Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 23, 2020

Drawn from Life, by Stella Bowen

Sometimes, a book on loan is just so perfect that you have to have your own copy.  So it is with Stella Bowen’s Drawn from Life, lent to me by WA author Amanda Curtin after I mentioned it in my review of Rosemary Lancaster’s Je Suis Australienne Remarkable Women in France, 1880-1945. Amanda’s most recent book is about the 20th century expat Australian painter Kathleen O’Connor and I can now see why Stella Bowen’s book would have been so useful for research in this period.  Stella Bowen (1893-1947) was born and educated in Adelaide, but it’s clear from this autobiography that for her, as for Kathleen O’Connor, life began as an expat in Paris.

(And it was also clear to me that I had to buy my own copy, though Amanda’s Virago edition is much nicer than my 1999 Picador, because the Virago editions includes reproductions of Bowen’s portraits, showing what a superb portraitist she was. See some of them here.)

The first chapter covers Stella’s childhood and adolescence, and the bereavements that prompted her escape from the stultifying life mapped out for her by the social expectations of the era.  She recalls her birthplace 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.  (p.11)

Inspired by a charismatic art teacher called Rose McPherson (a.k.a. Margaret Preston), Stella set sail for England in 1914.  She had a regular income inherited from her mother; and a return ticket and her uncle’s arrangements for her to be chaperoned in London.  But when her younger brother Tom subsequently cabled from Australia that he had enlisted and that her return was optional, she sold the return ticket and made a life for herself free of all ties to Australia.

It was war time, but what seems to us with the benefit of hindsight to be a shattering experience, was something Stella appears to have lived through without much emotional impact.  She admits that she and her friends did not grasp that they were living in an epic and that the war turned out as it did.  She was a pacifist, and she volunteered with some infant welfare work, but she spent most of her time at art school, quickly shedding her uncle’s arrangements in order to share a studio with her friend Phyllis Reid.  At the Westminster Art School she was taught by Walter Sickert, of whom she said that four minutes with him was worth four months criticism from elsewhere:

He taught me to trust one’s faithful eyes, and to open them wide.  I had never before been required to look at things so minutely, and having looked, to record them with so little fuss.  He hated it if you touched the canvas twice in the same place.  The first touch had a virtue all its own, he would say, and any correction you added only substituted a doubtful virtue for a positive one.  In the same way, you were never allowed to erase a line.  If you were wrong, you just made a heavier one in the right place.  Then your drawing had the added interest of showing your first thoughts as well as your second. (p.46)

[I wonder, as we make more and more use of technology that allows us to ‘fix’ things, if Sickert’s virtue still applies anywhere at all.]

It was when Peggy (her former Chelsea hostess) asked the young women if their big studio space could be used for a party, that Stella met Ezra Pound.  He turned out to be only the first of the notable people that became part of her life.  She went on to meet a Who’s Who of London Bohemia: T S Eliot, Arthur Waley, Wadsworth, May Sinclair, Violet Hunt, G B Stern, Wyndham Lewis, and Yeats.  These people, and Ezra in particular, added to her education, introducing her, for example, to the work of authors like James Joyce.

Stella’s descriptions of people are superb, all done with a painterly eye.  Here she is describing her friend Mary Butts, also doing volunteer work at the Children’s Care Committee in the East End:

She was a flaming object in that dreary office, with her scarlet hair and white skin and sudden, deep-set eyes. She looked what she was — a girl who came from a lovely old home in Dorset and a family which had given her good manners and an expensive education, but had entirely failed to inspire her with the current ideas of her class. (p.39)

Margaret Postgate c1944-5 by Stella Bowen (Wikipedia)

This is Margaret Postgate:

When I first saw Margaret, I thought her the most uncivilised girl I had ever met, as well as the cleverest.  She was shy, untidy and wild, with a little square face under an immense mop of dark hair, small shoulders hunched, long arms held in at the elbows, and narrow hands with long gesticulating fingers.  A high forehead, a wide, humorous mouth, and a very short chin.  And however much she might edge away from strangers, and despite the small change of mannerly greetings, no bushel capable of hiding her light has ever been discovered!  She is still one of my dearest friends. (p.53)

When Stella met Ford Madox Ford, she fell for him, not realising at the time that his desire for domesticity was a case of him putting the clock back at the same time as she was putting the clock forward.  Using the proceeds of FMF’s film rights, they bought a cottage at Bedham and their daughter Julie was born there. But paying wages to manage their small holding became a burden and the climate got them down, so they set off to Provence to stay with Ezra Pound, and it was there that Stella had her first real experience of European Art when Dorothy and Ezra took her to Florence.  She was captivated by the primitive Italian style and the harmony between the churches and the landscape.

Stella Bowen, Paris, 1920s (Wikipedia)

In Paris they lived in shabby charm, using some of her Australian money to bankroll FMF’s Transatlantic Review, while he demanded peace and quiet for his writing, and she managed the household and organised the parties.  It all sounds very one-sided, and it’s a miracle that she managed to paint at all. But they did have a good time because they could ‘fake it’, and because they didn’t earn their money in France and the exchange rate was favourable, they had a better standard of living than they would have had in England.  But that is not why they chose to live in France: it’s because the French understood how to live far better than we did. 

Beauty is something that really mattered to Stella (and this passage has extra resonance today when we hear the news that the study of humanities in universities has been downgraded as of lesser economic value as we enter the COVID_19 recession):

We live in a world where most of man’s work is ugly and where ugliness quite obviously does not hurt most men.  To be in surroundings which have no grace or charm and who needs a daily does of beauty as a sick man needs his medicine, is simply to be at a great disadvantage in the modern world.  It is to be in an uncomprehended minority which makes for snobbery and preciousness and all sorts of vices.  It means working for and paying taxes to a system that will certainly never give you the things that seem to you to be the breath of life.  It makes your citizenship worth less to you than it should be worth.

I do not understand how most people get along without the pleasures that the decorative arts can give.  But then, I don’t understand the attraction of football either, which claims far more devotees than all the arts put together.  (I bonded immediately with Stella when I read that bit about football, p.99)

Well, the relationship with FMF didn’t last.  They were together for nine years, and reading the chapter about Bowen in Rosemary Lancaster’s Je Suis Australienne, Remarkable Women in France we can see from Bowen’s posthumously published letters, that this memoir is magnanimous, despite his infidelities and selfishness.  Lancaster suggests that while Stella wrote Drawn From Life partly because she was in dire need of money to support herself and Julie, it was also her intention to tell her story on her own terms. Jean Rhys had written Quartet as a thinly disguised version of her affair with FMF, painting him — and Stella — in a decidedly unflattering light.  As well, FMF’s wife Violet Hunt had written a self-righteous indictment of Ford’s unchivalrous ‘elopement’ with Stella.  So it’s interesting that Stella’s version takes the moral high ground, eschewing blame or slander. But it wasn’t just for show, she was also magnanimous in her letters to him.

However, just when she needed money most, the rich Americans who were buying her paintings fled home.  So a friend organised a stint of portrait painting in the US to build up her bank balance, and she made enough to clear her debts.  But with WW2 ever closer on the horizon and the exchange rate suddenly devaluing her money, she returned to England and the comfort of good friends who helped her.  Through her connections she became a war artist, completing that famous group portrait of an air crew that she had to finish from a photo because the crew never returned from their sortie.   It is from that portrait that I knew her name, and not because of her relationship with Ford Madox Ford. (It’s a very powerful portrait to show testosterone-charged boys who think that war is fun.)

There is so much more to share, but this post is too long already, so I’ll finish with what she has to say about portrait painting.  She felt frustrated in America because she was sometimes expected to paint from a photograph (which she says makes it a horrible job).  To paint a good portrait that reveals the character of the subject, she needs several sittings to complete work without having a bad conscience.

I started every portrait with the firm conviction that I should never succeed in getting a likeness, and I knew full well that the likeness was usually the only thing I was being paid for, and was the only thing that I could not control. The really important elements in picture-making — composition, texture, and so on, were my private concern, and I was experimenting frantically, particularly with backgrounds, on people who believed me to be a ‘qualified practitioner’ who could be relied on to produce a definite result.

[…]

I know that for my kind of painting the fleeting expression and the dramatic moment are quite wrong.  What I would always wish to get is something representing all the moments — something timeless and  tranquil.  Thus the best sitters are often those who offer up their faces naked and unconscious, as it were.  (p.215)

The book ends in 1940, leaving her uncertain as to what kind of world is to come.  Fascism, Communism, or democracy and people willing to die for it.  She wanted to live through the war to see what happens… and the Introduction by her daughter Julia provides an insight into her last years.  Her final painting was Australian Troops in the Victory Parade in June 1946, but she died of cancer in 1947, three weeks after the birth of her grandson.

Thanks again to Amanda Curtin for the loan of the book, and also to Vicki at the AWM for help with accessing the Bowen collection from an exhibition at www.awm.gov.au.

Update 25/6/20 See also the review at Neglected Books and a Sensational Snippet here.

Image credits: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Stella_Bowen_Paris_1920s.jpg

Margaret Cole (nee Postgate) by Stella Bowen – http://pethsstagingpost.com/wowh-women-of-west-hampstead/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58542722

NB Page references are to the Virago edition, not the Picador.

Author: Stella Bowen
Title: Drawn from Life
Publisher: Virago, 1984, first published by Collins, 1941
ISBN: 9780860686552, pbk., 264 pages
Source: loan, courtesy of Amanda Curtin… thanks Amanda!


Responses

  1. This sounds a real treat Lisa and now I’m going to have to see if a copy is available somewhere! I had a chuckle of recognition at her description of Australia – and I don’t understand the thrall of football either, can’t bear it! This sounds like my kind of book – I knew I’d enjoy Time Without Clocks once I read your review, so I am bound to enjoy this.

    In the short time I spent teaching young children I found them addicted to erasers and used to use the technique of not letting the pencil leave the page so every wrong line showed – similar to the way she was told to paint.

    Fascinating, thank you!

    Like

    • I’m happy to lend you mine… maybe after your house-moving is done?

      Like

      • That’s kind Lisa – I haven’t got a date yet, just decluttering and figuring out what/where is best etc etc – I decided to get ready for a move well ahead, as I have a neurological problem that gives me a lot of pain if I’m not careful, so I have to do everything slowly! I did find the book but it’s unable to be sent due to Covid19 currently, rats!

        It’s 2 degrees here and I’m watching all that rain in Tassie on the news and not a drop here! Dan Andrews was being amazingly patient on the ABC this morning but I think is rather fed up with people being irresponsible. I hope you’re not in an area of Melbourne that has o go into a full lockdown again if this continues…

        I don’t know how you manage to fit in all your reading and reviews, you’re a wonder!

        Like

        • Fortunately we are well away from all that, and people around here are mostly sensible.
          Anyway, let me know if/when you want the book. The other one is a keeper, but I’ll want this one back.

          Like

          • Thanks Lisa. I have several books on my To Be Read list, so don’t worry – sometimes it’s good to have a book to look for – it’s the joy of the hunt! I have one copy on my wish list, just waiting for the seller to open up again.
            More cuts to the ABC! Oh no!!!!

            Like

            • Don’t get me started about the ABC…

              Like

  2. Well, it sounds so wonderful that as you know I had to procure my own copy. I had to go for the Virago, which was a bit pricier than I would normally pay, but still…. And I am hoping to read it for All Virago/All August! :D

    Like

  3. I was bemused by the idea that she lived through the war years without being too fussed about it or even thinking it was much of a crisis. I wonder what she would make of our current crisis – would she sail through that just the same?

    Like

    • Well, she didn’t sail through WW2, she certainly understood what was at stake then.
      But WW1 was different. There was never a coherent reason for it, nor a moral justification either. I think, for her, it was like the war in Afghanistan is for us now…it goes on, from time to time we see atrocities that make us shake our heads in dismay, but it’s far away and whatever we the people think about it, it seems to have a momentum of its own and there is nothing we can do to stop it.
      For her, it was far away, neither she nor anyone in her set knew anyone who was serving or got killed, and she was young and frivolous about life, and very serious about her art. It wasn’t until afterwards when the full realisation of how many people had so needlessly been killed that she grasped that she had lived through an epic.

      Like

  4. This sounds fascinating, I shall certainly have to look out for a copy.

    Like

    • Good luck! (But do try to get the Virago one.)

      Like

  5. […] read about “Drawn from Life”, Stella Bowen’s autobiography, from Lisa’s blog and felt I just had to read it, so managed to procure a copy (not so easy…) It sounds […]

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