Olwyn Bowey RA on painting, prizes and botanics

Published 10 October 2016

Working from her garden studio in Sussex, painter Olwyn Bowey RA has tenaciously pursued her interest in the natural world over many decades, and the results are continuing to bear fruit.

  • From the Autumn 2016 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    “I don’t know why anyone enjoys doing painting. It’s a battleground”, says Olwyn Bowey RA, reflecting on the tortuous process of creating her botanical still-life Stag’s Head with Stag’s Head Fern (2015). “It was late autumn and it was getting colder. I had to keep the heat on in the greenhouse for that wretched fern – I kept it down in the house and up in the greenhouse.” Fortunately, the sacrifice was not in vain – the painting has just won this year’s prestigious Sunny Dupree Family Award for a Woman Artist at the RA’s Summer Exhibition. “You do it because you want to,” she says, “but it’s nice when it’s noticed. It’s like a new lease of life.”

    The story perfectly illustrates the singlemindedness that underlies Bowey’s art, a drive to capture the natural world that places her firmly in the tradition of the artist-plantsman. Working mainly from the greenhouse in her garden in West Sussex, she has spent decades meticulously documenting the plants within it and the surrounding countryside, sometimes returning to the same spot year after year to catch it at just the right time to complete a painting.

  • Olwyn Bowey RA, The Melon House, West Dean

    Olwyn Bowey RA, The Melon House, West Dean, 2016.

    Courtesy of RA Editions.

    • Olwyn Bowey RA in her greenhouse studio in West Sussex

      Olwyn Bowey RA in her greenhouse studio in West Sussex

      © Eamonn McCabe.

      One of the places Bowey has painted most frequently is West Dean Gardens, just a few miles from her home. The first time she visited the gardens, she was struck by their derelict Victorian greenhouses: “I took one look and said ‘I’ve been looking for that all my life.’” These magnificent structures, now much restored, form the subject of Bowey’s first ever digital prints, The Melon House, West Dean (pictured) and Glasshouse in West Dean Gardens, both produced this year and available through RA Editions. Bowey, who claims to lack the “patience and fortitude” to be a printmaker herself, produced the prints with the help of Maciej Urbanek, Photography Tutor at the RA Schools, and, as with all the RA Editions, proceeds from their sale will go to supporting the RA Schools.

      The prints will be on show, along with drawings and paintings at Bowey’s exhibition in the RA’s Belle Shenkman Room this autumn. For Bowey, however, the real joy of the RA lies with the “camaraderie and hectic putting together” of the Summer Exhibition, and the opportunity it brings to get to know artists she might never have met otherwise. She was elected a Royal Academician in 1975 at a time when the influx of new Members, many of whom had studied with Bowey at art school, was dramatically changing the institution. “Gosh, it has made strides forward into being the place it is today,” she says. It’s a continuing development she has invested in by including a gift to the Academy in her will. “You leave it to the thing that has done the most for you. I honestly don’t think, being the way I am, that I would have had an artistic life without it.”

      Academicians in Focus: Olwyn Bowey RA, **Belle Shenkman Room, Royal Academy of Arts, 31 Oct until 27 March 2017. Bowey’s RA Editions prints are available to buy online at Art Sales.

      For information about giving to the RA in your will, contact 020 7300 5677 or visit Legacies.**

      Alison Hissey is Project Editor at RA Publications. She has edited exhibition catalogues and books for the Royal Academy on subjects including Ai Weiwei and Abstract Expressionism.

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