Cowper's self-portrait of 1899.

Frank Cadogan Cowper was born in Northamptonshire in 1877. His mother Edith Cadogan, a prolific children’s author, was the daughter of the Rector of Wicken. His father, Frank Cowper, who came originally from the Isle of Wight, was a successful travel writer who also penned the occasional romantic tale or ghost story. Spending his formative years at the Wicken Rectory and being brought up in the faith of the Plymouth Brethren, it is no wonder that the young Frank Cadogan Cowper would continue to uphold Victorian values and find himself guided by the principles of Victorian Art for the rest of his life. Even his dress sense was marked by his preference for wearing very high collars, long after they had become unfashionable. After an education at Cranleigh, he enrolled at the St John’s Wood Art School in 1896 and, a year later, became a student at the Royal Academy schools in London. The retrospective exhibitions of pictures by Ford Madox Brown in 1896 and of works by Millais and Rossetti in 1898 had a very obvious influence upon the young artist’s emerging talent. His earliest canvases are permeated with the same honesty and truth to nature that underpinned the works of the first Pre-Raphaelites. Indeed, Cowper found himself a member of a less celebrated movement, sometimes called ‘the neo-Pre-Raphaelites’ or ‘the label school’ on account of the way the artists often signed their works within a trompe l'oeil cartouche.

From his first major success in 1901, Cowper painted a succession of highly acclaimed pictures for the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibitions. Two were bought with funds from the Chantrey Bequest for the National Collection, whilst his painting of Vanity in 1907 was to become his Diploma Work for the RA. In 1904, the centenary year of the Royal Watercolour Society, he was made an Associate of the Society along with Henry Scott Tuke and John Singer Sargent. A six months stint working in the studio of another American artist, Edwin Austin Abbey not only helped to further the development of the dramatic narratives contained within Cadogan Cowper’s art, but also proved to be a very useful connection. Several years later, Abbey was appointed by the Palace of Westminster to oversee a scheme of mural decoration. Cowper, along with a group of fellow ‘neo-Pre-Raphaelites’ that included Byam Shaw, Denis Eden and Henry Arthur Payne, was duly enlisted to spend two years painting scenes to decorate the East Corridor of the House of Commons. Cowper selected the subject of Erasmus and Thomas More visit the children of Henry VII at Greenwich, 1499 as his theme, drawing directly upon Holbein’s portraiture to obtain authentic likenesses. The number of studies for this picture alone demonstrates the artist’s thoroughness in his working practice. When he painted Hamlet – the Churchyard Scene, he ordered an actual grave to be dug in his back garden, so that he could paint it more accurately. And when he painted an incident in the life of Lucrezia Borgia, he travelled all the way to Rome to make a record of the interior of the actual room in the Vatican where the episode was said to have taken place. Back in London he made the acquaintance of the aged Pre-Raphaelite painter Arthur Hughes, in 1913. The 81 year old artist recalled in a letter that ‘Cadogan Cooper – the A.R.A…is delightful but stammers most fearfully, and his picture splendid.’ He also observed that the younger artist had ‘one of my better pen and inks framed and hanging up.’

Left: Vanity, as shown as a preface to the Pall Mall Gazette's article about Cowper by P. G. Konody, p. 20. Right: The artist at his easel, from a photo by Reginald Haines, also from the Pall Mall Gazette's article about him, p. 23.

Not only did Cadogan Cowper revere and collect the works of others; he often made gifts of his own pictures to artist colleagues and friends, much akin to the benevolent practices of the early Pre-Raphaelites. He painted an altarpiece reredos for Godalming Church in 1914, which sadly is no longer in situ. In contrast to this ecclesiastical commission he continued to explore darker subjects, painting various scenes from Faust, again meticulously preparing several designs before beginning work upon the actual canvases. An earlier painting entitled How the Devil, disguised as a vagrant troubadour, having been entertained by some charitable nuns, sang to them a song of love was considered one of the pictures of the year when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy, but the canvas provoked censure from some members of the Roman Catholic church who found the treatment of the subject matter offensive. In 1924 he moved to a studio in Chelsea’s fashionable Tite Street, a neighbourhood that at one time or another would be home to Whistler, Wilde, Sargent and Augustus John. The Twenties and Thirties saw a definite shift towards portraiture in Cowper’s output. The grand subject pictures were no longer proving lucrative, although he continued to receive patronage from the likes of Evelyn Waugh and the Wills family of Misarden in Gloucestershire. He was elected an RA in the summer of 1934, somewhat belatedly, one might think, after his great successes of thirty years earlier. He left for Guernsey at the outbreak of World War II, where he was engaged, amongst other things, in painting camouflage, but eventually returned to England, settling in Gloucestershire in 1944. For a time he had a house in Fairford, not far from Edwin Austin Abbey’s old studio, but later Cowper acquired a house and studio in Cirencester. ‘CC’ (as he was known to his friends) could frequently be spotted riding to the shops in town upon his bicycle. The shy old bespectacled Academician was well loved and his good sense of humour often remarked upon. He continued to exhibit at the Royal Academy through the 1950s, causing further controversy, this time with his painting of A Jealous husband having disguised himself as a Priest, heard his own wife’s confession, the theme of which some thought inappropriate for exhibition at the Academy. He exhibited self-portraits on two occasions during his career, the first in 1900, one year before his initial Academy success, and a second time in 1957 – his last exhibited painting before his death the following year, at the age of 81. He is buried in Cirencester Cemetery. The Times newspaper gave Cowper a lengthy and mostly praiseworthy obituary, but at the sale of his effects by the auctioneers Jackson-Stops four months later, some of his oil paintings were listed in the catalogue as ‘Suitable for re-use’. Thankfully local collectors and dealers saved many of these canvases from an inglorious fate.

During his long life, his pictures were exhibited at the Royal Watercolour Society, at the French Salon, in Rome, in Venice and of course at the Royal Academy, where he was noted by the Times as being ‘the last Academician to have the supreme distinction of having a rail put around his pictures to keep crowds at bay.’ And now, Frank Cadogan Cowper’s art is undergoing something of a second renaissance. His unique ouevre is gradually being reappraised and his most distinctive artworks are beginning to be fully appreciated once again. He is no longer unjustly seen as a remnant of a bygone age, but as a highly inventive and creatively talented artist, who remained true to his own personal vision, regardless of whatever fads or conventions the rest of the art world had decided to follow. He has sometimes been called ‘the last Pre-Raphaelite’, an epithet that one is sure he would have been very proud to own.


Buckle, Scott Thomas, & Neil Wilson. Frank Cadogan Cowper & Arthur Gaskin. Hove: Campbell Wilson, 2004.

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. 24 February 2024.

Created 24 February 2024