Isaac Fuller

Portrait of an Unknown Man


Not on display

Isaac Fuller c.1606–1672
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1245 × 1022 mm
frame: 1395 × 1203 × 84 mm
Purchased 1955

Display caption

The name of the poet John Cleveland (upper left) was added in the early eighteenth century, when the Earl of Oxford included this painting in his collection of portraits of famous writers. However, the architectural plan suggests that this man was either an architect or an antiquarian.

Isaac Fuller was a portrait and decorative painter who worked in Oxford and London. According to Sir Peter Lely he spent much of his time drinking in London taverns. The harsh drama of this portrait is typical – as is the exaggerated depiction of muscles, possibly learned from his teacher in Paris, François Perrier.

Gallery label, April 2005

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Catalogue entry

Isaac Fuller c.1606/20–1672

Portrait of an Unknown Man
Oil paint on canvas
1245 x 1025 mm
Inscribed ‘JOHN / CLEIVELAND / THE + POET’ top left; ‘FULLER pinxt’ bottom left; ‘Born at Loughborough / MDCXIII / Died at Grays Inn / MDCLVIII’ top right.
Purchased (Cleve Fund) 1955

Ownership history
... ; by 12 September 1724 in the collection of Edward Harley, 2nd Earl of Oxford, at Wimpole; 2nd Earl of Oxford sale, Cock’s, 8–13 March 1741/2, 3rd day (no.36): ‘Mr Cleaveland ditto [half length], by Mr Fuller’, bought James West £1.19.0; James West sale, Langford’s, 31 March–3 April 1773, 3rd day (no.25): ‘Cleveland the poet, an half length’, bought Parsons £6.6.0 for Bishop Percy of Dromore; by descent to Bishop Percy’s daughter, Barbara Isted of Ecton Hall, by whom apparently sold at an unknown date; purchased 1860 by her relative Charles William Anthony Sotheby from the dealer Anthony for £70, and thence by descent to Lieut. Col. H.G. Sotheby; Sotheby sale, Sotheby’s, 12 October 1955 (no.28), bought by Tate Gallery.

Exhibition history
Works of British-Born Artists of the Seventeenth Century, Burlington Fine Arts Club, London 1938 (no.16).

George Vertue, ‘Notebooks I’, Walpole Society, vol.18, 1929, p.138.
Tate Gallery Annual Report, London 1955–6, pp.14–5.
W.K. Wimsatt and F.A. Pottle (eds.), Boswell for the Defence, 1960, p.174.
David Piper, ‘The Development of the British Literary Portrait up to Samuel Johnson’, Proceedings of the British Academy, vol.54, 1968, p.63.
Ellis Waterhouse, Painting in Britain 1530 to 1790, revised edition, 1978, p.89.
David Piper, The Image of the Poet: British Poets and their Portraits, Oxford 1982, p.63.
Catharine MacLeod, ‘Fuller, Isaac’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford 2004,, accessed 15 May 2013.

Although traditionally known as a portrait of the poet John Cleveland (1613–58) and inscribed as such in the top left-hand corner, when the picture was cleaned in the 1960s the identification proved to be false and a deliberate fabrication most probably of the early eighteenth century. When purchased in 1955 the sitter was holding a much smaller scroll, inscribed ‘RECORD SCROLL’. This was removed to reveal an earlier inscription, ‘Rebel Scot’, the title of Cleveland’s well known poem of 1644. It is in this state that the picture appears in Basire’s 1781 engraving, when it was owned by Bishop Percy of Dromore, a descendant of Cleveland. This too, however, transpired to be an alteration and was likewise removed to reveal the picture as originally intended, and as it appears now, with the sitter holding a much larger scroll upon which is an architectural ground plan. Also revealed during cleaning was the large lace band (possibly Venetian) worn by the sitter, a fashion dateable to the late 1650s or early 1660s, which overpaint had reduced to a small white collar more typical of the 1640s. Alterations to both scroll and collar presumably were carried out at the same time, deliberately dating the costume by at least fifteen years to disguise the sitter as Cleveland. The length and naturalness of the sitter’s hair, his fine-line moustache and his shirt sleeves, full at the wrist, remained unaltered, however, all of which are features which support a later dating of the portrait, to c.1661–3.1 It was possibly Bishop Percy, proud to have purchased a portrait of his ancestor (he was descended from Cleveland’s brother William), who added the inscription, on canvas pasted onto board and fixed to the stretcher, claiming that Fuller painted the portrait in Oxford in 1644. This was probably an assumption based on the date of Cleveland’s poem, and Cleveland’s residency in Oxford at that date. Although Fuller certainly had associations with Oxford it was probably not until the 1650s and early 1660s, but until very recently this portrait and its inscription have been used as evidence of Fuller’s presence there in 1644.2

