Gretta Bowen (1880-1981)

Country Match of the Day

Oil on board

44cm x 60cm

From the collection of Northern Ireland Civil Service

Margretta Bowen, better known as Gretta, was born in Harbour House, North Circular Road, Dublin on New Year’s Day, 1880. Her husband, Matthew Campbell, was a native of Caledon, Co. Tyrone and in 1921 the family settled permanently in Belfast where Campbell established a catering business. Only four years later, Bowen became a widow and took in lodgers at the family home to support herself and her three sons, Arthur, Stanley and George, all of whom later became artists.

Around the time of her seventieth birthday Bowen, upon clearing away some of her son’s materials, decided to experiment with his paints. After some reluctance to inform her sons of her work, she eventually agreed to show publicly under her maiden name. Despite being completely untutored, she went on to experience great success. A mere five years after picking up her son’s paintbrush, Bowen’s first solo exhibition was held in the gallery of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA), Belfast. She went on to exhibit in several group exhibitions, at home and abroad. In Dublin, her work featured at the Irish Exhibition of Living Art, the Royal Hibernian Academy (1969-72), and the Oireachtas (1966). She and her son George were among the Irish artists who exhibited at the Irish Club, London in 1957. She also exhibited at solo and group shows in the USA and Canada and in 1979 was represented at the International Naïves exhibitions at the Hamiltons Gallery, London.

Her painting ‘Rustic sports’ was the subject of a popular 1974 Arts Council of Northern Ireland poster print and the following year the council commissioned her son George to paint her portrait, which appeared in the ‘Women of Ulster’ exhibition.

It is unclear what sport is being depicted in this piece entitled Country Match of the Day, but it is indicative of Bowen’s desire to capture rhythm and movement. The use of colour coupled with the raised arms of the players is a fine example of Bowen’s work, which in 1955 The Times noted, “conveys a feeling of happiness, of brightness, of delight in life”. Bowen died in Belfast on 8 April 1981 and is buried in the city cemetery.