Stravinsky’s Lunch, by Drusilla Modjeska (1999)

The Sisters, by Hugh Ramsay (1904)
The Sisters, by Hugh Ramsay (1904)
“Let us begin with two sisters dressed for a ball,” Drusilla Modjeska writes in her introduction to Stravinsky’s Lunch. “Whenever I look at this painting — which, as it is in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, is quite often — I think they are waiting for the century to begin…. You can see from their faces that they are not the girls who went to balls in nineteenth-century novels; and you can see from their clothes that there is nothing of the modern woman about them.”

Cover of first US edition of "Stravinsky's Lunch"In Stravinsky’s Lunch, Modjeska looks at how two near-contemporaries of the two women in the painting (the painter’s sisters), Stella Bowen and Grace Cossington Smith — both Australians, both painters — took on the century they encountered and carved out lives and careers very different from the conventions of the Victorian world in which they were raised. Modjeska refers to the book as “a koan in my own practice as a woman and writer.” The choice of the term is apt, as Stravinsky’s Lunch is a book that raises many questions and finds few definitive answers to them.

Such as the story of Stravinsky’s lunch, which Modjeska first heard over a restaurant meal with other writers and artists. It’s not really a story, so much as the fact that when the composer Igor Stravinsky was working on a composition, he insisted that his family eat lunch in silence. “All artists are selfish,” wrote Robert Craft in Stravinsky: Chronicle of a Friendship (1972), “they must be, to get their work done. And they sacrifice the people around them.” for Modjeska, Stravinsky’s selfishness raises larger questions: “What are we prepared to ask of ourselves and of those who love us, what value we put on love and what value we put on art; what compromises we will make; which gods we will appease.”

Stella Bowen offers an example of a woman who, at first, sacrificed herself willingly on the altars of love and art. She happily entered into a relationship with the writer Ford Madox Ford, taking on the many domestic burdens of their rustic, near-penniless existence, in return for the sake of his love and his company: “… to have the run of a mind of that calibre … was a privilege for which I am still trying to say ‘thank you,'” she wrote in her memoir, Drawn from Life. But she also sacrificed her own development as an artist, as tending to Ford’s needs left her with little time and energy for her own work:

Ford never understood why I found it so difficult to paint whilst I was with him. He thought I lacked the will to do it at all costs. That was true, but he did not realise that if I had had the will to do it at all costs, my life would have been oriented quite differently. I should not have been available to nurse him through the daily strain of his own work; to walk and talk with him whenever he wanted, and to stand between him and circumstances. Pursuing an art is not just a matter of finding the time — it is a matter of having a free spirit to bring to it.

When, after one too many affairs with other women on Ford’s part, Bowen broke off their relationship, he failed to understand what all the fuss was about. As Modjeska puts it, he didn’t realize “that the qualities that had drawn him to her in the first place — her courage, her intelligence, her engagement with life — were precisely those that would take her away from him.” And that courage and intelligence were also what allowed her to produce her best work when she herself was free to focus. Yet, as is clear from Drawn from Life, Bowen never looked upon her time with Ford with regret, certainly not when she thought of their daughter. “Was Love the one, in the end, that she chose?” Or did she even chose one or the other? “Is choosing what she did?”

When I first read the story of Grace Cossington Smith that makes up the second half of Stravinsky’s Lunch, I was quite disappointed. There was none of the drama of Stella Bowen’s life. “No husbands. No babies. No affairs. No scandals. No cafes in Paris…. In the prejudices of her time, she was, simply, a spinster.” Smith spent most of her life in the same house with her parents and two of her three sisters. Most days, she painted scenes and people she saw around her in Sydney and the nearby country and seaside, working in a small studio her father had built at the back of their yard. She was over sixty before she was accepted as a serious artist of her own generation, over seventy when she was finally recognized as one of the greatest Australian painters of her century.

"Trees," by Grace Cossington Smith (1926)

Much of Smith’s story is a matter of producing painting after painting, moving first towards a striking mix of realism and abstraction, as illustrated by her 1926 painting, Trees. Smith said she was trying to paint all sides of a tree at once. When it appeared in her first solo show, one newspaper critic condemned it as a “freak.” Modjeska sees the work as revealing Smith’s keen eye for the dual nature of her Australian world: “For this was a young woman who understood both the settled pleasures of a garden with its bloom of peach, and the hectic tangle of branch and leaf, the mysterious possibilities that lay beyond, in bush and gully.”

