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.