Monday, February 7, 2011

Frank Cadogan Cowper - Rapunzel sings from the Tower

Rapunzel sings from the Tower
'.... in the fire
Of sunset, I behold a face,
Which sometime, if God give me grace,
May kiss me in this very place'
(Rapunzel - William Morris)
signed and dated 'F.C. COWPER/1908' (lower left)
pencil and watercolour with gum arabic, heightened with touches of bodycolour
26½ x 16½ in. (67.3 x 42 cm.)

Pre-Lot Text
The De Morgan Foundation

In 1965, just before her 100th birthday, Mrs Wilhelmina Stirling, née Pickering, of Old Battersea House, died. She was ten years younger than her sister Evelyn, the painter who married William De Morgan, the leading ceramic artist of the Arts and Crafts movement.
Mrs Stirling had devoted most of her life to collecting together her sister's and brother-in-law's works of art, and Old Battersea House had become a shrine to the De Morgans' achievements. She also owned a number of works by other artists contemporary with the De Morgans. In her will she expressed the wish that a De Morgan Museum be established, and hoped that her friend David Clayton-Stamm would take the necessary steps towards achieving this.

Old Battersea House, built in 1699, was the property of Battersea (now incorporated into Wandsworth) Borough Council. During Mrs Stirling's long tenancy it had become seriously dilapidated and was threatened with demolition. The De Morgan collection had to be moved. David Clayton-Stamm's only option at the time was to establish the De Morgan Foundation and register it as a charity; establishing a museum was not a viable choice.

In 1971, the late Malcolm Forbes of Forbes Magazine undertook to restore Old Battersea House in return for a 99 year lease at a modest rent, to provide him and his family with a London pied à terre. The De Morgan Foundation was allowed the use of some of the rooms for the display of part of its collection for the period of 21 years, and the public was allowed to visit these by prior arrangement. Other parts of the collection were dispersed on loan to Cardiff Castle and the National Trust houses of Cragside in Northumberland and Knightshayes in Devon. The Foundation's archive material was stored in the private house of one of the Trustees.

Clearly with interest growing in the De Morgans, both in the United Kingdom and abroad, this state of affairs was unsatisfactory. The Foundation's remit, to look after the collection and make it accessible to the widest possible public, as well as to an increasing numbers of scholars, was seriously hampered by the collection's widely scattered locations. Access to the collection could not be synchronised or guaranteed. In addition, the initial arrangement of allowing the Foundation to house some of its collection in Old Battersea House had expired many years ago, although Malcolm Forbes' heirs, especially his son Christopher, have been most understanding in allowing the status quo to remain on a year-to-year basis.

During my Chairmanship it became clear to me and my fellow Trustees that a decisive step needed to be taken if the original vision of the founders was ever to be realised and the increasing interest in the De Morgans catered for. The Board of Trustees has always included three nominees from Wandsworth Council, and enthusiastic support from the current three encouraged us to ask the Council to try and find suitable premises where the Foundation could establish not just a De Morgan Museum but also a Study Centre for 19th Century Art and Society. This has now happened and almost ideal premises have been offered to us in the building once occupied by the West Hill Reference Library and its adjoining building. The new Centre will provide a fitting home for the entire De Morgan holdings, a fine temporary exhibition space for loan exhibitions on related subjects, and accommodation for selling exhibitions from time to time. The archive will also be available to scholars from all over the world, and a lively programme of education will benefit students not only in the immediate vicinity but from further afield as well.

The new Centre is scheduled to open early in 2002. Clearly such an undertaking requires considerable funding both for the capital costs involved in creating the facilities at West Hill, and also to create an endowment which will fund the continuing annual costs associated with running such an enterprise.
It was decided that to achieve this financial independence the paintings in this forthcoming sale should be returned to auction. None are by the De Morgans though all are by artists who formed part of their circle. It would not be possible to hang them at the new Centre, and we felt that it would be better if they could shine in new locations.
I commend them to you in the hope that their sale will contribute materially to the realisation of our vision.

Jon Catleugh
The De Morgan Foundation

London, Royal Society of Painters in Water Colours, Summer 1908, no. 102.

Lot Notes
This fine example of Cadogan Cowper's work, exhibited at the Royal Watercolour Society in 1908 when the artist was thirty-one, illustrates the well-known fairy story by the brothers Grimm. Rapunzel is a beautiful girl who is shut up in the tower by a witch. The tower has no door or staircase, but the witch ascends it by climbing up Rapunzel's long golden hair. In due course a young prince arrives, climbs up by the same means, and he and Rapunzel fall in love. After the inevitable trials resulting from the witch's fury when she discovers the turn of events, the young couple are married and live happily ever after.

Cowper was one of the most interesting of the artists who turned their backs on modernism and attempted to maintain the Pre-Raphaelite tradition far into the twentieth century. He was certainly the most persistent, still exhibiting pictures of this kind as late as the 1950s. Born at Wicken in Northamptonshire, where his maternal grandfather was rector, he studied at the St John's Wood Art School before entering the Royal Academy Schools in 1897. On leaving five years later, he enjoyed a six month apprenticeship in the Cotswold studio of Edwin Austin Abbey, the American muralist who, like his friend and compatriot John Singer Sargent, had settled in England. He finally completed his artistic education by a spell in Italy.

