This fine example of Cadogan Cowper's work, exhibited at the Royal Watercolour Society in 1908 when the artist was thirty-one, illustrates the well-known fairy story by the brothers Grimm. Rapunzel is a beautiful girl who is shut up in the tower by a witch. The tower has no door or staircase, but the witch ascends it by climbing up Rapunzel's long golden hair. In due course a young prince arrives, climbs up by the same means, and he and Rapunzel fall in love. After the inevitable trials resulting from the witch's fury when she discovers the turn of events, the young couple are married and live happily ever after.
Cowper was one of the most interesting of the artists who turned their backs on modernism and attempted to maintain the Pre-Raphaelite tradition far into the twentieth century. He was certainly the most persistent, still exhibiting pictures of this kind as late as the 1950s. Born at Wicken in Northamptonshire, where his maternal grandfather was rector, he studied at the St John's Wood Art School before entering the Royal Academy Schools in 1897. On leaving five years later, he enjoyed a six month apprenticeship in the Cotswold studio of Edwin Austin Abbey, the American muralist who, like his friend and compatriot John Singer Sargent, had settled in England. He finally completed his artistic education by a spell in Italy.
Although he exhibited widely, supporting the Royal Watercolour Society and the Royal Institute of Painters in Water 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 member in 1934. This close adherence to the RA tells us much about his approach to the Pre-Raphaelite heritage. Most of the movement's leading figures were now dead. Rossetti had died in 1882, Madox Brown, Millais and Burne-Jones in the 1890s. Only Holman Hunt survived (until 1910). Younger artists who wished to follow in their footsteps tended to be of two types. The Birmingham Group, most of whom were born in the 1860s, had met Burne-Jones as students and saw Pre-Raphaelitism as a living tradition, albeit one they could develop by exploiting its Arts and Crafts dimension. Others, generally slightly younger and without any personal knowledge of the protagonists, regarded the movement as a phenomenon ripe for survival, going back to the early work of the Brotherhood and attempting to reinterpret it in a more academic spirit. This was Cowper's approach, and he shared it with two artists, Byam Shaw and his friend Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, who, both born in 1872, were only five years his senior. Though never, it seems, on intimate terms with Cowper, they must have been acquainted with him. They too showed regularly at the RA, and in 1908-10 both Cowper and Shaw contributed to the murals illustrating scenes from Tudor history that were painted for the Commons' East Corridor in the Houses of Parliament under the supervision of Cowper's former master, Abbey.
Cowper shared with Shaw and Brickdale not only an academic approach to the Pre-Raphaelites but a certain campness of vision. In Cowper's case this had emerged strongly by 1907, when he exhibited that whacky masterpiece How the Devil, disguised as a vagrant Troubador, having been entertained by some charitable Nuns, sang to them a Song of Love (private collection). We see the same trend in the portraits which, like so many artists still devoted to the literary themes which had long since gone out of fashion, he was forced to paint for a living. The majority are likenesses of glamorous young women, painted in a rather arch and fey style. But the tendency is most apparent in some of Cowper's late subject pictures. In Titania Sleeps of 1928, sold in these Rooms on 13 June this year, the model wears a modish Art Deco dress, while her abandoned pose suggests Hollywood at its most glamorous and an appropriate Disneyish touch is introduced by the attendant owl and rabbits. Similarly with The Four Queens find Lancelot Sleeping (private collection), an astonishing example of Pre-Raphaelite survival dating from 1954. The subject may look back to Rossettian medievalism but the models could be 1950s film stars - Vivien Lee or Glynis Johns as the Queens, perhaps, certainly Kenneth More as Sir Lancelot.
Cowper's first impulse was to steep himself in the early work of the PRB and its associates. This is nowhere more apparent than in St Agnes in Prison receiving from Heaven the shining white Garment (Tate Gallery), a Chantrey purchase of 1905 which borrows freely from Millais, Madox Brown and Rossetti. By the following year, however, Cowper's interest was turning to Rossetti's Venetian manner of the 1860s and he was beginning to evolve a more Renaissance idiom, with an emphasis on rich brocades to create a sumptuous decorative effect. Two rather tentative essays in this style, The Patient Griselda (fig. 2) and Mariana in the South, both exhibited at the RWS in 1906, have been sold in these rooms recently (6 November 1995, lot 113, and 13 June 2001, lot 16). A more significant example, Vanity (fig. 3), followed in 1907. Not only was it Cowper's diploma work, and thus presumably one with which he wished to be closely identified, but we know its visual source. Giulio Romano's haunting portrait of Isabella d'Este at Hampton Court had influenced the young Burne-Jones in 1860, at a moment when, like his master Rossetti, he was moving away from medievalism and looking to sixteenth-century pictures (mostly, but, as this example shows, not exclusively Venetian) for inspiration. The portrait's curiously disturbing mood, the figures who approach so menacingly in the upper right distance, and the serpentine coils of black velvet that cover the sitter's dress, had all helped to form his conception of a uniquely sinister figure in German Romantic literature, Wilhelm Meinhold's Sidonia von Bork (fig. 4). Whether or not Cowper was aware of this (the point had been made in print in 1890 but in a somewhat obscure publication), he followed Burne-Jones in borrowing motifs from the portrait for his picture of Vanity, not only adopting the serpentine patterned dress, but the padded, turban-like head dress, the zazara, for which Isabella d'Este was famous.