As she grew older, Smith turned from subjects such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge to her immediate surroundings, painting the rooms in her family home — always with at least one window or door opening out into the world, but always from the perspective of someone on the inside. She experimented with color, settling on yellow as her primary tone, offset with blue (which is why it’s surprising that Modjeska doesn’t quote the opening phrase from Drawn from Life: “The land where I was born is a blue and yellow country”).

Grace Cossington Smith with her father and sister Madge (1919)
Grace Cossington Smith with her father and sister Madge (1919)
But there is another story, which Modjeska brings out. Of Smith’s three sisters, one married early and another took on a lifetime profession as a nurse. But her sister Madge stayed at home and cared for their parents and Grace, and after their parents died, for Grace alone. It was Madge who cooked the meals and saw that the rooms were cleaned and laundry washed and ironed. Modjeska reprints a photo of Grace, Madge, and their father from 1919. It’s one of those family photos that, though accidentally and perhaps misleadingly, seems to betray a secret. “There is Grace with her strong, intelligent face lifted to the sun. Madge’s lowered head is shrouded in misery so intense it seems to burn the paper their images are printed on…. You can tell at a glance that there’d be no question of Grace taking over the kitchen.”

So, despite forging a career in art that was very much of her own shaping, deliberately enforcing her isolation so that she could focus on her work — focus to the point that her paintings from her last decades all depict scenes less than a few yards from her own home — Smith did, in her own way, insist on a form of Stravinsky’s lunch. No wonder that when Madge accompanied Grace on a trip to England in 1949, she found a widower in need of a wife and married him, leaving Grace to return to Australia alone.

Yet Modjeska admits that her attitude toward the story of Stravinsky’s lunch changed in the course of writing the book, and, in particular because of Smith’s example. The nature of the book as a koan is revealed in her realization that the story “not only buys into a way of thinking that would separate art from life, with art striding above and beyond, transcending the ordinary and humble, but it sets life against art, or art against life.” Smith never involved herself in artistic movements and stayed rooted to the home and family she knew. And as her energies diminished with age, she focused on the things she saw immediately around her: her bed, her table, her windows, her mirror.

Some reviewers objected to Modjeska’s interjection of herself, of her own reflections, into her accounts of the lives and careers of Bowen and Smith. But Stravinsky’s Lunch is not really a work of biography as much as an exercise in understanding — and as much Modjeska’s self-understanding as her understanding of the two women she portrays. In 1999, perhaps it was just slightly too early for critics to be comfortable with a work that did not fit neatly into the boundaries of one particular genre, but I think we are seeing now a proliferation of books that sweep across genre boundaries with never a second thought. I hope today’s readers will be ready to seek out a copy of Stravinsky’s Lunch and enjoy it as thoroughly as I did.


Stravinsky’s Lunch, by Drusilla Modjeska
New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1999

Drawn from Life, by Stella Bowen (1941)

Cover of first edition of "Drawn from Life"I came to Stella Bowen’s memoir, Drawn from Life (1941), through Drusilla Modjeska’s wonderful book, Stravinsky’s Lunch (which I’ll discuss in a separate post). Born in Adelaide, Australia, Bowen met the writer Ford Madox Ford while studying art in London and they lived together from 1919 to 1927. Modjeska devotes the first half of her book to an account of how Bowen struggled to establish herself as an artist while simultaneously dealing with domestic demands — first of Ford and later as a single mother raising their daughter, Julie — and quotes liberally from Drawn from Life. It only took a few excerpts to convince me that I had to read more.

“The land where I was born is a blue and yellow country,” opens Drawn from Life, with a rhapsody about the landscape of Australia — which, ironically, she left at the age of 18 and never returned to. Though her father died when she was just three, her childhood, as she recounts it, was entirely conventional: “We were, in fact, a suburb of England.” Her mother was a staunch Victorian, pure and true in her principles, and Bowen acknowledges it “a privilege to be associated with anyone whose life is a simple and perfect demonstration of all that they believe.” Her mother did, however, bend a little, allowing Stella to take classes at an art school run by a pioneering woman painter, Rose McPherson.

When her mother died in early 1914 and Stella and her brother were left with an annuity of two hundred pounds a year, Stella seized an opportunity to accompany a friend’s family on a journey to England. In London, she studied painting under Walter Sickert, who drove the importance of seeing the unique visual features of any subject. “He taught one to trust one’s faithful eyes, and to open them wide. I had never before been required to look at things so minutely, and having looked, to record them with so little fuss.”

She also met a number of influential figures, starting with the poet Ezra Pound, and in early 1918, at one of Pound’s parties, she was introduced to Ford Madox Ford. They experienced an instant rapport. Bowen found him “quite simply the most enthralling person I had ever met.” He quickly began confiding in her about all his troubles, including his inability to divorce his wife and to disentangle himself from his lover, the writer Violet Hunt. Soon he was telling her that “he wished to place his person, his fortune, his future in my hands.” He was tired of the world and just wanted “to dig potatoes and raise pigs and never write another book.”