The first firm recording of the picture is 12 September 1724, the date of George Vertue’s first visit to Edward Harley, 2nd Earl of Oxford at Wimpole, where he noted the portrait of ‘Cleaveland Poet Fullr’ hanging in the Gallery.3 It was recorded there a few years later, in 1730, by Alexander Pope. Whether the portrait was intentionally transformed into a representation of Cleveland to fill a gap in Harley’s growing collection of portraits of English literary figures is difficult to establish. Harley’s collection was extensive and he actively sought portraits of poets, commissioning copies and persuading authors to sit. Alongside Cleveland, in 1724 Vertue noted portraits of Pope (by Kneller), Samuel Butler, Abraham Cowley and Matthew Prior (an ‘original’ by Richardson). On another visit, in 1733, in Harley’s recently completed ‘new great Library Room’, he noted further portraits of literary figures and historians included Samuel Pepys, William Sanderson, Sir Robert Cotton and Dr Aldridge.4 Vertue makes no reference to Fuller’s portrait having been altered, however, although throughout his notebooks, when noting portraits of poets in other collections, he freely expresses his opinion on authenticity. For example, in 1721, when viewing Lord Halifax’s collection, as well as portraits of ‘Mrs Philips poetes’ and ‘Sr Ph. Sydney’, he noted ‘a Milton leaning on his hand’, with the comment ‘I doubt whether this be a true picture’.5 In 1739, at the Halifax sale, he reviewed the portrait of Sir Philip Sidney again, this time considering it ‘on bord a small old picture something doubtfull’. The Milton was dismissed as ‘fictitious’, portraits of Butler and Fletcher were copies, Buchanan was ‘false’, but the portrait of Otway was ‘a well painted picture. by Riley the original’. Halifax’s portrait of Shakespeare he considered ‘an old picture. setting – the head new painted on the posture. perhaps – by Sykes’.6

That Vertue makes no judgment as to the authenticity of the portrait of Cleveland, other than noting correctly that it was by Fuller, suggests that he was unaware of and did not suspect its altered state. He was a frequent visitor to Wimpole, on each visit staying for over a week, giving him ample time to view the collection at his leisure and to discuss it with his friend and patron, Lord Harley. It is possible, therefore, that Harley had purchased the portrait believing it to be a genuine likeness of Cleveland. Building collections of portraits of poets to furnish libraries was an increasing fashion. In 1721 Vertue saw at the artist John Maubert’s house ‘copys of most of our Eminent poets ... in small oval frames. to the number of twenty or thereabouts’, including representations of Spenser, Wicherley, Rochester, Waller and Aphra Behn.7 ‘I keep the pictures of Dryden, Milton, Shakespeare, etc., in my chamber, round about me’, wrote Pope in 1711, ‘that the constant remembrance of ‘em may keep me always humble’.8 Later in the century Vertue records Lord Chesterfield’s intention to have a ‘Poet’s room’ in his ‘new builded house’, which would contain ‘portraits of many of the most memorable Poets heads of this nation’, among which were several originals purchased from the Halifax and Oxford collections, as well as several others ‘Coppyd to the size he wants’.9 Images of Cleveland in such collections, whose reputation as a poet was well on the wane by the early eighteenth century, are never mentioned. Apart from an engraved image, which first appears as the frontispiece to Cleveland’s Poems of 1653, no portraits of Cleveland are known. Fuller’s portrait was either altered in the later seventeenth century, when Cleveland’s reputation was still at its height; or it was altered for Lord Harley to enable him to have an unusual inclusion in his collection.

