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Frank Cadogan Cowper, R.A. (1877-1958)
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Frank Cadogan Cowper, R.A. (1877-1958)

Titania Sleeps: 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'

Frank Cadogan Cowper, R.A. (1877-1958)
Titania Sleeps: 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'
signed and dated 'F C COWPER 1928' (lower left)
oil on canvas
35½ x 45 in. (90 x 114.2 cm.)
Anon. sale; Christie's, London, 23 June 1989, lot 146.
with Julian Hartnoll, 1990.
Christopher Wood, Fairies in Victorian Art, Woodbridge, 2000, p. 151, illustrated in colour.
Royal Academy, London, 1928, no.366.
Tokyo, Isetan Museum of Art, and three other venues in Japan, Shakespeare in Western Art, 1992-3, no. 91.
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Lot Essay

Frank Cadogan Cowper was born in 1877 at Wicken in Northamptonshire, where his maternal grandfather was rector. He studied art at the St John's Wood Art School and then spent five years in the Royal Academy Schools (1897-1902), before entering the Cotswold studio of Edward Austen Abbey (1852-1911). After six months working with this American muralist who, like his friend John Singer Sargent, had taken up residence in England, Cowper completed his artistic education by studying for a while in Italy.

Although he exhibited widely, supporting the Royal Watercolour Society and the Royal Institute of Painters in Oil Colours, as well as sending to the Paris Salon, Cowper remained loyal to the Royal Academy, where he exhibited regularly from 1899 until his death nearly sixty years later. He became an Associate in 1907 and a full academician in 1934. Throughout his life he painted subject pictures, whether historical, biblical or literary in theme, although as the taste for these declined in the early years of the twentieth century, he turned increasingly to portraits, specialising in glamorous and slightly fey likenesses of young women which vaguely reflected his literary interests. His early work is strongly influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites; a striking example is St Agnes in Prison receiving from Heaven the Shining White Garment (Tate Gallery), a Chantrey purchase of 1905 which quotes from Rossetti, Millais and Madox Brown. Comparisons can be made with Byam Shaw and his friend Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, who were his slightly older contemporaries. Unlike the Birmingham Group of painters and craftsmen, some of whom had met Burne-Jones and all of whom regarded Pre-Raphaelitism as a living tradition, these artists looked on the movement as a phenomenon ripe for revival, going back to the early work of the Brotherhood and attempting to reinterpret it in a more academic spirit.

By about 1906 Cadogan Cowper was adopting a more Renaissance idiom, often with an emphasis on rich brocades to create a decorative effect. His RA diploma picture, Vanity, exhibited in 1907, the year he became an Associate, is particularly significant since it borrows motifs from Giulio Romano's portrait of Isabella d'Este at Hampton Court, a picture which had inspired the young Burne-Jones half a century earlier. In 1908-10 he contributed to the murals illustrating Tudor history which a group of artists, supervised by his former master, Abbey, painted for the Commons' East Corridor in the Houses of Parliament. Cowper's subject was The New Learning in England: Erasmus and Thomas More visit the children of Henry VII at Greenwich. But his most sumptuous essay in Renaissance subject matter was Lucretia Borgia reigns in the Vatican in the Absence of Pope Alexander VI, another Chantrey picture which was exhibited at the RA in 1914.

Cowper lived most of his life in London, owning a succession of studios in St John's Wood, Kensington and Chelsea. Titania Sleeps was painted in Tite Street, Chelsea, formerly home to Whistler, Oscar Wilde and Sargent. At the end of the second world war Cowper moved to Gloucestershire, settling first at Fairford, not far from where he had served to apprenticeship to Abbey. He died at Cirencester on 17 November 1958 at the age of eighty-one.

Cowper's later work undoubtedly deteriorated and is often mawkish in mood, but he is rightly regarded as one of the last exponents of the Pre-Raphaelite tradition. As such he was patronised by Evelyn Waugh and included in the Last Romantics exhibition at the Barbican in 1989. He was in fact responsible for one of the latest pictures in the show, The Four Queens find Lancelot sleeping (private collection), exhibited at the RA as late as 1954. In subject, mood and technique, this astonishing example of Pre-Raphaelite survival might belong to the 1900s. Only the types of the figures, which look like 1950s film stars (Vivien Leigh and Glynis Johns as the Queens, perhaps; certainly Kenneth More as Sir Lancelot) give a clue to its real date.

Only a year before this, in 1953, Cowper had exhibited Hermia in the Wood, an illustration to A Midsummer Night's Dream. Our picture has the same literary source, but had appeared at the Academy twenty-five years earlier, in 1928. No doubt both works were conscious references to the Victorian tradition of fairy painting, which had found one of its most fertile sources of inspiration in Shakespeare's play (figs. 2-3). Noel Paton's famous paintings of the Quarrel and Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania, dating from 1847-50, are the obvious examples. Cowper must have known these familiar images, and perhaps even echoes them in the secluded woodland setting he devises for his figure of Titania asleep. The fairy queen herself, however, is pure 1920s. Her dress, for all its Renaissance origins, is essentially Art Deco, while her abandoned pose and exquisite maquillage suggest Hollywood at its most glamorous. Walt Disney could hardly have improved on the owl and rabbit.


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