Gretta Bowen

The primitive artist who began to paint a few weeks before her seventieth birthday

Margretta ‘Gretta’ Bowen was born in Dublin on New Year's Day, 1880. When her husband Matthew Campbell, a veteran of the Boer War, retired from the army he moved to Belfast in 1921 to start a catering company.

Four years later he died, leaving his young wife to bring up their three sons – Arthur, George and Stanley. All three of the boys went on to paint. To make ends meet, Bowen took in lodgers and ran a laundrette, suppressing the artistic talent that would emerge in retirement.

A few works before her seventieth birthday, she found some art materials left in her Magdala Street home by her son Arthur, and began to paint.

Only five years later The Times would be enthusing over the vibrancy of her paintings:

'Rhythm and movement are the characteristics of her work. There is nothing static in it. She will paint children at play, a fun fair, nuns in procession, children on their way to confirmation, a Twelfth of July Orange procession, a military band or a dockside scene - and whatever she paints she conveys a feelings of happiness, of brightness, of delight in life.'

Her first one-woman show was held in the gallery of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts in 1955. She went on to exhibit further in Belfast and in Dublin.

International recognition came in 1979, when, at the age of 99, her work was shown at the International Naives exhibition in London. The same year saw the death of her son George Campbell, who had established himself as a respected painter.

Painted from imagination and directly onto canvas, Bowen’s works can be found in the collections at the Ulster Museum, Queen's University and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

Gretta Bowen died on April 8, 1981.

Further Reading

Dictionary of Twentieth Century Irish Artists (2002) by Theo Snoddy.