Why do we say ‘Warts and all’?

When we want to be told the entire story, without the unappealing or troublesome bits removed, we may say that we want it “warts and all”. But where does this saying come from?

Why do we say ‘Warts and all’? © Wikimedia Commons

At the time Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector of England in 1653, it was common for portraits to flatter the subject by softening or removing any blemishes (like early photoshopping).


So, for Cromwell, there was no better way to distance himself from the vanity and self-indulgence of the monarchy than by having his likeness as accurate as possible.

When Sir Peter Lely, portrait painter to the executed King Charles I, was brought before Cromwell, therefore, he was supposedly told: “I desire you would use all your skill to paint your picture truly like me… but remark all these roughness, pimples, warts and everything as you see me. Otherwise, I will never pay a farthing for it.”


Although this story’s veracity may be debated, it has survived, and when we want the full, unblemished story, we still declare our desire to have it “warts and all”.

This article was first published in the October 2015 issue of History Revealed.