Cowper is unique in his pursuit of a vision that is an alchemical mix of dreamy romance and dark, sometimes macabre, undertones. His art pays tribute to the Pre-Raphaelite schooled Symbolism of Rossetti and Burne-Jones, but also seems to evoke the work of his European peers, such as Gustav Klimt (1862-1918). Cowper was a decorator as well as a painter; the collision of patterned surfaces in his work demonstrate his awareness of design.
Margaret (Alone at her Spinning Wheel), however, is neither overly patternistic or overblown in sentiment. Other famous works by Cowper, such as the oil Titania sleeps - A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1928, are bold and decadent in both subject and style. (see Christie's, New York, 30 October 2002, lot 35, £262,500). Margaret however, has a gentleness and sensitivity, and truly warrants the praise the Studio magazine gave Cowper in the year it was painted (1907):
'[Cadogan Cowper's]...is not an unacademic art in these unacademic days; it subscribes largely to the precedents of painting set by the academic school. The expression of individuality, however, is not a thing necessarily quashed under these conditions: though an art which is personal and strong without eccentricity or overstatement nowadays seems quite rare.' (Studio, XLI, 1907, p. 61.).
The reviewer was writing in relation to two of Cowper's exhibits at the Old Water-colour Society in that year: Mariana in the South and Patient Griselda (see Christie's, London, 6 November 1995, lot 113, £35,600). The latter shows a young woman in profile, a pose which seems to have attracted Cowper for its strong simplicity, and demonstrates the same ability to convey the feelings of his subject through the subtle turns of her neck and hands. Patient Griselda is, of course, a Chaucerian heroine; Margaret derives from Goethe's Faust. Cowper's easeful appropriation of these characters shows that, like many painters of a Symbolist bent, it was the deeper sentiments of the story: longing, endurance, love - that he wishes to portray, rather than the particulars.
One particular that is key to Margaret's story, however, is her Spinning Wheel. Margaret (or Gretchen, as she is also known) is the beautiful girl who falls in love with with Faust, the scholar who accepts the devil's (or Mephisto's) pledges of servitude in exchange for the same once Faust had passed from earthly life: '...but when we meet beyond then you shall do the same for me'.
The devil's winning card proves to be Margaret, whom Faust so desires that he is willing to accept Mephisto's wiles to obtain her. The devil arranges for Faust to win her love with the gift of a splendid necklace. Margaret becomes pregnant with Faust's child. Her brother, Valentine, attempts to avenge the loss of his sister's honour but the devil aids Faust in his fatal wounding of Valentine. Margaret suffers scorn, ridicule and imprisonment; however Faust finally vows to rescue her from this fate. Margaret will not leave her cell, and her spinning wheel, confessing that her child has been taken from her 'to give me pain'. It is her monologue that Cowper appends to his painting, wherein she conveys the eternal torment the break has occasioned. As the two corrupted companions flee the prison, a heavenly voice speaks of how Margaret's enduring faith has proved her to God, who will absolve her of her pain.
Cadogan Cowper depicts Margaret in her prison cell, though the casement window, and soft light, suggest that her imprisonment is more psychological than literal. She toys with the fateful necklace, Faust's beguiling gift. Her spinning wheel, which provides occupation, remains unused - a mere prop for her elbow. The tenderness with which Cowper portrays the bend of her neck, and the drift of her hair, invests this image with a quiet sensuality.