Friday 14 March 2014

The Last of the Pre-Raphaelites

I often think it's a shame that I don't live at the same time as my favourite art.  I am forever at odds with popular taste and all things modern.  My tastes are often described as 'easy', 'chocolate box' and 'morbid Victorian nonsense' (yes, Rossetti, they were looking at you at the time) and I sit alone sighing and weeping that my heyday of art was over 100 years before I was born.

Mind you, this week my thoughts on the matter were somewhat reversed.  As some of you probably know I was born in the early 1970s, really not that long ago (cough, cough), and it was only 15 years before my birth that the last Pre-Raphaelite died.

No, really.

I am talking about the artist who painted this...

La Belle Dame Sans Merci
This is an image I'm familiar with and the artist was Frank Cadogan Cowper.  His name is probably known to you, but what you might not have realised is how long he hung on to his vision of beauty.  For example, if you had asked me to date the above picture I would have gone with around 1900.  It reminds me a lot of Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale's stuff, but this picture dates from 1946.  Unbelievable.

Rapunzel (1908)
Cowper was born in 1877 and studied at the Royal Academy schools, spending some time studying under Edwin Austin Abbey and beginning his long artistic career in 1899.  He gained critical success with this image below, displayed at the RA in 1901...

An Aristocrat Answering the Summons to Execution (1901)
I love the swagger in this picture, it reminds me of some of the famous Victorian images of Cavaliers (same cause and reason, the death of unrealistic, unsustainable romance) and is the perfect image for a young, cocky artist to create.

St Agnes in Prison Receiving from Heaven the Shining White Garment (1905)
St Agnes has beautiful clarity of light and the way the angel fills the space reminds me of Arthur Hughes' nativity scene.  It has a claustrophobia and beauty that is smooth, immediate and terrifying.

I have used his works entitled Vanity several times in my three years of blogging because they are just so damn lush, but they are a bit of a cheat for me because of the dates.

Vanity on the left, with the cushion strapped to her head, is from 1907, and the lass on the right is from 1919.  Is it my imagination or does the later Vanity look meaner?  I am going to wildly speculate but maybe the frivolous, personified by this young woman, seemed more corrupt and impure after the horror of the First World War. The earlier Vanity keeps a sly eye on her face whereas the later model is looking to us to confirm her beauty.  We are her mirror, the whole of society is there to tell the woman she is beautiful.  That says something rather modern and disturbing, if you ask me.

Fanny (1903)
 It is easy to see from Cowper's earlier work why he carries the Pre-Raphaelite brand.  His work is so reminiscent of Millais or Deverell, that easy smooth style of pleasant women and historical romance.  Even in unfinished form, his work is divine...

Study for Patient Griselda
Gosh, it reminds me of Waterhouse sketches.  Gorgeous.

Anyway, On through the early decades of the twentieth century, Cowper maintained his ideal of the mythic medieval, the beautiful, vain women, existing only to be marvellous to look at in beautiful landscapes.  These women exist contemporary to flappers, votes, motor cars and modern life.

The Damsel of the Lake Called Nimue the Enchantress (1924)

It seems impossible that such a juxtaposition would occur.  I adore figurative art of this time but compared to The Damsel above, something like Sunlight Nude by George Spencer Watson (left) seems so modern even though they were painted around the same time.  Excuse the rampant nudity, but they are both about beautiful women and Watson chooses a modern woman in a modern room compared to Cowper's maiden in her pastoral idyll.  

I cannot find any reason other than possibly the pressure of taste and selling, but Cowper moved towards portraiture and a more modern, yet cloying style.  I personally have no problem with his later works but in his obituary his later pictures were described as 'chocolate box'.  Mind you, that has nothing but good connotations for me.  Mmm, chocolates.  Have a look at this one...

The Ugly Ducking (1950)
I've always loved this painting which resides in Cheltenham, near to where Cowper died in 1958.  She's a jolly looking lass, isn't she?  She has the proud look of a young woman who has become a beauty in a frankly enormous frock.  She looks very traditional in many ways but that Neo-Elizabethan glory, post-war and post-rationing, shines through with a sort of pastel glamour that defines the 1950s and marks her out as being a modern girl.  Look at the difference between our Duckling above and these likely pair...

The Fortune Teller: Beware of a Dark Lady (1940)
Mr Walker gets the pleasure of looking after these two and he is not overly fond of them as he thinks they look weird.  I love this picture, the giant frilly frock on the blonde and the shifty look on her brunette chum's face.  No prizes for guessing who the Dark Lady in the title is.  That is a big ivy wall behind them, rather overbearing and threatening, but splendidly Pre-Raphaelite.  I love how that floral fabric in the skirt of the fortune teller is an echo of the dress of La Belle Dame Sans Merci and Rapunzel and Vanity's sleeves and drapes.  Over-sized stylized floral pattern must have appealed to Cowper as it was echoed throughout the decades of his art.

Frank Cadogan Cowper lived out his last years in Cirencester, just in the Cotswolds (and just up the road from where my mother in law used to live), where he died on 17th November 1958.  He left £4228 which was just over £80,000 by today's rates, which doesn't strike me as a lot for such a beautiful painter.  I certainly have never heard of an exhibition to gather his work up again and would love to see the scope of his unshakable vision all at once.  Yes, even the fortune-telling pair.  

He kept the torch alight so that we might follow it, the least we can do is see it all through his eyes.

Frank Cadogan Cowper, 1932


  1. Thank you for this post Kirsty. Cushioned 'Vanity' is one of my all time favorites, and it was nice to see some of his other work too!

  2. Thanks, he is one of those artists whose name comes up in Pre-Raph discussions but is never at the forefront. I would dearly love to see more of his work on display and am saddened by the fact that the PCF catalogue only has a dozen of his oils in public collections in the UK. I wonder if the rest are still in private hands?

  3. John William Waterhouse died 37 years before I was born, Frank Cadogen Cowper died when I was 4. Does that make me a Victorian? I always thought I was one.

  4. Thanks for this very interesting post. I know some of these paintings but by no means all, it would be marvellous to see an exhibition of his work at some point.
    Apropos of how near we are to the pre-raphaelites, I was struck when the "last Tommy" Harry Patch died a couple of years ago that he was actually born on the very day Burne-Jones died so whilst others were marking the passing of a last link with the war to me it somehow seemed to make the golden age that little bit more remote as well.

  5. "La Belle Dame..." - she killed him because he stepped on her toes with those shoes.

    Frank's middle name - reminds me of "Sir Cadogan" in the Harry Potter stories.

    "Rapunzel" - Egads, never thought her hair was her ONLY good point. Girl seriously needs a brown paper bag on her head.

    "An Aristocrat...." - reminds me of Tim Roth's character in "Rob Roy" - he walked exactly like that, with the same air of superiority, and looked like he'd just smelled something bad.

    "St. Agnes in Prison...." - so... looks like Kate Upton was not the first model to pose in zero gravity!

    "Vanity" (on the right) - looks like Britney Spears.

    "The Ugly Duckling" - looks like a 1970's magazine ad for shampoo.

    My favorite of the bunch is "The Damsel on the Lake...." - because I would love to know what she's sitting on that makes her so happy that she's completely unaware that a deer is mucking up her lovely white gown.

  6. Cowper's "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" was painted in 1926 (although he did produce a watercolour copy in 1946). There was a small exhibition of his drawings at Campbell-Wilson Fine Art in 2004.


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx