Vanity, by Frank Cadogan Cowper RA (1877-1958). 1907. Photograph of the original painting prefacing P. G. Konody's article introducing Cowper as "The Academy's New Associate," p. 20. Oil painting on panel, 571 mm x 381 mm x 18 mm. Collection: Royal Academy of Arts Object no. 03/1013.

This was the Diploma Work given by Cowper in 1936. Konody does not discuss the painting itself, but his general remarks about Cowper do help to illuminate it:

The seriousness and conscientiousness of Mr. Cowper’s art may be gathered from the fact that just about a score of oil-paintings and water-colours represent eight years of steady, indefatigable work.... He aims at absolute truth, even in the rendering of the most insignificant detail, and at faultless perfection of finish. Whatever accessories and incidents are introduced into his pictures are done from life.... So great is his conscientiousness that he will not trust the skill and knowledge of the professional costumier, but prefers to cut out his own stencil designs for the rich brocades and velvets in which he loves to clothe the personages of his romantic compositions. [26]

One might suppose that his subject's costume here, including the unusual headdress, was fashioned to Cowper's own unique design. However, Scott Buckle writes to say that his source for the costume was the Portrait of Margherita Paleologo (c. 1531) by the Renaissance artist Giulio Romano, and that Edward Burne-Jones was inspired by the same source in his watercolour of Sidonia Von Bork 1560, now in the Tate. What distinguishes Cowper's work just as successfully is the proud, self-congratulatory, facial expression. The downward gaze — the fact that the eyes are almost shut to the world around — completes the allegory of self-absorption, the failure to realise the insignificance of one fleeting mortal life in the greater scheme of things.

Scanned image and text by Jacqueline Banerjee, with information about the costume from Scott Buckle. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]


Konody, P. G. "The Academy's New Associate. The work of Mr. F. Cadogan Cowper, A.R.A." The Pall Mall Magazine (January 1908). Internet Archive. Web. 25 February 2024.

Portrait of Margherita Paleologo (c. 1531). Royal Collection. Web. 25 February 2024.

Created 25 February 2024