‘The Last Pre-Raphaelite’ Exceeds Expectations at Christie’s Frank Cadogan Cowper's Our Lady of the Fruits of the Earth
While the Christie’s New York auction of Liz Taylor’s jewellery grabbed all of last week’s headlines, I was more interested in some of the Pre-Raphaelite gems on show at the Christie’s London auction of ‘Victorian and British Impressionist Art’. One artist who inspired some furious competition was Northamptonshire’s own Frank Cadogan Cowper. Estimated at £150,000 - £250,000, his Our Lady of the Fruits of the Earth (1917, above) went for £469,250, a record-breaking price for Cowper’s work. In a complex, efficient choreography, assistants ferried most of the paintings in and out for display. But throughout the auction, Cowper’s work remained on the wall above a phalanx of smartly attired men and women taking phone bids. The painting was beautifully lit, showing off its bright colours and ornate frame to full advantage.
Perhaps it was to this work that Peter Brown (Director in Victorian Pictures) was referring when he breezily told me that some items had done ‘better than expected.’ British understatement at its finest, I suspect.
Cowper is sometimes referred to as the ‘Last Pre-Raphaelite’. The painter is clearly borrowing from a Pre-Raphaelite colour palette, but what other Pre-Raphaelite influences are detectable?
According to Peter Brown’s informative audio clip about the painting, we can see the vines from Dante Gabriel’s The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, as well as the curiously peering sheep from Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents.
One thing I noticed was a correspondence between this work and Ford Madox Brown’s Take Your Son, Sir, begun in 1851 and never completed. This reference lends a dark tone to this wartime painting, doubly alluding to the sacrifice of England’s sons during the Great War.
Brown also mentions that Cowper was a great collector of frames, and that this Italianate example helped inspired the artist to paint this work in the manner of an altarpiece. Brown notes that ‘rarely in British works of this period are picture and frame so integral to each other as here.’
The Pre-Raphaelites were also interested in the relationship between picture and frame, and their frame designs frequently suggested altarpieces and church windows.
What do you think? Do you think there are echoes of Ford Madox Brown in this painting? Can you spot any other Pre-Raphaelite references?