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 Abbey, an American muralist who, like his friend John Singer Sargent, had taken up residence in England, Cowper completed his artistic education by studying in Italy. Although he exhibited widely, supporting the Royal Water-Colour 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, 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 interest in literary themes. 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, London), 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, some of whom had met Burne-Jones and all of whom certainly 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.
One of the present sketchbooks was used by Cowper over a long period of time; in 1908-1910 he contributed to the murals of Tudor history for the Common's East Corridor in the Houses of Parliament with The New Learning: Erasmus and Thomas More visit the children of Henry VII at Greenwich. Lucretia Borgia reigns in the Vatican in the Absence of Pope Alexander VI (Tate, London) was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1914 and The Cathedral Scene from Faust, which was sold Christie's, London, 30 November 2000, lot 10 (£90,000) was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1919, no. 168.