Samuel Cooper

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Known For:Portrait miniatures

The English artist Samuel Cooper, extolled by the diarist Samuel Pepys as ‘Cooper, the great Limner in miniature’ and by antiquarian and author John Aubrey as ‘The Prince of Limners’, is now widely regarded as the finest portrait miniaturist of the seventeenth century.[1] Although the details of his early life remain fairly obscure, he is thought to have been born in autumn or winter of 1608, believed to be the son of ‘Richard Cowper’ and ‘Barbara Hoskens’ who were married in the parish of Blackfriars in 1607.

Cooper and his younger brother Alexander appear to have been orphaned at an early age and entrusted to the care of their uncle, the miniature painter John Hoskins, from around 1610.[2] If this assertion is correct then it is likely that Cooper received an early professional training as an apprentice under his guardian uncle, perhaps with additional support from Sir Anthony Van Dyck. Cooper emerged in his twenties a fully trained artist of considerable skill, who by the mid-1630s was producing work comparable if not superior to that of his master.[3] Although Hoskins’s established repute and royal associations provided Cooper with abundant commissions among the affluent members of Stuart court, he became increasingly ambitious and responsive to the style of court portraitist Van Dyck, who had begun to exert a noticeable influence on Cooper’s work [Edward Sackville, 4th Earl of Dorset, c.1635, attributed to Samuel Cooper, V&A]. At this early stage he was already borrowing compositional and stylistic devices from Van Dyck’s work and had probably even witnessed him working first hand.

In 1634 Cooper wrote a letter whilst under the supervision of Hoskins and living on Bedford Street, which sheds light on his working methods, his preparation of pigment and colour mixing.[4] It is possible that he left England to travel sometime in the 1630s, visiting his brother Alexander in the Netherlands and perhaps gaining exposure to the work of Dutch masters such as Rembrandt, but the lack of signed and dated work from this period provides insufficient evidence to verify this. We do know that he spoke some French and was regarded as a man of culture by contemporaries.[5]

Cooper established his own practice the year after Van Dyck’s death in December 1641 and owing to his combination of acclaimed artistic talent and shrewd diplomacy, managed to transcend the potential limitations of political bias throughout the Civil War and Interregnum, retaining a wide circle of patrons ranging from military men [Gentleman wearing gilt studded armour, early 1650s, previously with Philip Mould & Company] to politicians and statesmen [Oliver Cromwell c. 1653, previously with Philip Mould & Company], aristocrats [Earl of Northumberland and the Marchioness of Atholl], courtiers [Nell Gwyn], society ladies [Mrs. John Lewis, 1647, previously with Philip Mould & Company] and royalty [James II Duke of York, Queen Catherine of Braganza, and King Charles II, Follower of Samuel Cooper, previously with Philip Mould & Company].

Cooper married Christiana, the daughter of Thomasina and William Turner of Towthorpe, in 1642, and although the marriage was childless they lived happily in a grand residency on Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, from 1650 until his death. Cooper’s working progress was relatively slow as he sought to capture the verisimilitude and individuality of his sitters whilst tacitly conforming to traditional rules of elegance and enhancement that often required up to eight sittings per miniature. Moreover John Evelyn and Pepys both recount the pleasure his clientele derived in witnessing him work, indicating his charisma and mounting celebrity status by this stage. The scale and clandestine nature of his likenesses had particular appeal and relevance in a period of political unrest throughout the 1640s and 1650s, with his life-size portraits and miniatures of notable persons such as Charles II and the Duke of Monmouth proving especially popular.

By 1650 Cooper was employed by the Cromwell family during his parliamentary period, and shortly after his accession in 1660, King Charles II went direct to the artist’s studio for a sitting and beckoned him to join his royal court. His contemporary and rival at court, Sir Peter Lely, even copied his ad vivum miniature of the Lord Protector [Oliver Cromwell, 1653, Collection of the Duke of Buccleuch] to which the phrase ‘warts and all’ was originally attributable. Charles II sat for Cooper soon after his restoration for ‘a crayoning of the King’s face and head, to make the stamps’ for the minting of new coinage.[6] In 1663 Cooper was appointed official limner to the King, enlarging his oval miniatures to 3½ inches and befriending many of his royal subjects, intelligentsia and artistic elite at court thereby bolstering his international reputation.

In May 1672 the portraitist Charles Beale recorded the death of ‘Mr Samuel Cooper, the most famous limner in the world for a face’; he died at the pinnacle of his artistic supremacy whilst residing in his fine residency on Henrietta Street in Covent Garden.[7]


[1]P. Hunt, Samuel Pepys in the Diary, (Pennsylvania, 1958), p. 85.

[2] J. Murdoch The English Miniature, (London, 1982), p. 105. There are no firm dates for their death so it may be that they in fact relinquished the responsibility of raising their two sons.

[3] B. Buckeridge, The Art of Painting…To which is added, An Essay towards an English School, (3rd edn of 1754; from 1969 Cornmarket facimile), pp. 364-6. De Piles remarked upon the relationship between master and apprentice alluding to the threat felt by Hoskins from his talented trainee whose evident talent was recognised at court where he worked. Hoskins was clearly keen to retain Cooper in his studio to avoid direct competition.

[4] E. Rutherford and B. Grosvenor, Warts and All: The Portrait Miniatures of Samuel Cooper, (London, 2013), p. 13.

[5] J. Murdoch, ‘Cooper, Samuel (1607/8–1672)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.

[6] W. Gaunt, Court painting in England from Tudor to Victorian times, (London, 1980), p. 138. Quote taken from The Diary of John Evelyn (3.309–10).

[7] J. Murdoch, ‘Cooper, Samuel (1607/8–1672)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.