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  • image M461

Death mask of Oliver Cromwell


Museum number: M461

Curatorial note

This death mask, almost certainly of Oliver Cromwell, was believed by Soane to be that of the naval mutineer Richard Parker (1767-97). In his 1836 Description of his house and Museum he remarks on the ‘…. striking resemblance … of Parker’s appearance to that of [Oliver] Cromwell’. The death mask is not mentioned in Soane’s earlier 1832 Description, suggesting that he acquired it between the two publication dates.

Parker was the son of an Exeter baker, who began training for a naval career at the age of 12. He played a leading role in the Mutiny on the Nore of 1797, for which he earned the sarcastic soubriquet ‘Admiral Parker’. Despite at one point blockading the Thames, the mutiny failed. Parker was captured, tried and hanged from the yard-arm of his ship, Sandwich, on 30 June 1797, while his wife watched from a small boat nearby. Parker’s body was initially buried at Sheerness but then secretly retrieved by his wife and taken to London where it was exhibited in the Hoop and Horseshoe tavern near Tower Hill. There was much public interest and a death mask was probably made by William Clift, former assistant to the famous surgeon and collector John Hunter, at that time. Magistrates, fearing public unrest, ordered Parker’s body to be buried and it was reinterred at Whitechapel in July 1797. The death mask remained in Clift’s possession and eventually entered the collection of the Hunterian Museum – on the other side of Lincoln’s Inn Fields at the Royal College of Surgeons, in the late 1940s, where it remains today (Hunterian Museum no.RCSHM/Z 31).

Soane’s acquisition of the death mask reflects his interest in newsworthy events of his own lifetime, although at almost four decades distance. However, in this case he was duped by the seller of the death mask – his is very different to the genuine death mask of Parker and by comparison with other examples is clearly that of the Lord Protector of England who died in 1658. It is a curious thing that such a famous death mask, which would presumably have appealed to Soane in its own right, should have been sold to him with such a convoluted fake history attached to it!

If you have any further information about this object, please contact us: worksofart@soane.org.uk