‘You can almost live upon a view. Almost.’

On 8 May 1923, Ford Madox Ford wrote to his partner—and mother of his third daughter, Julie—the painter, Stella Bowen. He was in Tarascon where he and Bowen had moved late the previous month; she was in Paris.

Stella_Bowen_Paris_1920s

(Stella Bowen; photographer unidentified: Australian War Memorial via Wikipedia)

Stella—an absolutely key figure in Ford’s story—was born Esther Gwendolyn Bowen in North Adelaide, 16 May 1893, (she died in 1947), and moved to England in 1914 after the death of her mother. She studied at the Westminster School of Art and was acquainted with a number of leading painters and writers before she met and fell in love with Ford. Their daughter Julie was born in 1920. Stella later wrote: ‘Julie had a troublesome birth in a London nursing home on November 29th. There seems to be a conspiracy of silence about the horrors of childbearing and a pretty legend that the mother forgets all about it as soon as it is over. The hell she does!’[1]

Ford and Bowen had left Sussex—and England—in late 1922, going firstly to Paris, then on to the Villa des Oliviers, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, owned by the poet and editor Harold Monro, who had rented it to them for just £7 a month. They reached the villa on 20 December: ‘perched between Nice and Monte Carlo’, it boasted a spectacular view.[2] ‘You can almost live upon a view’, Bowen later remarked of Coopers at Bedham, the Sussex cottage they had left behind. ‘Almost.’[3]

stellabowen-drawnfromlife

Stella had spent a couple of weeks with Dorothy Pound while Ezra was rooting about in archives in Rimini, researching the Malatesta Cantos. Joining the Pounds in Florence, she also saw paintings in Assisi, Arezzo, Cortona and Siena. Later that spring, Stella took painting lessons in Paris, where she saw the Pounds again and her confidence was badly shaken by Pound’s criticisms of her work and her views on painting.

ford-joyce-pound-quinn

(Ford, left, in Paris in 1923, next to James Joyce, Ezra Pound and the American lawyer and art collector John Quinn)

‘Let us begin with Ezra,’ Ford wrote to her. ‘His criticisms of yourself you simply should not have listened to: they arise solely from a frantic loyalty to W.[yndham] Lewis—and no doubt to Dorothy. He is in fact singularly unintelligent on the aesthetic side of any art—at any rate in conversation. It is only historically that he is sound about anything.—Of course if it doesn’t depress you too much it’s a good thing to listen to gramophonic records of Lewis’s dicta (in wh. Lewis himself doesn’t for a moment believe): but if you do get depressed by it, just don’t listen.’ A little later, he added: ‘Darling: I assure you that you have all the makings of an artist; the only thing you need being a certain self-confidence. If you would attain to that you would see that, even in your work as it is, there is the quality of serenity—of imperturbability’.[4]

Bowen_Villefranche_1923

(Villefranche by Stella Bowen, painted in Cap Ferrat, France, 1923: oil on wood panel  34.6 x 26.7 cm;  private collection via Australian War Memorial)

Pound and Ford were, and remained, friends for thirty years, from their first meeting in April 1909 to Ford’s death in June 1939. They disagreed on a great many literary and artistic matters (among others), a state of affairs clearly indicated by a letter of August 1911 that Pound sent to his parents once he’d reached home after spending time with Ford in the German town of Giessen: ‘Back here at last. I had very little time to myself while with Hueffer, not that there was much work done, but we disagree diametrically on art, religion, politics & all therein implied’.[5]

Ford_Pound_Rapallo_1932

(Ford and Pound in Rapallo, Italy, 1932: © Estate of Janice Biala, New York)

One other striking feature of this brief period in the Ford-Bowen relationship is just how unusual this sojourn in Italy and the weeks in Paris were for Stella. Until Ford began travelling frequently to the United States (around 1926 onwards), they were rarely separated but Bowen had very little time to devote to her own art, either producing it or studying other examples of it, always having to balance the two other major and time-consuming responsibilities in her life. One was caring for Julie and running the household—because the second, inextricable from the first, was enabling Ford to work: and a big part of that was keeping worries and problems, especially financial ones, away from him. It was not simply a matter of sexual politics—Ford was, in many ways, though not all, ahead of his time in this area—but rather that, firstly, the only money they earned  was from Ford’s writing; and then, during these years, Ford was still suffering the after-effects of shell-shock and ‘the nerve tangle of the war’[6] which had impaired his memory. He was about to establish himself, or re-establish himself, as a major writer, with the publication of Some Do Not. . ., the first volume of his masterpiece, Parade’s End; but he was not there just yet. So Stella’s career suffered, certainly in those years, a casualty of Ford’s own: but with so little money available, and with a young child, it was not an easy situation to resolve. Ford was always highly supportive of Stella’s painting but, frequently shielded from anxieties—and thus enabled to work—by Stella’s efforts, he couldn’t quite see why she found it so difficult to do so.[7]

Stella_Bowen_SelfPortrait_c.1928

(Stella Bowen, Self-portrait, painted in Paris, c. 1928, oil on plywood,
45 x 36.8 cm, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, gift of Suzanne Brookman, the artist’s niece, 1999)

It was a busy day for Ford, that 8 May 1923. He also wrote (from the splendidly named Hotel Terminus in Tarascon) to his friend and fellow-writer Edgar Jepson, about the novel he’d recently completed, The Marsden Case, enclosing a copy of the book. ‘I hope you’ll like it. I believe that, as “treatment,” it’s the best thing I’ve done’.[8]

Fascinating and accomplished as that novel is, Ford was about to outstrip it to a remarkable degree. The MS of Some Do Not. . . ‘is inscribed as having been completed in “Paris 22.9.23”’—and it was published just over six months later.[9]

 

References

[1] Stella Bowen, Drawn From Life (1941; London: Virago Press, 1994, with a new introduction by Julia Loewe, Ford and Stella’s daughter), 73.

[2] Most of the Fordian biographical details (here and elsewhere) come from Max Saunders, Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, two volumes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996); here, II, 122-123, 127.

[3] Bowen, Drawn From Life, 78.

[4] Correspondence of Ford Madox Ford and Stella Bowen, edited by Sondra J. Stang and Karen Cochran (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993), 196, 197.

[5] Mary de Rachewiltz, A. David Moody and Joanna Moody, editors, Ezra Pound to his Parents: Letters 1895-1929 (London: Oxford University Press, 2010), 257. Ford Madox Hueffer changed his name to Ford Madox Ford in June 1919.

[6] To H. G. Wells: Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 154.

[7] There’s a great deal of interesting material on Stella and her relationship with Ford, including some rare images, in the recently-released documentary, It Was the Nightingale: The Unreliable Story of Ford Madox Ford, from Subterracon Films, produced by Paul Lewis, who also co-directed with Ryan Poe, with sound and film design by Kelley Baker: see http://www.subterracon.com/it-was-the-nightingale.html

For more on Stella, see Drusilla Modjeska, Stravinsky’s Lunch (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000) and Joseph Wiesenfarth, Ford Madox Ford and the Regiment of Women: Violet Hunt, Jean Rhys, Stella Bowen, Janice Biala (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005), particularly strong on Stella’s painting. See also the Australian War Memorial site devoted to the retrospective exhibition of Stella’s work, Stella Bowen: Art, Love and War: see https://www.awm.gov.au/exhibitions/stella/

[8] Letters of Ford Madox Ford, 149.

[9] Ford, Some Do Not. . . (1924; edited by Max Saunders, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2010), lvii, lix, lxxxi.

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