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Esther Gwendolyn (Stella) Bowen (1893–1947)

by C. B. Christesen

This article was published:

Stella Bowen, 1920

Stella Bowen, 1920

Cornell Rare Book and Manuscript Collection

Esther Gwendolyn (Stella) Bowen (1893-1947), portrait painter and official war artist, was born on 16 May 1893 at North Adelaide, daughter of Thomas Hopkins Bowen (d.1896), surveyor, and his wife Esther Eliza, née Perry (d.1913). She was known in Adelaide as Estelle and in London as Stella. After leaving Miss Caroline Jacob's school, Tormore House, with first place in English in the senior certificate examination, she began her art training with Margaret Preston. Early in 1914, with an allowance from her parents' estate, she sailed for England.

Soon after the outbreak of war Stella Bowen enrolled at the Westminster School of Art under Walter Sickert. Her association with the novelist Ford Madox Ford (1873-1939) began in 1919 and lasted nine years. ('Valentine Wannop' in Ford's Tietjens tetralogy is a fictionalized portrait of Stella—'a bit too near the knuckle', she remarked to Ford). During that period they lived mainly in Paris and the south of France, where she painted landscapes, still-life, and portraits on commission. She also developed a talent for drawing quick 'likeness' sketches. After a visit to Italy in 1923 she became attracted to Giotto and the Italian Primitives; five years later El Greco tended to influence her work. Despite a successful visit to the United States of America in 1932, the calamitous effects of the Depression forced her to leave her 'beloved' Paris and return to London with her daughter Esther Julia Madox. For a time she wrote art critiques for the News Chronicle, taught students, and painted an occasional portrait; but it was a constant struggle to make ends meet despite Ford's erratic help.

During her lifetime Stella Bowen painted portraits of (among many others) Aldous Huxley, T. S. Eliot, Edith Sitwell, Naomi Mitchison, Gertrude Stein, Clifford Bax, Robert Lynd, Dorothy Thompson, D. N. Pritt, Isobel Cripps, Theaden Hancock, and G. D. H. and Margaret Cole. She also painted 'several “conversation pieces”, of whole families, with little figures of Hogarthian dimensions sitting about in their own houses'. A landscape, 'Embankment Gardens', was bought in 1943 by the National Gallery of South Australia. Other paintings (including a self-portrait) are in the possession of relations and friends in Adelaide and Canberra.

During World War II Stella Bowen published an excellent autobiography, Drawn From Life (1940), broadcast talks for the Pacific Service of the British Broadcasting Corporation, and on 7 February 1944 became the second woman war artist to be appointed by the Australian government. This was arduous and often distressing work; some portraits of Royal Australian Air Force bomber crews based in England had to be finished with the aid of photographs. The Australian War Memorial, Canberra, holds forty-six of her wartime oils and pencil drawings. Group portraits are treated as a formal decorative scheme, with emphasis on linear design. She had keenly desired to return to Australia but died of cancer in London on 30 October 1947, after having been denied pension and rehabilitation rights and a passage on a troopship. The National Gallery of South Australia presented a memorial exhibition of her paintings in 1953.

Select Bibliography

  • M. I. Cole, Growing Up Into Revolution (Lond, 1949)
  • D. D. Harvey, Ford Madox Ford 1873-1939 (Princeton, 1962)
  • A. McCulloch, Encyclopedia of Australian Art (Lond, 1968)
  • D. H. Skinner and J. Kroeger (eds), Renniks Australian Artists, no 1 (Adel, 1968)
  • N. Benko, Art and Artists of South Australia (Adel, 1969)
  • A. Mizener, The Saddest Story (Lond, 1971)
  • R. Biven, Some Forgotton, Some Remembered (Adel, 1976)
  • J. Loewe, ‘Epilogue’, S. Bowen, Drawn From Life, (Maidstone, Kent, 1974)
  • Age (Melbourne), 7 Jan 1967
  • F. D. Davison papers (National Library of Australia)
  • records (Australian War Memorial)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

C. B. Christesen, 'Bowen, Esther Gwendolyn (Stella) (1893–1947)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 30 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

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