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Lot 10: Frank Cadogan Cowper (1837-1958)


by Christie's

November 30, 2000

London, United Kingdom

Frank Cadogan Cowper (1877-1958) Please Register/Login to access your Invaluable Alerts

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Description: The Cathedral Scene from 'Faust': Margaret tormented by the Evil Spirit signed and dated '1919' and further signed and dated (on the reverse) oil on canvas 751/4 x 57 in. (190.6 x 144.6 cm.) PROVENANCE Lord Blanesburgh. The Royal Caledonian Schools. Anon. sale; Parke-Bernet, New York, 3 November 1978, lot 243. Anon. SNY. 28/2/90, lot 44 unsold. EXHIBITION London, Royal Academy, 1919, no. 168. London, Wembley, British Empire Exhibition, 1924. Wilmington, Delaware Art Museum, The Pre-Raphaelite Era 1848-1914, 1976, no. 81, illustrated in catalogue. NOTES Frank Cadogan Cowper was born in 1877 at Wicken in Northamptonshire, where his maternal grandfather was rector. He studied art at the St John's Wood Art School and then spent five years in the Royal Academy Schools (1897-1902), before entering the Cotswold studio of Edward Austen Abbey (1852-1911). After six months working with this American muralist who, like his friend John Singer Sargent, had taken up residence in England, Cowper completed his artistic education by studying for a while in Italy. Although he exhibited widely, supporting the Royal Watercolour Society and the Royal Institute of Painters in Oil Colours, as well as sending to the Paris Salon, Cowper remained loyal to the Royal Academy, where he exhibited regularly from 1899 until his death nearly sixty years later. He became an Associate in 1907 and a full academician in 1934. Throughout his life he painted subject pictures, whether historical, biblical or literary, although as the taste for these declined in the early years of the twentieth century, he turned increasingly to portraits, specialising in glamorous and slightly fey likenesses of young women which vaguely reflected his interest in literary themes. His early work is strongly influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites; a striking example is St Agnes in Prison receiving from Heaven the Shining White Garment (Tate Gallery), a Chantrey purchase of 1905 which quotes from Rossetti, Millais and Madox Brown. Comparisons can be made with Byam Shaw and his friend Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, who were his slightly older contemporaries. Unlike the Birmingham Group of painters, some of whom had met Burne-Jones and all of whom certainly regarded Pre-Raphaelitism as a living tradition, these artists looked on the movement as a phenomenon ripe for revival, going back to the early work of the Brotherhood and attempting to reinterpret it in a more academic spirit. By about 1906 Cadogan Cowper was adopting a more Renaissance idiom, often with an emphasis on rich brocades to create a decorative effect. His RA diploma picture, Vanity, exhibited in 1907, the year he became an Associate, is particularly significant since it borrows motifs from Guilio Romano's portrait of Isabella d'Este at Hampton Court, a picture which had inspired the young Burne-Jones half a century earlier. In 1908-10 he contributed to the murals illustrating Tudor history which a group of artists, supervised by his former master, Abbey, painted for the Commons' East Corridor in the Houses of Parliament. Cowper's subject was The New Learning in England: Erasmus and Thomas More visit the children of Henry VII at Greenwich. But his most sumptuous essay in Renaissance subject matter was Lucretia Borgia reigns in the Vatican in the Absence of Pope Alexander VI, another Chantrey picture which was exhibited at the RA in 1914 (fig.1) Cowper's later work undoubtedly deteriorated and is often mawkish in mood, but he is rightly regarded as one of the last exponents of the Pre-Raphaelite tradition. As such he was patronised by Evelyn Waugh and included in the Last Romantics exhibition at the Barbican in 1989. He was in fact responsible for one of the latest pictures in the show, The Four Queens find Lancelot sleeping (private collection), exhibited at the RA no earlier than 1954. In subject, mood and technique, this astonishing example of Pre-Raphaelite survival might belong to the 1900s. Only the types of the figures, which look like 1950s film stars (Vivien Leigh and Glynis Johns as the Queens, perhaps; certainly Kenneth More as Sir Lancelot) give a clue to its real date. Exhibited at the RA in 1919, The Cathedral Scene from 'Faust' is yet another fine example of the 'last romantic' spirit, a quixotic attempt to keep a tradition going long after, by all the laws of historical determinism, it should have been dead and buried. As Cowper no doubt knew, the subject had been a favourite with the young Rossetti, as well as with artists like Delacroix and Von Holst who had fed his youthful imagination. Though five years later than Lucretia Borgia, the picture still has something of its scope, complexity and decorative richness, with the brocaded dress of the kneeling woman to the right striking a particularly characteristic note. Also reminiscent is a picture shown by Cowper at the RA in 1907 and last seen when sold by Christie's on 27 November 1987 (lot 136): How the Devil, disguised as a vagrant troubadour, having been entertained by some charitable nuns, sang to them a song of love. Like The Cathedral Scene from 'Faust', this delightfully camp and tongue-in-cheek performance, even the title of which, in its absurd length, looks back to the Pre-Raphaelite heyday, has an ecclesiastical setting in which deeply shadowed space is pierced by brilliantly coloured stained-glass windows. Indeed,it would be interesting to discover if the windows in our picture, like those in How the Devil..., were based on the famous fifteenth-century glass in the parish church at Fairford in Gloucestershire. This was a part of the country that Cowper knew well from his early apprenticeship with Abbey, and for which he clearly retained a strong affection. He settled there after the Second World War, dying at Cirencester in 1958 at the age of eighty-one.

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