PAINTING GHOSTS

“It was terrible having to finish the picture after the men were lost. Like painting ghosts.”

A RAAF crew of a Lancaster Bomber from No 460 Squadron RAAF. Left to right: 408034 Flying Officer (FO) M. W. Carroll DFC of Ferntree Gully, Vic; Sergeant D. G. Champkin, RAF; 414807 Pilot Officer T. J. Lynch of Toowoomba, Qld (back); 404507 Squadron Leader E. G. D. Jarman DFC (Captain) of Yeppoon, Qld (centre front); 404467 Flying Officer (FO) H. R. Harrison of Lismore, NSW; 404503 FO F. G. Jackson DFC OF Lismore, NSW; 411227 FO R. L. Neal of Grenfell, NSW.

I discovered the artist Australian artist Stella Bowen at an exhibition in 2003.  One image out of the brilliant works on display has endured in my mind since and which I turn to every Rememberance Day.

Adelaide-born Stella Bowen’s life story is a fascinating tale of artistic hardship, difficulty and passion.  During the second World War, Bowen was one of only three women to be appointed as an official war artist and her appointment, initially for three months, was extended to a total of 20 months full-time.

This painting, said to be Bowen’s most recognised works, remains one of my most favourites.

“Bomber Crew” is a portrait of Australian Lancaster bomber No 460 Squadron RAAF at RAF Binbook, England.  Bowen started preliminary sketchings of the squadron – which seemed to go unnoticed by the crew and on 28 April 1944 six of these seven young Australian men took their final fatal flight over Germany and never returned home – one of the crew, Pilot Officer Thomas Lynch, was later discovered alive in a German prisoner-of-war camp.

After their fatal flight, Bowen finished the painting from official photos and the preliminary sketches she had made on that fateful day.  She chose to paint the men as group as if they had posed in front of her.  Of the painting she said “It was terrible having to finish the picture after the men were lost.  It was like painting ghosts’.

Every time I look at this painting I can’t help but stare at their young faces, full of courage, strength and vitality and wonder at the tragic loss of not just these young men, but of the millions of other brave souls who have perished in war.

‘Bomber Crew’ and many other works from Bowen’s time as official war artist is on display at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.  If you would like to see Bowen’s sketches of the crew, go to https://www.awm.gov.au/exhibitions/stella/detail-p5-i58.asp

[Images from the Australian War Memorial]


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