Rapunzel was painted only a year later than Vanity, and the two pictures have much in common. Both adopt the half-length format, and although Rapunzel lacks the specific references to Giulio Romano's portrait, the emphasis is again on exotic, boldly patterned fabrics. Indeed an opulent sleeve of cream and crimson damask is the picture's dominant motif. The model for the two pictures also seems to be the same, although her demeanor is very different, cool and aloof in Vanity, sexually provocative in Rapunzel. It is as if our heroine has just caught sight of the prince and is going out of her way to vamp him - singing some siren song, displaying her ensnaring coils of hair, and adopting her most coquettish expression.
The debt to Rossetti in both pictures needs no emphasis. The focus on a single female figure, seen half-length, leaning on a parapet placed parallel to the picture space, clad in sumptuous robes and favoured with luxuriant tresses - all this is integral to the Venetian or Aesthetic style he evolved in the 1860s. In Vanity, the sitter's string of pearls and silver hand-mirror have many Rossettian precedents, but so equally does the element of music in Rapunzel. One has only to think of The Blue Bower (fig. 5), one of Rossetti's most important works of this period, in which his mistress Fanny Cornforth is seen playing languidly on a Japanese koto or zither.
Cowper's earliest essays in the Renaissance style, Griselda (fig. 2) and Mariana, are comparatively gentle and elegiac in mood, but as the voluptuous worldliness celebrated in Rossetti's work in the 1860s strengthened its hold on his imagination, he began, in Vanity and Rapunzel, to express something much more hard and brittle. He changes his model, replacing the pleasant-faced, dark-haired girls found in the former pair of pictures with the more sophisticated beauty represented in the latter. That this new muse had golden hair is surely no accident, since Fanny Cornforth, the presiding genius of Rossetti's Venetian phase, also had locks of this colour. 'A pre-eminently fine woman, with a mass of the most lovely blonde hair, light golden, or "harvest yellow"', was how Rossetti's brother William Michael described her. Moreover, although Cowper's model is a more refined type than Rossetti's handsome, coarse, bedable companion, she too in Cowper's hands projects a sence of animal magnetism and sexual danger.
The theme of Vanity was clearly an appropriate one in this context, but in Rapunzel Cowper seems to be so in love with the idea of painting a seductive glamour-puss that he is prepared to twist the story to suit William Morris, who included a version of Grimm's fairytale in his first volume of poetry, The Defence of Guenevere, published in 1858. That he was painting a subject that Morris had already attempted was of course part of his neo-Pre-Raphaelite agenda. Indeed, he quoted from the poem in the RWS catalogue, and there are details in Morris's account, for example the description of the heroine 'bearing within her arms waves of her yellow hair', which he seems to consciously echo. But in general interpretation the poem and the picture would hardly be more different. Morris, surely keeping closer to the original spirit of the story, sees Rapunzel as a beleaguered victim, abused by the witch and pathetically yearning for love. Cowper prefers to make her a knowing and predatory temptress. The very lines he quotes show how far he has moved from the Morrisian concept. It comes from a passage in which Rapunzel, far from playing the aggressive vamp, plaintively describes a vision of the knight who may one day come to her rescue.
If any doubt remained that Cowper was currently seduced by the Rossetti of the 1860s, we have only to note the subject of his next important subject picture. There were moments when the appeal that Venetian luxuriance held for Rossetti and his circle - an appeal so different from that of Dantesque piety or Arthurian romance a few years earlier - shaded into a darker preoccupation with the link between beauty and cruelty. This cult of the femme fatale, ultimately to have such enormous repercussions for European Symbolism in general, focused in particular on two images. One was a fictional heroine. Burne-Jones's illustrations (there were in fact a pair of pictures) to Meinhold's spine-chilling gothic romance Sidonia the Sorceress have already been mentioned. Rossetti and Swinburne also admitted to a 'positive passion' for the story of Sidonia, a beautiful, well-born but incurably vicious girl who wreaks havoc in sixteenth-century Pomerania, bewitching the entire ruling house to death or sterility before she is arrested and burnt at the stake. Nor was this a passing craze; as late as 1893 William Morris re-printed Lady Wilde's translation of the book at the Kelmscott Press. The other figure who attracted fascinated attention was historical. Lucretia Borgia was the subject of a watercolour by Rossetti (Tate Gallery), begun in 1860 but extensively reworked some years later. Showing her washing her hands after administering poison to her husband, the picture has close iconographical links with Burne-Jones's contemporary Sidonia von Bork (fig. 4), and the two works, for both of which Fanny Cornforth modelled, are to all intents and purposes twin expressions of the same idea. However, it was Swinburne, always drawn like a magnet to the subject of sadism, who went furthest in fostering a cult of Lucretia, visiting her relics in Milan in 1861, calling her his 'blessedest pet', a member of a 'holy family', and writing both prose and verse in her honour.
This is not the place to pursue the most bizarre example of the circle's gleeful delight in flouting conventional morality. The point here is that half a century later Cadogen Cowper deliberately sought to reinvoke the phenomenon. His picture Lucretia Borgia reigns in the Vatican in the Absence of Pope Alexander VI (fig. 6) was begun in 1908 and eventually exhibited at the RA in 1914. It shows Lucretia, once again modelled by the golden-haired beauty who appears in Vanity and Rapunzel, deputising for her father amid scarlet-soutaned cardinals beneath the Pintoricchio frescoes in the Borgia apartments in the Vatican. Within the context of Cowper's current concerns, it would be hard to imagine a more ambitious concept, and indeed, like the earlier St Agnes in Prison, the picture was bought for the Chantrey Bequest.