Royal Academy, 1956, no. 401
Frank Cadogan Cowper was born in Wicken, Northamptonshire in 1877. His father was Frank Cowper, an author who specialised in writing yachting novels and was the grandson of the Rector of Wicken. Cadogan Cowper began his studies in art at the St John's Wood Art School followed by five years at the Royal Academy Schools (1897-1902). Cowper spent six months working in the workshop of the highly successful American artist Edward Austen Abbey, before travelling to Italy to continue his artistic education.
Throughout his career, Cowper remained loyal to the Royal Academy, exhibiting there regularly from 1899 until his death nearly sixty years later. In 1907 he became an Associate of the Royal Academy and a full academician in 1934. Along side this Cowper exhibited at the Paris Salon and supported the Royal Watercolour Society and the Royal Institute of Painters in Oil Colours. Throughout his life he painted narrative pictures often employing historical, biblical or literary themes. He moved towards portraiture from early 1900s, as tastes began to change in the early years of the twentieth century, he often painted glamorous young women, cast in a slightly ethereal light reflective of his literary interests. His early work influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites and a fascination with the early works by Rossetti and Millais is St Agnes in Prison receiving from Heaven the Shining White Garment, which waspurchased in 1905 for the Tate Gallery with funds from the Chantrey Bequest.
Cowper, alongside his slightly older contemporaries John Byam Liston Shaw and Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, were artists aiming to revive the movement through a continuing dialogue with the early work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, attempting to bring ideals of spirituality and nature as a source of both beauty and truth to the fore again through academic and theoretical reinterpretation.
From about 1906 Cowper also began to draw inspiration from the Italian Renaissance, and particularly their use of richly decorative fabrics. Examples include his 1907 RA diploma painting Vanity, which borrows motifs from Giulio Romano's Portrait of Isabella d'Este, a picture also studied by Edward Burne-Jones fifty years earlier, and Lucretia Borgia Reigns in the Vatican in the Absence of Pope Alexander VI, exhibited at the academy in 1914. His attention to detail and treatment of historical subjects ensured Cowper was among the group of artists commissioned to create a mural scheme, illustrating Tudor history in the Commons' East Corridor in the Houses of Parliament, under the supervision of his former master Edward Austen Abbey in 1910.
Cowper spent most of his life living in London, establishing studios in St John's Wood, Kensington and Chelsea at different periods. The Golden Bowl was painted at Cirencester in Gloucestershire where Cowper lived from the end of the Second World War. Patrons like Evelyn Waugh ensured Cowper's works remained relevant, particularly as tastes changed at the start of the twentieth century and his style and subject matter became less fashionable. Despite this, his portraiture skills continued to be in demand.
The Golden Bowl represents the last flowering of Pre-Raphaelitism, painted well into the twentieth century in 1955 almost a hundred years after Rossetti had painted similar luscious depictions of exotically attired maidens in richly ornamented costumes. Here, an un-named maiden of an renaissance-type holds aloft a bowl of votive fruit, inviting the beholder to take one from her. Her necklace is reminiscent of Rossetti's seminal painting in the Venetian style that was to define his later style, Bocca Baciata of 1859 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) whilst the gown is similar to the dress worn in his well-known painting Monna Vanna of 1866 (Tate). The golden silk dress was owned by Cowper and was worn by another model in his painting Titania Sleeps - A Midsummer Night's Dream (Christie's, London, 13 June 2001, lot 17). Like Cowper's The Legend of Sir Percival painted in 1952 (Christie's, London, 14 May 1993, lot 90) The Golden Bowl captures the glamour of contemporary Hollywood, the romance of Pre-Raphaelite Britain in the 1860s and an echo of Renaissance Italy.
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