Frank Cadogen Cowper
The last of the Pre-Raphaelites. Cowper was born in Northamptonshire.
He studied at the St John's Wood Art School, and the Royal Academy Schools, after which he went to Italy. In the early part of the 20th century, some of his pictures were quite extraordinarily beautiful. Cowper became ARA in 1907, and a full RA in 1934, when his Diploma work was a painting called 'Vanity,' painted in 1907. I saw this picture at an exhibition at The Djangoly Gallery at Nottingham University in 1994. The exhibition was called 'Heaven on Earth, The Religion of Beauty in Late Victorian Art.
I was really struck by 'Vanity,' which I found to be a lovely picture. The young woman portrayed is just gorgeous, with her ornate, richly coloured clothing. The catalogue of the exhibition describes her as a 'manifestation of female beauty,' and what can I possibly say to compare with that? Cowper's paintings retain their fascination for many people today, and are often seen as posters, and on calendars.
He lived most of his life in London, but in old age retired to Cirencester. Cowper exhibited a the Royal Academy for over fifty years, and in the mid 1950s must have seemed to come from a different artistic epoch, which of course he did. In later life one of his main patrons was Evelyn Waugh. In old age the quality of the painters work is widely held to have declined, but he was true to the great artistic traditions to the last, and in his long career produced much that was highly individual, decorative, and that overworked word beautiful. OBITUARY.
The Times Thursday 20th November 1958.
Mr Frank Cadogen Cowper has died at the age of 81.
Cowper was born at Wicken Rectory, Northamptonshire on the 16th October 1877. His father was Frank Cowper, author of several works on cruising and romantic tales, who married Edith daughter of the Reverend E Cadogen Rector of Wicken. From Cranleigh School Cowper proceeded to St John’s Wood Art School, and later to the Royal Academy Schools, where he won several prizes and medals. For 6 months he worked in the studio of Sir Edwin Abbey RA, the decorative painter and illustrator. His first picture was hung at the RA when he was 22, and thereafter he was a regular contributor there, and at the Royal Watercolour Society, as also at the Paris Salon, and in Rome and Venice. He was made ARA in 1907 and RA in 1934. He is represented at the Tate Gallery, at the National Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, and in most provincial galleries in England.
The most remarkable thing about Cowper was the complete change in his style between his earlier and later work.. Without any comparison in rank between the 2 artists, the change was as complete and as apparently inexplicable as it was between the early and late Corot.
Cowper begins as a painter of romantic subject pictures in the Pre-Raphaelite manner; he ended as a painter of pretty women in what may be called the chocolate box manner.
Of Cowper’s thoroughness in his early Pre-Raphaelite exercises many stories are told. For his early picture of the graveyard scene in Hamlet, he had a grave specially dug, which he said ‘astounded the neighbours very much,’ and when he decided on a picture of St Francis of Assisi he went o Assisi for the purpose. A real Bishop, the late Dr Collins, Bishop of Gibralter was his model. This again was the evolution of his ‘Devil Disgiused as a Troubedor,’ exhibited at the RA in 1907, and described at the time as ‘a picture of the year. Sold in London for £1522 it began 10 years earlier as a sketch club illustration to the subject of ‘The Minstrel,’ at the St John’s Wood Art School, representing a Mestiphelean youth playing the lute to the disturbance of half hall of medieval people. The club show was criticsed by the late Mr Onslow Ford RA, who praised Cowper’s sketch so highly that the young artist decided to make a picture of it. Five years later he saw the 15th century stained glass in the church at Fairford Gloucestershire, and took them as the background. Next he turned the medieval people into monks and finally nuns; some weeping, some praying, some enraptured, and some horrified. This description will give some idea of the kind of labour that Cowper put into his romantic compositions , and it cannot be denied that they showed a good deal of invention, though of a literary rather than a strictly pictorial kind, as well as decorative ability, particularly in colour. Examples that come to mind are ‘St Agnes in Heaven,’ and ‘Lucretia Borgia,’ Chantry Bequest purchases of 1905 and 1914 respectively, and both in the Tate Gallery. Their explicit titles show how very well they were intended to be looked at. For the Houses of Parliament he executed a mural painting ‘Erasmus and Thomas Moore visit the children of Henry V11, and decorative panels, and for the church in Godalming an altar piece. His Diploma Work ‘Vanity,’ was exhibited at the RA in 1937.
Two later works which caused some comment were ‘The Featherbed Farmer,’ said to have been inspired by remarks made by Mr Stanley Evans, formerly Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Food, and ‘The Jealous Husband,’ showing a man disguised as a priest listening to his wife’s confession.
Of the portraits by which he was generally represented at the RA in later years, it is difficult to speak with enthusiasm, but it can be said that the failed less from lack of ability than from the confusion of aim; a mixture of the decorative and realistic that spoiled both. It is certain that his qualities showed better in watercolour-he was a member of the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolours-whch medium encourages the approximation to the miniature style.
There was little of the traditional artist in Cowper’s appearance, and he is said to have worn the higher collars than any other man in the country.
Source: Victorian Art in Britan