Within a year, after Ford’s discharge from the Army, they were moving into a tumble-down cottage in Sussex. It had a hole in the roof, continuously damp, and surrounded by mud whenever it rained, but they loved their hideaway. They bought some chickens and pigs and planted a garden. Not long after, Bowen became pregnant.

Although Ford had vowed to give up writing, it didn’t take long for them to realize they couldn’t survive without the income. He set to work on articles and a novel, eventually published in 1923 as The Marsden Case. Soon the rhythm of the house became set by Ford’s work:

He would retire upstairs to write, and leave me to wrestle with the dinner. At eight I would say, “are you ready to eat?” and he would reply, “in a minute.” At eight-thirty I would say, “It is eight-thirty, darling,” and he would reply, “Oh, give me another twenty minutes,” and I would return to the kitchen and concoct something extra — another vegetable, or a savoury. At nine I’d say, “what about it?” and he’d tell me to put the meal on the table. At nine-thirty I would suggest putting it back on the fire, to re-heat. “What!” he’d cry, “dinner on the table all this time? Why ever didn’t you tell me?” Well, we’d eat perhaps at ten, with enormous appetite, and discuss the progress of his book and of my cooking.

“We enjoyed ourselves,” Bowen writes, but the preservation of Ford’s “working conditions” meant that she had to take over most of the domestic chores and all of the responsibility for managing their affairs. “I must manage to keep all worries from him, which was difficult. It meant that I must not let him know how overdrawn we were at the bank, nor how big the bill from the corn mills had become, nor how badly we needed a paraffin tank.” It was not enough for Bowen to keep the pig from wandering off to the next farm or take care of all the cooking and cleaning and feeding while in the last months of her pregnancy. “If ever a man needed a fairy godmother, he did,” she eventually concluded. And meanwhile, her painting “had, of course, been hopelessly interfered with by the whole shape of my life….”

Stella Bowen: Self Portrait, 1928
Stella Bowen: Self Portrait, 1928
A major theme in Drawn from Life is the near-impossibility of a woman working as an artist when all her time, attention, and energy is devoted to caring for a man pursuing his own career. “I was learning the technique of a quite different role: that of consort to another and more important artist.” Bowen’s blunt eloquence makes this a pioneering work of feminism, on the order of Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own.” And still quite relevant, as the following quote from Jenny Offill’s recent novel, Dept. of Speculation: “I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.”

Eventually, both Ford and Bowen came to resent the drudgery of rural life, and in 1922, they sold the cottage and, with daughter Julie in hand, headed for France. Their friend, the poet Harold Monro, had offered them the use of his tiny villa perched on a hilltop outside the town of Villefranche. Although the house was barely better furnished than their cottage, they relished the warmth of the Mediterranean weather, and Ford began working on Some Do Not …, the first volume of Parade’s End. The next spring, Ezra Pound’s wife Dorothy invited Bowen to join her on a tour of Tuscany, and the precise and flattened perspectives of Giotto’s murals strongly influenced her subsequent work.

They moved to Paris in September 1924, and were soon at the heart of the thriving expatriate scene. Ford’s brother, Oliver Hueffer, convinced him to take on the job of editing a new magazine he was establishing called the transatlantic review. Although the review failed after just one year, what a year that was. Ford has a marvelous gift for spotting good writing and collected pieces from Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, and H. D., although with the first excerpts from James Joyce’s “Work in Progress” (Finnegans Wake). He also published the work of a fragile and destitute writer from the West Indies named Jean Rhys — and began an affair with her.

Though circumspect about the affair, the memory of it drives her to her most strident tones. She lumps Rhys in with a larger group of bohemians she refers to as “Wild Ones”: “It was quite all right to be dirty, drunk, a pervert or a thief or a whore, provided that you had a lively and an honest mind, and the courage of your instincts.” The affair was brief, however, and Ford and Bowen agreed to stay together in another rough villa outside Toulon for the winter of 1925-6.

Here, the Spanish painter Juan Gris encouraged Bowen to put her painting ahead of the matters of tending after Ford, and she managed to produce a number of vibrant landscapes. It was becoming clearer, however, that she could not continue to struggle with two competing demands, particularly not after being betrayed. When a French painter remarked that her work still seemed very immature, she thought in exasperation, “It is platitudinous to say so, but being a woman does set you back at great deal.” She refers to homemaking as a “specialization”: “Perhaps you never intended to devote your life to his kind of specialization, but society, and your own affections, and the fear of loneliness that besets us all, may keep you at it…. But beware: unlike other specialists, you will receive no promotion after years of faithful service. Your value in this profession will decline, and no record of long experience, or satisfaction given, will help you if you want to change your job.”

