Stella Bowen by Lola Wilkins

Excerpted from the Know My Name publication (2020).

In her autobiography Drawn from life Stella Bowen reflected on her move to an apartment on rue Boissannade in Paris in 1931, which was to ‘symbolise the new independent life I was building out of the ashes of my life with Ford and provide the necessary background for an ordered existence’.(1)

Bowen met English novelist Ford Madox Ford in October 1917, three years after she moved to London from Adelaide to pursue her artistic career. A veteran of the First World War, Ford returned to England jaded and shell-shocked. At 19 years his junior Bowen provided a ray of hope for the future. Their daughter Julie was born and the relationship lasted for nine years until Ford’s infidelities severed their life together.

Self portrait c 1929 exposes the emotional upheavals Bowen faced and reflects the artistic influences that would continue to appear in her paintings. It is a sombre portrait; her light brown eyes are directed at the viewer, hair smoothed back from her face half in shadow. The background is muted so as not to detract from the portrait. Her black, red and white clothing references the religious paintings she viewed on her visit to Italy in 1923 with Dorothy and Ezra Pound. She was transfixed by the works of the early masters Giotto, Botticelli, Piero della Francesca and Simone Martini, and returned ‘full of ideas about formal composition and thin paint’.(2) The duality of her personality is reflected in the position of the red and white collars. The right‑hand‑side is neat demonstrating the pragmatism she had to face as a single parent while the left is informal, confirming her status as an artist.

Two decades later Bowen again returned to the early Italian painters. In 1943, now living in England, Bowen was approached by the Australian High Commission to take up an appointment as an official war artist.(3) As she wrote to Louis McCubbin:

I can’t do ‘action’ pictures with crowds of busy people. My line is portraiture. I would welcome a chance to do group portraits treated as a formal decorative scheme, with emphasis on linear design. Uniforms and symbols would lend themselves to this treatment.(4)

Asked to paint a typical bomber crew, Bowen undertook pencil drawings of the seven men. When they did not return from their bombing operation over Germany, a devastated Bowen was determined to complete the portrait and returned to her London studio with her sketches and official photographs of the crew. One of 46 paintings and drawings completed during her 20 months as a war artist, Bomber crew 1945 is an iconic painting of disembodied pilots: ‘it was like painting ghosts’.(5)

In 2000 the Australian War Memorial travelling exhibition and publication Stella Bowen: Art, love & war toured to regional Australia, bringing the artist’s remarkable work—still largely unknown—to the attention of a wider audience.

(1) Stella Bowen, Drawn from life, Collins Publishers, London, 1941, p 184.

(2) As above, p 100.

(3) The Australian High Commission approached Bowen on behalf of the Australian War Memorial.

(4) Bowen to Louis McCubbin, 21 July 1943, AWM 205/2/31. Louis McCubbin, the son of Frederick McCubbin, was Director of the Art Gallery of South Australia during the Second World War and a member of the Australian War Memorial Art Committee involved in the selection of official war artists. He put forward the names of Nora Heysen and Bowen, both from South Australia.

(5) Stella Bowen to Tom Bowen, 27 September 1944, private collection.

Citation: Cite this excerpt as: Wilkins, Lola. "Stella Bowen" in N Bullock, K Cole, D Hart & E Pitt (eds), Know My Name, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2020, pp 52–53.

Stella Bowen appears in