Single-minded in her desire to be an artist, Stella Bowen studied briefly under Margaret Preseon before leaving Adelaide at 20 to study art in London. A friendship with Ezra Pound introduced Bowen to a wide literary circle including W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot and Bowen would later famously go on to marry the writer Ford Madox Ford. As a painter Bowen is perhaps best remembered for the body of work
painter, was born in North Adelaide on 16 May 1893 into a comfortable middle class family, daughter of Thomas Hopkins Bowen, a surveyor, who died when she was three. She particularly enjoyed drawing and convinced her mother, Esther Eliza, née Perry, to send her to the School of Design where she drew from the nude model under Rose McPherson ( Margaret Preston ) until her teacher left for Paris. Her desire to pursue her training at the National Gallery School in Melbourne was thwarted by her mother’s ill health.
Bowen was single-minded in her aim to become an artist and after her mother died in 1913, she persuaded her guardian to let her go to England for a year—with a return ticket and £10 per month. Frightened by her interview for the Slade, she enrolled at the Westminster School of Art where Walter Sickert encouraged her to trust her eye and discover beauty in the accidental and spontaneous. She found life in cosmopolitan London exhilarating and exciting. Ezra Pound came to a party and introduced her to his circle of poets, writers and artists including T.S. Eliot, Violet Hunt, Edward Wadsworth, Wyndham Lewis and W.B. Yeats.
In 1918, nine months before the Armistice, Bowen met the writer Ford Madox Ford, then still in the army after serving in France. She was 23 and he was 44. Fascinated by his self absorption and need for care, she went to live with him in a dilapidated cottage in Sussex where life and the climate were harsh. They eventually bought Cooper’s Cottage; their daughter, Esther Julia Madox (Julie), was born there in 1920. Fed up with the hardships of an impoverished rural existence, they escaped to the warmth of St Jean-Cap Ferrat in France in 1922.
Visiting Italy in 1923 with Ezra and Dorothy Pound, Bowen discovered the early Italian painters: Giotto, Piero della Francesca, Fra Angelico, Simone Martini and Botticelli. On her return she painted small portraits where she tried to incorporate their sort of linear design; a few were hung in the Salon d’Automne. In Paris Ford started his Transatlantic Review , which absorbed all their finances. Bowen rented her first studio but found little time for painting in between ministering to the needs of Ford and their daughter and leading such a peripatetic life.
The break-up of the nine-year relationship with Ford in 1928 forced her to exist entirely on her painting. In 1932 she went to the USA at the invitation of friends, who helped her obtain portrait commissions. Returning to France, her impoverished circumstances led her back to England on her 40th birthday, where she supplemented her meagre finances by writing art reviews for the New Chronicle and painting portrait commissions. Bowen’s autobiography Drawn from Life was published in 1940. It chronicled her life in Adelaide, the years with Ford and the outbreak of World War II. Unfortunately, paper rationing meant that it only had one small print run.
In 1943 Bowen, then almost 50, was appointed an official war artist by the Australian War Memorial, primarily to depict the activities of the Royal Australian Air Force, then stationed in England and participating in the intensive bombing operations over Germany. She was employed for 20 months, completing her last commission in 1946. Her plans to return to Australia after the war in order to mount an exhibition were thwarted by lack of funds, official obstructions and, finally, ill health. She died of cancer in London on 30 October 1947. A memorial exhibition was held at the Art Gallery of South Australia in 1953.