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Bowles, William Leslie (1885–1954)

by Nancy D. H. Underhill

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

William Leslie Bowles (1885-1954), by unknown photographer

William Leslie Bowles (1885-1954), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, P04333.001

William Leslie Bowles (1885-1954), sculptor, was born on 26 February 1885 at Leichhardt, New South Wales, son of William Hixson Bowles, an Irish-born compositor, and his wife Rachel, née Mark. He attended the Kangaroo Point State School, Brisbane, then studied carving and modelling at the Brisbane Technical College under Lewis J. Harvey, a careful and dedicated teacher who stressed drawing and the proper use of materials. Harvey's fine art nouveau furniture and pottery introduced Bowles to the style and to current academic techniques before he went to England on a scholarship from the college in 1910. He worked there with several sculptors, including (Sir) E. Bertram Mackennal, and attended night classes at South London School of Sculpture and at the Royal Academy. In Mackennal's studio work was then concentrated mainly on large public monuments, such as the London Memorial and Tomb for King Edward VII, and equestrian statues of the king for Melbourne, London and Calcutta. It is not surprising that Bowles's later independent work reflects that of Mackennal, and almost never stems directly from other contemporaries.

During World War I Bowles enlisted in the 2nd/25th London Regiment, and then joined the Royal Tank Corps at its inception. After the war he exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy and was employed on the Wembley British Empire Exhibition. He married Mary Lees of Kelso, Scotland, on 24 February 1924; late that year he returned to Australia and settled in Prahran, Melbourne. He was employed with other artists in the Melbourne Exhibition Building on the projected Australian War Memorial, for which he executed several sculptures, the models for figures in the dioramas, and two plans for the Hall of Memory. Though forced to sell hire purchase radios during the Depression, his War Memorial work provided security which evaded other sculptors.

Bowles's work depends heavily on narrative or moral content with little exploration of materials or their surfaces: it conformed with the almost exclusive use of sculpture in the 1930s and 1940s to expand civic and national pride and myth-making. His most interesting artistic quality is his subjection of sculptural elements of large monuments to an overall 'architectural design'. The 1939 proposal for the Hall of Memory was a draped female figure on a sarcophagus surmounted by soldiers' arms and equipment; his excellent 1949 version was a pale yellow marble shaft representing the four freedoms, carefully relating its central location to the Hall's other features. Unfortunately, political interference prevented its execution. The King George V Memorial in Melbourne, designed in 1937 and cast after World War II, acknowledges the site's importance by minimizing both sculpture and variations of stone colouring. This attention to site and simplicity seems stronger than in the case of his contemporaries George Lambert, C. D. Richardson, or even Rayner Hoff. In 1937 he won the competition for a memorial to Sir John Monash and his equestrian statue was erected in the Melbourne Domain in 1951.

Bowles had strong, if predictable, views on art criticism, art ethics and the art clique that ruled Melbourne taste in the 1940s. He especially disliked George Bell who criticized Ivor Hele's work for the War Memorial. The only critic Bowles approved of was his friend James S. MacDonald, who also maintained that symmetry and beauty were the proper goals of art. In 1926 Bowles had been made a member of the Royal Society of British Sculptors. He sometimes exhibited with the Victorian Artists' Society between 1925 and 1932, and with the Australian Art Association in the mid-1930s and 1940s. He was a foundation member and secretary of the Sculptors' Society of Australia, founded in 1932 at a meeting in Ola Cohn's studio, and held this office until the war when the society ceased to function. He also adjudicated the Jubilee Medal award, and was a foundation member of the Australian Academy of Art.

When poor health stopped his work for the War Memorial, Bowles asked that it be completed by his former assistant Ray Ewers. In 1938 he had established a studio and home at Frankston; he died there of coronary vascular disease on 21 February 1954 and was cremated. His wife survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • A. McCulloch, Encyclopedia of Australian Art (Lond, 1968)
  • J. Johnson and A. Greutzner (eds), Dictionary of British Artists 1880-1940 (Suffolk, 1976)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 25 Nov 1937, 22 Nov 1951
  • records (Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

Nancy D. H. Underhill, 'Bowles, William Leslie (1885–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bowles-william-leslie-5313/text8971, published in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 21 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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