fitting addition to his personal collection.