Cowper was born in Northamptonshire, the grandson of a clergyman and son of a travel writer with a taste for romance and whimsy. He trained for a year at the St John’s Wood Art School from 1896, followed by the Royal Academy schools and it was during these years that he fell under the spell of the Pre-Raphaelites. In 1896 the retrospective exhibition of the work of Ford Madox Brown and the shows of Millais and Rossetti’s work in 1898 had a profound and lasting influence upon his work. Like his contemporaries John Byam-Shaw, Eleanor Fortesque Brickdale, Arthur Gaskin and Thomas Cooper Gotch, Cowper was to prolong the last phase of Pre-Raphaelitism well into the twentieth century. His paintings took their cue from the romantic atmospheres and exotic sensuality of the courtesans painted by Rossetti, such as Monna Vanna (Tate) and La Ghirlandata (Guildhall Art Gallery, London) but were painted with the greater technical dexterity of an artist trained in the academic manner. There is an emphasis on the rendering of silks and fur, warm living flesh and cold metals.
Among Cowper’s earliest successes was a painting of 1907 entitled Vanity which he submitted at his Diploma Work upon being elected a Member of the Royal Academy in 1934. Depicting the pride of a beautiful young blonde model as a celebration of female allure, it was painted with the shallow perspective associated with the work of Rossetti and earlier, Venetian artists. Twelve years later Cowper returned to the same subject to paint another oil with the same title which he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1919. The 1919 Vanity was an almost identical version of The Young Duchess painted two years earlier for an exhibition at the Royal Watercolour Society. Cowper had been elected an Associate of the Royal Watercolour Society in its centenary year, 1904 and was as adept with watercolour as with oil paint. The Young Duchess is tour-de-force in watercolour, arguably more accomplished that the oil painting because of the difficulty of rendering textures with this less versatile medium which does not allow the layering of glazes to capture the lustre of silk or tactility of fur. The Young Duchess belonged to Frederick Haigh Pyman (1858-1932) a partner in the company of Pyman Brothers in London and later the London & Northern Steamship Company. He lived in Enfield and later at 82 Fitzjohns Avenue in Hampstead. He also owned John William Waterhouse’s The Crystal Ball (Christie’s, London, 4 November 1994, lot 99) and the lost work The Missal, both of which have a similar medieval subject to The Young Duchess.
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