Born too late?
The English artist Frank Cadogan Cowper has often been called the last of the Pre-Raphaelites. When would you say his painting above, La Belle Dame Merci (based on the poem by Keats), was painted? Perhaps around 1900 at the latest? After all, on first glance the subject matter and style are surely textbook Pre-Raphaelite, harking back to the romanticized Victorian ideal of knighthood? (Cowper also produced a watercolour version to the left. I think I prefer the darker oil version- what do you think?)
Cowper actually painted this in 1926. He had a deep admiration of Pre-raphaelite greats such as Rosetti and Millais, and was so much influenced by them that his own paintings were considered “old-fashioned” and behind their time. However, look at the painting again and look at the dress. Perhaps its loose shape, deep scoop neck and lack of sleeves is resolutely 1920s, after all? Doesn’t the enormous poppy design fabric (which dwarfs the real poppies in the picture) make you think of the 1920s stencilled designs of Fortuny or Gallenga? (Although Fortuny and Gallenga were more or less contemporaries, in general Gallenga’s designs are considered to be larger in scale than Fortuny’s more detailed ones.) The coat below by Gallenga is in the Met in New York:
Same subject, same title, different painting- Cowper painted an earlier work of La Belle Dame Sans Merci in 1905. Here the print on the Belle Dame’s skirt becomes almost part of the rich forest floor under the tree, and more part of the natural landscape than a dress (perhaps a trick Cowper uses less obviously with his later Belle Dame and her poppies?):
Another 1920s dress with enormous print design appears in this otherwise Pre-Raphaelite picture from 1928. Called Titania Sleeps, it is based on Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
Once you start noticing a feature, such as Cowper’s love of large scale prints, you can’t help noticing it in his other pictures, such as Mariana in the South:
By the 1920s Cowper was still using subject matter and a style that was rapidly going out of fashion. The market for the meticulously painted literary and historical scenes favoured by Rosetti, Burne-Jones and the Pre-Raphaelite circle was in decline. Although Cowper’s career as a portrait painter continued to flourish, by the time he was elected to the Royal Academy in 1934, modern tastes had little time for his painting style or subject matter. Regardless of trends, he carried on producing and exhibiting his Pre-Raphaelite style paintings with increased regularity right up until his death at the age of 81 in 1958.
In 1954 he displayed this work, The four queens find Lancelot sleeping, in the Royal Academy:
The Times newspaper wrote that “Mr F Cadogan Cowper, who must be the last Academician to have achieved the supreme distinction of having a rail put round his pictures to keep crowds at bay, shows another belated Pre-Raphaelite work”.
In his book The Last Romantics, John Christian writes of this picture:
It is indeed an astonishing case of Pre-Raphaelite survival. In subject, mood and technique it might belong to the 1900s. Only the features of the four Queens, who look like 1950s film stars, give a clue to its real date. Morgan Le Fay, ‘Queen of the Land of Gore’, the Queen of Northgalis, the Queen of Eastland and the Queen of the ‘Out Isles’, discover Lancelot asleep beneath an apple tree. Each wants him for her paramour, so Morgan Le Fay lays him under enchantment and has him carried to her castle where is asked to choose one of them. Faithful to Guinevere, he refuses, and eventually makes his escape.
But this is not entirely true. It is not the Queens’ features that offer a clue to the true date, but their outfits. The same large scale print loved by Cowper is in evidence, but the fur wraps,nipped in waists, smart little fitted jacket on the queen in the foreground and the full twirling skirts owe a lot to Christian Dior’s New Look. Cowper may have stayed true to his beloved Pre-Raphaelite style and subject matter, but his protagonists’ outfits do seem to change with the times, as we’ve already noticed in his 1920s works. (Also, does Lancelot have a 1950s brylcreemed side parting here or do my eyes deceive me?)
At Cowper’s studio sale shortly after his death, his painted canvases were offered as being ‘Suitable for reuse’, so unappreciated was his art at the time. Thankfully, his talent has stood the test of time, even if has was never “fashionable”: one of his portraits,The Ugly Duckling, was voted the favourite painting by visitors to the Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum in 2005.
The model for this picture, Valerie Tarantolo, was approached by Cowper while working in Boots the Chemist. He asked her to sit for him for two shillings and sixpence an hour. She is reunited with her portrait 50 years on in the Cheltenham Art Gallery in this touching video on youtube: