Frank Cadogan Cowper produced one of his finest and most exquisite works of all, Vanity (1908, RA, London) just as the last of the original Pre-Raphaelite brothers neared the end of his life. This diploma piece is somewhere between chastity and enchantress, between his St Agnes in Prison Receiving the “Shining White Garment” (1905, Tate, London) and his La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1926, Location Unknown).*
It could seem that Vanity more comfortably sits within the realm of Italian portraiture, of an artist such as Titian, but there are many subtleties which firmly place her as a modern interpretation of a Pre-Raphaelite theme. Vanity has been described as a ‘manifestation of female beauty’ and because Cowper gives such a polished, yet effervescent glow to this young nubile female we cannot help but desire and admire her.’* The detail of the background serves to emphasise this young creature with her rouged mouth, porcelain skin and aslant gaze. The grapes and leaves that adorn the background seem to have been derived from the external frame of Millais’s The Return of the Dove to the Ark (1851, Ashmolean, Oxford) but have now become absorbed and integrated into Cowper’s interior world. This is just one example of a type of artistic descent which Cowper explores; Cowper’s interest lays in understanding his own artistic inheritance whilst giving new life to it.
Cowper delicately displaces the main function of Titianesque vanity, the mirror, to one side so we can momentarily accept her as some saintly apparition. She appears to have a halo, albeit a richly brocaded and luxuriant one. It is also feasible that she is simultaneously both virgin and child. Is she desiring, waiting to be seduced? Perhaps this is a Shakespearian, or theatrical quality which we are identifying?
The heavy coiled detail of her dress has a complex ancestry, linking both Renaissance imagery and the Pre-Raphaelites. Burne-Jones, Sidonia von Bork (1860, Tate, London) provides the immediate origin but we can trace further back to Romano, Margherita Palaeologa (1531, Royal Collection, London) which in Cowper’s time was thought to be of Isabella d’Este. Acknowledging these references we soon realise that Vanity’s headdress is an amalgamation, so we can confidently assert that whilst Vanity is drawn from Renaissance predecessors she simultaneous engages with Burne-Jones and Millais, resulting in a subtle complexity. However, the image Cowper most usefully dialogues with is perhaps an unexpected one, Millais, The Bridesmaid (1851, Fitzwilliam, Cambridge).
Jan Marsh describes The Bridesmaid thus;
The force of sexual desire is felt with curious intensity in Millais’ small painting…Dreaming of her own nuptials, this young woman is romantically enrapt, her face lifted towards the spectator, lips parted ready for kissing. Moreover, half the canvas is filled with her cascading corn-coloured hair. In reality, of course, loose hair was worn only by children; in womanhood it was braided or pinned up and thereafter visible only when retiring or riding. Its appearance in art has therefore an intimate, erotic significance. Millais’ The Bridesmaid could hardly have been so ‘undressed’ at an actual wedding feast, she is a visual symbol of marriageability’. **
Marsh goes on to describe how the bridesmaid is dreaming of her man (or a potential man) and it is this idea which is relevant to this discussion. Both The Bridesmaid and Vanity are delectable, desirable and inviting nubiles: both open to the suggestion of sexual arousal, even if shyly.
This theme is delicately and sensitively brought out by Millais with the rose bud mouth, the phallic sugar caster, the orange blossom and the passing of the cake through the ring. Cowper creates coquettish aslant eyes, the pearl necklace round the exposed neck, and the rose bud painted mouth. The long, unravelled hair in both paintings may feel sexual and naked in a Victorian sense, but Vanity still seems hesitant. Unsure of what is expected of her, despite her sophisticated dress and accoutrements, Vanity checks herself discreetly. Vanity is at the point of becoming what The Bridesmaid envisages.
With Millais then we have the ‘before’ image, the innocent full of hope, coupled with a naive sensual longing. In Cowper, we have the reality; the freshly polished courtly woman, burdened by girlish anxiety of sexual acceptance. Both young women are old enough to know sensual feelings ‘but, guileless, as yet [they] lack the inhibitions to mask them’.*** Despite the transitional qualities within each work, these paintings can almost be read as before and after; the child and the woman.
In a later version of vanity, we can see further sources being utilised by Cowper which illustrate heritage and regeneration, see below. The later version of Vanity shows a move away from a more involved Pre-Raphaelitism, and there is a suggestion of 1930s fashion in the design. Pre-Raphaelitism was not forgotten by Cowper though, for if we compare Vanity the 1919 version to Rossetti, Monna Vanna we can immediately see the heavy brocaded fabric is a direct descendent, as is the actual theme within the painting. The ornate, sensuous patterns seem to have captivated Cowper, and he returned to such textures in the dress of La Belle and and in Cowper, Rapunzel (1908, Location Unknown).
* Anderson, G.N, Heaven on earth: The Religion of Beauty in Late Victorian Art exh. Cat. Nottingham (Djanogly Art Gallery) 1994., pg. 54.
** Marsh, Jan, Pre-Raphaelite Women (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987) p. 48.
*** Sonstroem, David, ‘Teeth in Victorian Art’, Victorian Literature and Culture, Vol. 29, No. 2 (2001): 351-382, pg 379