Although he exhibited widely, supporting the Royal Watercolour Society and the Royal Institute of Painters in Water 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 member in 1934. This close adherence to the RA tells us much about his approach to the Pre-Raphaelite heritage. Most of the movement's leading figures were now dead. Rossetti had died in 1882, Madox Brown, Millais and Burne-Jones in the 1890s. Only Holman Hunt survived (until 1910). Younger artists who wished to follow in their footsteps tended to be of two types. The Birmingham Group, most of whom were born in the 1860s, had met Burne-Jones as students and saw Pre-Raphaelitism as a living tradition, albeit one they could develop by exploiting its Arts and Crafts dimension. Others, generally slightly younger and without any personal knowledge of the protagonists, regarded the movement as a phenomenon ripe for survival, going back to the early work of the Brotherhood and attempting to reinterpret it in a more academic spirit. This was Cowper's approach, and he shared it with two artists, Byam Shaw and his friend Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, who, both born in 1872, were only five years his senior. Though never, it seems, on intimate terms with Cowper, they must have been acquainted with him. They too showed regularly at the RA, and in 1908-10 both Cowper and Shaw contributed to the murals illustrating scenes from Tudor history that were painted for the Commons' East Corridor in the Houses of Parliament under the supervision of Cowper's former master, Abbey.

Cowper shared with Shaw and Brickdale not only an academic approach to the Pre-Raphaelites but a certain campness of vision. In Cowper's case this had emerged strongly by 1907, when he exhibited that whacky masterpiece How the Devil, disguised as a vagrant Troubador, having been entertained by some charitable Nuns, sang to them a Song of Love (private collection). We see the same trend in the portraits which, like so many artists still devoted to the literary themes which had long since gone out of fashion, he was forced to paint for a living. The majority are likenesses of glamorous young women, painted in a rather arch and fey style. But the tendency is most apparent in some of Cowper's late subject pictures. In Titania Sleeps of 1928, sold in these Rooms on 13 June this year, the model wears a modish Art Deco dress, while her abandoned pose suggests Hollywood at its most glamorous and an appropriate Disneyish touch is introduced by the attendant owl and rabbits. Similarly with The Four Queens find Lancelot Sleeping (private collection), an astonishing example of Pre-Raphaelite survival dating from 1954. The subject may look back to Rossettian medievalism but the models could be 1950s film stars - Vivien Lee or Glynis Johns as the Queens, perhaps, certainly Kenneth More as Sir Lancelot.

Cowper's first impulse was to steep himself in the early work of the PRB and its associates. This is nowhere more apparent than in St Agnes in Prison receiving from Heaven the shining white Garment (Tate Gallery), a Chantrey purchase of 1905 which borrows freely from Millais, Madox Brown and Rossetti. By the following year, however, Cowper's interest was turning to Rossetti's Venetian manner of the 1860s and he was beginning to evolve a more Renaissance idiom, with an emphasis on rich brocades to create a sumptuous decorative effect. Two rather tentative essays in this style, The Patient Griselda and Mariana in the South, both exhibited at the RWS in 1906, have been sold in these rooms recently (6 November 1995, lot 113, and 13 June 2001, lot 16). A more significant example, Vanity, followed in 1907. Not only was it Cowper's diploma work, and thus presumably one with which he wished to be closely identified, but we know its visual source. Giulio Romano's haunting portrait of Isabella d'Este at Hampton Court had influenced the young Burne-Jones in 1860, at a moment when, like his master Rossetti, he was moving away from medievalism and looking to sixteenth-century pictures (mostly, but, as this example shows, not exclusively Venetian) for inspiration. The portrait's curiously disturbing mood, the figures who approach so menacingly in the upper right distance, and the serpentine coils of black velvet that cover the sitter's dress, had all helped to form his conception of a uniquely sinister figure in German Romantic literature, Wilhelm Meinhold's Sidonia von Bork. Whether or not Cowper was aware of this (the point had been made in print in 1890 but in a somewhat obscure publication), he followed Burne-Jones in borrowing motifs from the portrait for his picture of Vanity, not only adopting the serpentine patterned dress, but the padded, turban-like head dress, the zazara, for which Isabella d'Este was famous.

Rapunzel was painted only a year later than Vanity, and the two pictures have much in common. Both adopt the half-length format, and although Rapunzel lacks the specific references to Giulio Romano's portrait, the emphasis is again on exotic, boldly patterned fabrics. Indeed an opulent sleeve of cream and crimson damask is the picture's dominant motif. The model for the two pictures also seems to be the same, although her demeanor is very different, cool and aloof in Vanity, sexually provocative in Rapunzel. It is as if our heroine has just caught sight of the prince and is going out of her way to vamp him - singing some siren song, displaying her ensnaring coils of hair, and adopting her most coquettish expression.

