Owen(Samuel)Bowen (1873-1967)

Owen BowenOwen Bowen bridged two centuries. Born and rooted in the late nineteenth century when he first set up as a young artist, he lived on into the 1960s, into his nineties, still painting his richly textured impressionist landscapes and glowing, colourful flower studies, bypassing modernist revolutions in art and taste. Year after year his work was selected for the Royal Academy and found a place in numerous public and private collections. Romantic, idealised, they still have charm and nostalgic appeal.

He was born in Hunslet in 1873, the fourth of George and Elizabeth Bowen’s eight children. George Bowen had come to Leeds from Cheshire around 1870 to work as cashier at a flax mill: a good position. From early days, against his father’s wishes, Owen was bent on becoming an artist. He left Leeds High School at 13, got a job at the Burmantofts Pottery, and went to night classes at the Leeds School of Art, under the charismatic teacher W. Gilbert Foster. But at 16 he was advised, he said, to give up formal study: ‘My boy, you’re an artist and we’ll ruin you!’ So off he went to show his work to the Leeds art dealer Edmund Bogg, who offered him £2 a week, plus materials, to go to Wales next day with four other young artists, paid to paint pictures for Bogg to sell in his Guildford Street gallery. It was a rich experience, sharing ideas and methods.

In 1890, still only 17, Owen took the bold step to set up his own studio at 51 Cookridge Street and had the thrill of having his first picture accepted by the Royal Academy in London. He joined the influential Yorkshire Union of Artists and won prizes at their Leeds and York exhibitions – ‘singular skill in one so young’. At 19 he branched out, advertising Saturday painting classes at his studio. Dressed in silk hat and frock coat he waited anxiously; one carriage rolled up, then others, and his ‘Owen Bowen School of Painting’ was born. The 1890s proved a golden time for him, with his classes full, many successful exhibitions, and important sales to private buyers and galleries like the Walker in Liverpool.

His friendship with the eccentric Edmund Bogg led to other opportunities, professional and social. When Bogg embarked on a series of best-selling local interest books about Yorkshire, Owen provided some of the illustrations: The Old Kingdom of Elmet (1902), for instance, features his lively vignettes of Leeds. And when Bogg founded the bohemian Leeds ‘Savage Club’ in 1898, an unconventional focus for artists, writers and musicians (with a Native American theme), Owen sometimes hosted their rumbustious, smoky ‘pow-wows’ in his studio, and joined their lively summer sorties to the country. He loved the comradeship and fun.

Another significant friendship was with his old tutor Gilbert Foster, who had a cottage at Runswick Bay and was the forerunner of the network of artists like Mark Senior and Laura and Harold Knight who became known as the Staithes Group. The coming of the railways in the mid-1880s had opened up these remote, picturesque coastal villages to visitors. Following in Foster’s steps Owen rented a cottage at Robin Hood’s Bay. In the early 1900s he regularly exhibited with the Staithes Group at their annual shows and from the 1920s with the Fylingdales group of artists, focussed on Robin Hood’s Bay – he remained a member, and later their president, for 40 years. The landscapes of this coast, with its special qualities of light and colour, were among his favourite subjects.

In 1899 he married a Leeds girl, Janet Wilson. Their first home was 14 Shaw Lane, Headingley, but around 1905 they moved to a larger house, ‘Evenholm’, in rural East Keswick. It remained their home, initially with their three children, for the rest of their lives. Here Owen advertised his ‘Al Fresco School of Painting’, and later opened a studio in Collingham. His landscape painting took him around the country to Cornwall, Scotland, Wales, and abroad to Holland and Austria, until a serious illness in the mid-1920s kept him housebound for many months. He turned then to still-life studies of flowers and Yorkshire scenes closer to home.

He was a respected figure in the art world: from 1904 – 1967 an elected member of the Royal Cambrian Academy (ARCA) at Conwy, and its president 1946-54; an elected member too of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters (ROI). Modest, humorous, convivial, he was a popular figure. His wife died in 1933, but he lived on to be 94, still painting and exhibiting, a ‘grand old man’ of Yorkshire painting. He’s slipped below the horizon now, his prolific paintings fetching modest sums, but had a life worth remembering.

[You can see some of his pictures on]

Eveleigh Bradford
August 2020