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Sunday, July 08, 2007

Frank Cadogan Cowper (1877-1958)

Tea at Trianon has been recently doing a fine series of posts on the pre-Raphaelites.

Frank Cadogan Cowper was sometimes referred to as 'the Last Pre-Raphaelite'. He was born in Wicken, Northamptonshire in 1877. He was grandson of the Rector of Wicken and raised in the faith of the Plymouth Brethren.

He had a strict religious upbringing, something which would have a profound, though unexpected influence upon his artistic career many years later.

Some of his works were heavily criticised at the time by the Catholic authorities for an alleged anti-Catholic bias, such as Lucretia Borgia Reigns in the Vatican in the Absence of Pope Alexander VI (1908-14) and ‘The Jealous Husband,’ showing a man disguised as a priest listening to his wife’s confession.

His forte is in painting meticulous historical and literary scenes. This went out of fashion. In later life one of his main patrons was Evelyn Waugh.

After his death some of his canvases were sold as suitable for re-use. In more recent years, however, Cadogan Cowper's popularity is once again in the ascendant. His early pictures are now recognised as being quite extraordinarily beautiful.

The Tate at Millbank, London has two beautiful paintings by Cowper: St Agnes in Prison Receiving from Heaven the Shining White Garment ; and Lucretia Borgia Reigns in the Vatican in the Absence of Pope Alexander VI.



St Agnes in Prison Receiving from Heaven the Shining White Garment 1905
Oil on canvas
29 1/4 x 17 3/4 inches (74.3 x 45.1 cm)
Tate Gallery, London, England


This is a scene from the life of St Agnes, based on William Caxton’s Golden Legend. This tells how, at the age of thirteen, Agnes rejected marriage and dedicated her life to God. She refused to renounce her vow of chastity, and was stripped of her garments and taken to a brothel. She prayed for Divine intervention, and her cell was filled by a miraculous light. Her hair grew long, and a white robe appeared before her. Cowper shows the moment when this robe was delivered.

Lucretia Borgia Reigns in the Vatican in the Absence of Pope Alexander V (1908-14)
Oil on canvas
support: 2210 x 1537 mm
frame: 2880 x 2032 x 175 mm


Here he re-creates an obscure incident from the history of the Popes. In 1501 there had been a notorious scandal, when the illegitimate daughter of Pope Alexander VI, Lucrezia Borgia, took his place at a meeting. The room in the Vatican in which this happened still exists, and Cowper went there to copy it. It is one of the rooms decorated by the Italian Renaissance artist Pinturrichio. Cowper copied the faces of the Cardinals from their original portraits. He invented this suggestive moment, in which two noblemen part Lucrezia's dress so that a Francisan friar can kiss her shoe.

Lucretia Borgia was a source of fascination for the Pre-Raphaelites and the scandal of her presiding over the Papal court is highlighted here by the surrounding ranks of scarlet cardinals. To her right is a group of figures of quite different appearance, representing people from non-Christian lands.

Cowper carefully reconstructs the ornamental finery of their costumes to indicate their religious and ethnic identities. Pope Alexander VI was widely criticised for a perceived willingness to negotiate with non- Christians.