Stella Bowen, FMF, & Jean Rhys

‘[P]ursuing an art is not just a matter of finding time – it is a matter of finding a free spirit … Ford [Madox Ford] was a great user-up of other people’s nervous energy and there was no room for me to nurse an independent ego,’ writes the Australian painter Stella Bowen on how difficult it was to continue painting once she began her relationship with Ford Madox Ford. Ford used to assume that Bowen just didn’t want to paint. But Bowen also had a newborn at the time she is referring to (post First World War), and Ford had relocated the little family to a countryside cottage that had no plumbing or electricity. Further, he had serious PTSD from the trenches and he insisted that had to have absolute silence in order to write. 

Later, the family moved to Paris and took in a struggling writer who had left her own marriage and who had honed helplessness and dependency on men to a higher order. Ford then had an affair with the poor dear while she was living under Stella’s roof. The writer was Jean Rys. After Bowen and Ford’s breakup, Bowen began painting again with conviction and eventually became the second woman war artist ever appointed by the UK government (1941). Here’s a link to her war work. 

Bowen always felt herself to be the lesser artist of the two, but I find the concept of greater and lesser artist to be specious, particularly in the context of Bowen and Fordie (whom I adore so much I even snuck him into my doctoral dissertation). Comparing Bowen and Fordie is a bit like comparing runners racing a 1000 meters with one piggy-backing the other for at least half the track. As for Rys, her life was disastrous, yet, I suppose one can say that she served her art. She descended into alcoholism and destructive behaviours with men and spent her life looking for the love of a mother she felt she never had. The irony was that she left a wake of destruction in the lives of so many other women, mothers, as she went. 

source: Osler, Mirabel. The Rain Tree: a Memoir. London: Bloomsbury, 2011.

 

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