Stella Bowen’s restless youth
What’s the link between quiet 1890s North Adelaide and the radical world of 1920s European art and literature? Meet Stella Bowen.
From frustrated Adelaide teenager to one of Australia’s great war artists, Stella Bowen was a remarkable South Australian who as a young woman abandoned the “queer little backwater of intellectual timidity” of her youth for the artistic circles of London and Paris.
Born in May 1893, Bowen was raised in a house perched on North Adelaide’s western border by her widowed mother. Perhaps inspired by the watercolour sketches of a surveyor father she barely remembered, as a teenager Stella’s artistic aspirations were guided by fellow South Australian-born artist and teacher Margaret Preston.
Her mother’s death in 1914 freed Bowen to pursue her ambitions to England and later France. There she rubbed shoulders with influential iconoclasts like Aldous Huxley, T.S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein, while embarking on an at-times tempestuous relationship with writer Ford Madox Ford (Parade’s End).
Left: Stella Bowen c. 1920, courtesy Cornell Rare Book and Manuscript Collection
In 1941 Stella published her memoir, Drawn from Life. She wrote mainly of her life in Paris and Europe, and relationship with Ford, but also recalled her early years in Adelaide.
“I wish I knew the truth about that strangely dim and distant life in Adelaide before the war,” she wrote of growing up in the city at the turn of the century. “I have reconstructed it in my memory as a queer little backwater of intellectual timidity – a kind of hangover of Victorian provincialism, isolated by three immense oceans and a great desert, and stricken by recurrent waves of paralysing heat. It lies shimmering on a plain encircled by soft blue hills, prettyish, banal, and filled to the brim with an anguish of boredom.
Bowen would become best known for her late career output as an official artist for the Australian War Memorial, only the second woman to be granted the position. Bowen’s notable works from this period include the striking group portrait of a bomber crew who perished over Germany before the painting’s completion, and a portrait of an unknown Aboriginal soldier, only identified as Western Australian Private David Harris in 2014.
Captain Stella Bowen shows her work to RAAF subjects in Yorkshire c. 1944, courtesy of the Australian War Memorial UK2341
Bowen’s career was cut short by cancer just as her talent was beginning to gain recognition. Despite having left Australia at a young age, before her death Bowen made efforts to return home one final time. They were ultimately unsuccessful, and she died in England in October 1947. Today Bowen’s work can be seen at the Art Gallery of South Australia, the Australian War Memorial, and the National Gallery in Canberra, as well as in the United States and Great Britain.
Stella lived through a time of great change. As her daughter Julia Loewe notes in her 1984 introduction to the memoir, “My mother’s life spanned the years between the close of the nineteenth century and the late 1940s, a half century that began with muslin dresses, tennis parties and cricket matches in South Australia and ended with the Second World War and its aftermath in England.”
“I must be wrong,” Stella wrote of her incisive and at times less-than-flattering memories of Adelaide. There must have been more in it than ever met my eye. My poor small eye was placed very close to the ground, and my view was doubtless a worm’s-eye view. But it was the only view I had.”
Join us in commemorating the 70th anniversary of Bowen’s passing by retracing her North Adelaide childhood on Monday October 30, details here
Right: ‘Self portrait’, Stella Bowen 1920, courtesy Art Gallery of South Australia