The grave of Frank Cadogan Cowper (1877-1958) in Cirencester’s Chesterton Cemetery remains untended. At his posthumous studio sale, his canvases were offered as ‘Suitable for reuse’, and even The Times obituary misspelled his name. He was a member of both the Royal Academy and the Royal Watercolour Society in his life-time, and yet it seems Cowper was, and continues to be, an overlooked artist.

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Frank Cadogan Cowper’s (1877-1958) grave, Cirencester’s Chesterton Cemetery

There are many claims for the title of ‘The Last Pre-Raphaelite’ and a growing trend for the term ‘Neo Pre-Raphaelite’, both of which could be applied to Cowper. These terms reflect a critical desire to establish a time-line of Pre-Raphaelite art, but also illustrate our own awkward relationship with Pre-Raphaelitism. Analysing Cowper’s suitability for these terms is a less useful pursuit than the question Percy Bate asked in 1901: ‘who would guard and cherish’ the ‘light lamp’ of Pre-Raphaelitism? [1]

We can assume Cowper cherished particular Pre-Raphaelite paintings when we witness his obvious engagement with them. Perhaps Cowper should be placed in a critical space where reverence and love for Pre-Raphaelite art is permitted?

In 1899, Cowper wrote ‘I understand the theory of Pre-Raphaelitism perfectly now’, and within two years he had created a copy of one of the earliest Pre-Raphaelite angel paintings, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini! (1849 – 1850, Tate). [2]

Rossetti, Ecce Ancilla Domini! (1849 – 1850, Tate)

Conversely, what is interesting about this ‘copy’ is its differences: whilst the Virgin Mary is clearly copied, the Archangel Gabriel is significantly different. Cowper’s painting is physically split, and it has been suggested he only intended to paint the Virgin Mary. But how do we then explain the attention Cowper clearly lavished upon the figure of the Archangel Gabriel? Why did Cowper depict Gabriel in the elaborate cassock of a priest, rather than the simple white linen robe of Rossetti’s archangel?

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Cowper, Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation), after Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1901, Private Collection)

This difference is decisive and whilst we can acknowledge the importance of texture as a general feature of Cowper’s style, this offers us little toward analysing the aesthetic or angelic differences between the two paintings.

In the hands of Cowper, Rossetti’s flame footed archangel becomes a material, earthly bound figure. Gabriel is still angelos but he is now a material indicator of church ritual. Celestial divinity, via the halo, sanctions Gabriel’s messenger role but he has no wings to fly, no fire to lift him. Gabriel is earthbound, perhaps even spiritually shackled by the cassock.

Cowper provokes us into asking how comfortably the nineteenth (and early twentieth) century was at reconciling itself with religious doctrine and church practice? His re-examination of the mid-Victorian interest in religious symbolism becomes in itself a useful indicator of church practice, and it does so via aesthetic engagement with the Romish aesthetic of the material and angelic body.

F.G. Stephen’s understood the Pre-Raphaelite Brothers absorbed past artistry in pursuit of their own works, but this is also key to understanding Cowper’s art, as it rightfully places him within the mode of decisively continuing long running artistic and religious dialogues.

Through this treatment of the angelic body, we are offered a useful and beautiful mechanism for assessing nineteenth century religious disenchantment. We should recognise Cowper and his archangel as guarding the ‘light lamp’ of Pre-Raphaelite art, rather than merely holding a nostalgic flame for it.

‘Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life’

An online archive of Cowper’s paintings can be found here:

[1] Bate, Percy, The English Pre-Raphaelite Painters (New York: AMS Press, 1972 – reprint from the 1901 edition) pg. 119.

[2] Letter from Cowper to his mother (London: R.A. Archives, August 13th, 1899, reference COW/2/1). The location of Cowper’s Ecce Ancilla Domini! is most likely in a private collection (it was last seen at Christie’s in 2014).

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