The portrait in its true state is a fine work by Fuller, although the identity of the sitter is not known. The architectural plan presumably relates to his profession, or reflects a particular interest. The portrait is possibly the ‘Picture of … Architect a half length painted by. Fuller’ seen by Vertue in 1718 in the possession of ‘Kerey - chaser’.10 Kerey could possibly be the gold chaser Paul Carey, recorded living ‘over against the Rose Tavern, Covent Garden’ in 1701–6,11 although the identification of the owner, as well as the portrait as this one, are both far from certain. That the sitter is an amateur rather than a professional architect is suggested by the identification of the plan as the Trajan Arch at Benevento, taken from Serlio, Book 3, f.57 (1611 English edition). A professional would perhaps have preferred to be shown with one of his own designs, rather than one lifted from a then widely known and available source. It has been suggested that the sitter could be an office holder attached to the Office of Works.12 If so, his identity remains elusive although it was certainly from the skilled, professional middle class that Fuller seems to have drawn the majority of his certain or documented sitters, for example Matthew Lock, Composer in Ordinary to Charles II (Examination Schools, Oxford); Edward Pierce, the sculptor (Yale Center for British Art); William Petty (National Portrait Gallery); ‘Norrice’, the King’s framemaker;13 the sculptor Jasper Latham;14 and ‘Zachary Taylor Surveyor temp King Charles Second – a fine half length picture painted with a compass & a square in his hands’.15

The costume dates the picture to the early years of the Restoration, when Fuller appears to have been working in Oxford (although not necessarily permanently living there), occupied with painting decorative scenes for the chapels of Magdalen, Wadham and All Souls colleges. It was as a history painter that Fuller was then best known, although he seems to have maintained a portrait practice throughout his career. His vivid colouring, bold handling and strong depiction of musculature were features of his work that unsettled contemporary and near contemporary commentators, who saw in them a lack of social finesse and decorum. It was a lingering criticism that found explanation in Fuller’s association with tavern culture: Lely supposedly ‘lamented that so great a genius should besot or neglect so great a Talent’.16 Fuller’s delight in displaying his knowledge of anatomy, most likely derived from a study of Michelangelo’s prints, can be seen here in the modelling of the sitter’s hands. Technical examination has shown Fuller to have employed a knowledgeable mixing of pigments to create effect. Smalt in the skin tones has been discovered, as well as a subtle use of black and blue to create lighter tones in the drapery. Fuller’s formerly much more sophisticated painting has, therefore, to a degree suffered due to the portrait’s unusual history, which the preserved inscriptions on either side of the sitter, identifying him as Cleveland, document.

Tabitha Barber
July 2009


1 Information kindly supplied by Dr Valerie Cuming, Museum of London, 1993.
2 Catharine MacLeod, ‘Fuller, Isaac’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford 2004,, accessed 15 May 2013.
3 George Vertue, ‘Notebooks I’, Walpole Society, vol.18, 1929, p.138.
4 Geroge Vertue, ‘Notebooks IV’, Walpole Society, vol.24, 1935, p.56.
5 Vertue I, p.87.
6 Vertue IV, p.165.
7 Vertue I, p.88.
8 David Piper, The Image of the Poet: British Poets and their Portraits, Oxford 1982, p.55.
9 George Vertue, ‘Notebooks V’, Walpole Society, vol.26, 1937, p.70.
10 Vertue I, p.52.
11 Information kindly supplied by Richard Edgcumbe, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 1993.
12 Suggestion of Sir John Summerson, 1961.
13 Vertue I, p.126.
14 George Vertue, ‘Notebooks II’, Walpole Society, vol.20, 1931, p.59.
15 Vertue I, p.98.
16 MacLeod 2004.


You might like

In the shop