They made one last move back to Paris, and enjoyed something of a productive truce period. They placed their daughter in the care of a French woman outside the city and rented a space in Montparnasse where Bowen was able to set up a studio and the two worked during the week, visiting Julie on the weekends. But even with her own work space, Bowen found Ford constantly sending her out on errands: “I wish you’d go and sound so-and-so about such-and-such. I don’t want to do it myself, but it should be quite easy for you.”

Ford spent much of the next two winters in the United States, and Bowen was able to focus on her own work without distraction for the first time. Upon his return from his second trip to the U.S., however, Ford informed her that he had taken up with another woman painter, Janice Biala. That was enough for Bowen. She began action to take full custody of Julie and told the girl that Ford would no longer live with them. “I imagined that facing Paris without Ford was going to be full of difficulties,” she writes. Instead, “There were none. I felt chilly and forlorn at one moment and like a million dollars the next.”

Unfortunately, that feeling soon faded as Bowen confronted the practical obstacles of an increasingly unfavorable exchange rate and a crashing real estate market. Desperate for ways to bring in some much-needed cash, she took an opportunity raised by her American friend, Ramon Guthrie, and sailed for the U.S. where she could get portrait commissions and make several thousand dollars in the course of a few months. Though it helped her out of her financial straits, the visit to America makes for easily the weakest chapter in the book, one filled mostly with unremarkable observations about American life and culture.

By the time Bowen returned to Paris, it was clear that she could not afford to keep living in France, and she and Julie moved back to England, settling in London. With the onset of the Depression, work was almost impossible to get and the two struggled through some lean years. And Bowen found herself temperamentally out of place: “I dare say I have never known how to communicate with people in the English idiom.” In Paris or New York, she could manage to carry on conversations, tossing the ball back and forth with others. In London, however, the conversational ball “crashes to the ground where it lies looking like a suet pudding under the cold and silent eyes of the company. Agony!”

After a few years, she managed to make some headway. “I developed a technique for doing portrait sketches in two or three days and got a good many orders.” Julie studied set design at the London Theatre School and Bowen found a quiet cottage to her tastes in Green End, a hamlet in the Norfolk countryside east of London. Janice Biala contacted them saying that Ford was dying and Julie traveled to Honfleur, France to see her father one last time. It was June 1939.

Drawn from Life closes as summer 1940 nears. Though military encampments are being set up around Green End and the possibility of evacuation is being whispered about, for Bown, “Mostly I feel this is my last ditch.” Earlier, she wrote, “Four times in my life I have gone away with two suitcases, leaving all behind me, never to return,” but she was ready to “stay put and take what comes.”

Three group portraits painted for the Australian War Memorial by Stella Bowen
Three group portraits painted for the Australian War Memorial by Stella Bowen

Though written on the promise of popular interest in her relationship with Ford, Drawn from Life earned Bowen little more than her advance, and she struggled to keep things going until late 1943, when she was commissioned to paint for the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. She produced several dozen canvas over the next two years, including several group portraits of Australian bomber crews that evoke the murals of Giotto that she’d seen in Italy with Dorothy Pound. Before the war ended, however, she had been diagnosed with colon cancer, and, after a short remission, she died in October 1947 at her home in Green End.

Drawn from Life deserves to be recognized as a minor classic. It’s a fiercely feminist text, one that echoes the messages of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s speech, “The Solitude of Self,” and anticipates The Feminine Mystique and other works of decades later:

If you are a woman, and you want to have a life of your own, it would probably be better for you to fall in love at seventeen, be seduced, and abandoned, and your baby die. If you survived this, you might go far! Otherwise, emerging from a love-affair into the position of a middle-aged housekeeper, you may suffer the most desperate sensations of constriction and futility which your situation will give you little chance to survive.

At present, there appear to be around thirty copies available for sale, with prices starting at over $20 and ending at over $2,000, according to a search on AddAll.com. First published in the UK in 1941, when a paper shortage ruled out the possibility of any immediate reissue, it’s been republished several times (in 1976 by George Mann, a small regional UK press, in 1984 by Virago, and in 1999 by Picador in Australia), but none of these were large quantity runs and (I’d like to think), it’s a book that, once bought, people tend to hang onto.


Drawn from Life: Reminiscences, by Stella Bowen
London: Collins Publishers, 1941