The debt to Rossetti in both pictures needs no emphasis. The focus on a single female figure, seen half-length, leaning on a parapet placed parallel to the picture space, clad in sumptuous robes and favoured with luxuriant tresses - all this is integral to the Venetian or Aesthetic style he evolved in the 1860s. In Vanity, the sitter's string of pearls and silver hand-mirror have many Rossettian precedents, but so equally does the element of music in Rapunzel. One has only to think of The Blue Bower, one of Rossetti's most important works of this period, in which his mistress Fanny Cornforth is seen playing languidly on a Japanese koto or zither.

Cowper's earliest essays in the Renaissance style, Griselda and Mariana, are comparatively gentle and elegiac in mood, but as the voluptuous worldliness celebrated in Rossetti's work in the 1860s strengthened its hold on his imagination, he began, in Vanity and Rapunzel, to express something much more hard and brittle. He changes his model, replacing the pleasant-faced, dark-haired girls found in the former pair of pictures with the more sophisticated beauty represented in the latter. That this new muse had golden hair is surely no accident, since Fanny Cornforth, the presiding genius of Rossetti's Venetian phase, also had locks of this colour. 'A pre-eminently fine woman, with a mass of the most lovely blonde hair, light golden, or "harvest yellow"', was how Rossetti's brother William Michael described her. Moreover, although Cowper's model is a more refined type than Rossetti's handsome, coarse, bedable companion, she too in Cowper's hands projects a sence of animal magnetism and sexual danger.

The theme of Vanity was clearly an appropriate one in this context, but in Rapunzel Cowper seems to be so in love with the idea of painting a seductive glamour-puss that he is prepared to twist the story to suit William Morris, who included a version of Grimm's fairytale in his first volume of poetry, The Defence of Guenevere, published in 1858. That he was painting a subject that Morris had already attempted was of course part of his neo-Pre-Raphaelite agenda. Indeed, he quoted from the poem in the RWS catalogue, and there are details in Morris's account, for example the description of the heroine 'bearing within her arms waves of her yellow hair', which he seems to consciously echo. But in general interpretation the poem and the picture would hardly be more different. Morris, surely keeping closer to the original spirit of the story, sees Rapunzel as a beleaguered victim, abused by the witch and pathetically yearning for love. Cowper prefers to make her a knowing and predatory temptress. The very lines he quotes show how far he has moved from the Morrisian concept. It comes from a passage in which Rapunzel, far from playing the aggressive vamp, plaintively describes a vision of the knight who may one day come to her rescue.

If any doubt remained that Cowper was currently seduced by the Rossetti of the 1860s, we have only to note the subject of his next important subject picture. There were moments when the appeal that Venetian luxuriance held for Rossetti and his circle - an appeal so different from that of Dantesque piety or Arthurian romance a few years earlier - shaded into a darker preoccupation with the link between beauty and cruelty. This cult of the femme fatale, ultimately to have such enormous repercussions for European Symbolism in general, focused in particular on two images. One was a fictional heroine. Burne-Jones's illustrations (there were in fact a pair of pictures) to Meinhold's spine-chilling gothic romance Sidonia the Sorceress have already been mentioned. Rossetti and Swinburne also admitted to a 'positive passion' for the story of Sidonia, a beautiful, well-born but incurably vicious girl who wreaks havoc in sixteenth-century Pomerania, bewitching the entire ruling house to death or sterility before she is arrested and burnt at the stake. Nor was this a passing craze; as late as 1893 William Morris re-printed Lady Wilde's translation of the book at the Kelmscott Press. The other figure who attracted fascinated attention was historical. Lucretia Borgia was the subject of a watercolour by Rossetti (Tate Gallery), begun in 1860 but extensively reworked some years later. Showing her washing her hands after administering poison to her husband, the picture has close iconographical links with Burne-Jones's contemporary Sidonia von Bork, and the two works, for both of which Fanny Cornforth modelled, are to all intents and purposes twin expressions of the same idea. However, it was Swinburne, always drawn like a magnet to the subject of sadism, who went furthest in fostering a cult of Lucretia, visiting her relics in Milan in 1861, calling her his 'blessedest pet', a member of a 'holy family', and writing both prose and verse in her honour.

This is not the place to pursue the most bizarre example of the circle's gleeful delight in flouting conventional morality. The point here is that half a century later Cadogen Cowper deliberately sought to reinvoke the phenomenon. His picture Lucretia Borgia reigns in the Vatican in the Absence of Pope Alexander VI was begun in 1908 and eventually exhibited at the RA in 1914. It shows Lucretia, once again modelled by the golden-haired beauty who appears in Vanity and Rapunzel, deputising for her father amid scarlet-soutaned cardinals beneath the Pintoricchio frescoes in the Borgia apartments in the Vatican. Within the context of Cowper's current concerns, it would be hard to imagine a more ambitious concept, and indeed, like the earlier St Agnes in Prison, the picture was bought for the Chantrey Bequest.

No comments: