In the steps of Stella Bowen

Stella Bowen is a celebrated Australian landscape and portrait painter. Born in Adelaide on 16 May 1893, Esther (Stella) Bowen left the city to pursue her passion for painting, abandoning the sleepy middle class streets of her youth for the artistic circles of London and Paris. 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).

Stella became the second woman war artist appointed by the Australian government during the Second World War. 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.

In 1941 Stella published her memoir, Drawn from Life. She wrote mainly of her life in Paris and Europe, and her relationship with English writer Ford Madox Ford. She also recalled her early years in Adelaide, growing up in a privileged family. Her childhood was filled with the city's high society, and with all the rules it demanded.

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."

Stella was a "town girl", and this trail is of Adelaide through her youthful eyes, "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’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.

"I must be wrong," she writes in her autobiography. "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."

Take this trail past some of the landmark heritage sites in North Adelaide and the city that featured in Stella's childhood.

Stella Bowen: The Fishers of Buxton Street

Stella wrote much about her childhood and teenage friends in Adelaide. One was Hilda Fisher, whose family lived in this large home on Buxton Street. Hilda’s father, F.J. Fisher, was a prominent solicitor. He had this house built in 1908-1909. It…

Stella Bowen: St Dominics Convent and School

Behind the Bowen family home was the precinct of St Dominics. The school is unusual as it was founded by and for women. Six Dominican nuns and two in training arrived from Britain in 1883 to run a hospital. However, under South Australian government…

Stella Bowen: Bowen family home

This two-storey home was built in 1893, the year Stella was born. Her father, Thomas Hopkins Bowen, was a surveyor. Stella writes that he "must have been a rather charming, cheerful little man, addicted to water-colour sketching and the making of…

Stella Bowen: The city during a heatwave

Stella had strong memories of Adelaide during an Australian heatwave. She described how residents survived the relentless heat: "The land where I was born is a blue and yellow country, although when the sun pours out of a cloudless sky, there is very…

Stella Bowen: 'Decorous games' at Bishop's Court

Some of Stella’s earliest recollections were of playing with the Anglican Bishop’s daughter at her home, Bishop’s Court, on Palmer Place in Nortrh Adelaide. "When I fish into my memory between the ages of six and twelve, I land such small fry…

Stella Bowen: Dancing at Government House

Stella’s mother was well-connected. Among her friends were the bishop’s wife, the governor’s wife, and the wives of university professors and the higher clergy. Stella wrote that at the turn of the century, in this quasi-British society, "There…

Stella Bowen: Lawn Tennis at Adelaide Oval

Adelaide Oval has historically been associated with cricket and football. But in the late 19th and early 20th Century, it was also used by Adelaide’s high society for tennis. The Adelaide Lawn Tennis Club, formed in 1878, played matches at the…