Painted by Enoch Seeman c.1740 this image of Edmund Waller is taken from the portrait completed by Cornelius Johnson in 1629 (private collection). Seeman, a successful London based portraitist, appears to occasionally have made copies of historic portraits for clients, either to complete sets of ancestors where some were missing or for decorative reasons. Waller, along with other writers such as Addison, Chaucer and Milton were favourite images to have for libraries in large houses, and it was, no doubt, for this reason that the present portrait was commissioned. Other versions based on Johnson’s original exist, notably at the Senate House Library, University of London (Chesterfield House version) and Christchurch Art Gallery, New Zealand.
The most famous series created of this type was by the Earl of Chesterfield at Chesterfield House, London, where the images of Britain’s literary geniuses looked down upon visitors who entered the library. If unable to procure the original of any portrait that he needed for the collection Chesterfield happily commissioned artists to complete the gaps. “Plaster statues were planned by Christopher Wren as a `noble ornament’ for the stall ends of the library at Trinity College, Cambridge, though busts of ancient and modern authors were used instead. Influenced by this example, gentleman began to dignify their personal libraries with busts and paintings. The Earl of Halifax helped to make this fashion de rigueur, and one of the finest suites…belonged to Lord Chesterfield, who furnished his library with twenty-two portraits of poets” (Thomas F. Bonnell, `The Most Disreputable Trade: Publishing the Classics of English Poetry 1765-1810′, OUP, 2008 p13).
Like Chesterfield, Edward Harley, 2nd Earl of Oxford also spent enormous sums on creating one of the finest libraries in England at Wimpole Hall, and to augment it he chose to adorn the walls with appropriate portraits. These were noble pursuits and as such the present portrait probably came from an important private library, though this earlier provenance unfortunately remains unclear.
Renowned as one of the outstanding poets of the seventeenth century Edmund Waller was born in March 1606 at Coleshill, Buckinghamshire, the eldest son of a wealthy landowner. Educated at Eton, King’s College, Cambridge and Lincoln’s Inn, he was elected to Parliament at the young age of 16, and became a noted orator, said by John Aubrey to have possessed “a great mastership of the English Language”. Aged 21, Waller inherited an estate estimated to be worth up to £3,500 a year, and in July 1631 he added to his personal fortune by marrying a wealthy London heiress. After she died in childbirth in 1634, he then courted unsuccessfully the daughter of the 2nd Earl of Leicester, Dorothy Sidney, referred to in many of his poems as `Sacharissa’, with perhaps the most famous verse featuring her being `At Penshurst’.
In the escalating political situation Waller tried to maintain a moderate course between the King and his opponents but when conflict became inevitable he sided with the King. In 1643 he was involved in an abortive conspiracy, known as “Waller’s Plot”, to oust the Parliamentary rebels and to secure London for the Monarch. When discovered, Waller was arrested and brought before Parliament. Confessing and pleading for mercy, his freedom lay in bribes and the betrayal of his co-conspirators. Forced into exile Waller lived in Paris, travelling occasionally in Italy and Switzerland, until 1652 when he was allowed back to England. He returned to Parliament and once again found royal favor at the Restoration living until his eighty second year.
Waller was a celebrated poet and wit in his lifetime and many of his poems had long circulated in manuscript before the 1645 publication of his `Poems’. By the eighteenth century his writing was hugely influential and highly esteemed with John Dryden noting that Waller “first made writing easily an art”; Alexander Pope acknowledging him as a master poet; and the `Biographia Britannica’ (1766) calling him “the most celebrated lyric poet that ever England produced.” Small wonder then, that his portrait was sought by aristocratic admirers and at the time considered just as important as possessing Shakespeare’s image.