This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

April 2004


8 April 1981:   Gretta Bowen, artist known as the "Irish Grandma Moses," died.

This month brings us a cautionary tale of what can happen when you leave stuff lying around the house for Mom to pick up.

Born on 1 January 1880 in Dublin, Gretta Campbell kept house near Queen’s University in Belfast, where she had lived since her husband died in 1925. Two of her three sons, George and Arthur, had grown up to become established and well-regarded artists. Near the end of 1949, just a few weeks shy of her 70th birthday, she was tidying up her modest home when she came across some artist’s paints the boys had left behind. Perhaps the thrifty widow only wanted to put the paints to their proper use before they dried out and went to waste, so she sat down to make a picture of her own. Gretta had had no artistic education or training, but what began as a casual afternoon’s amusement instead released her considerable artistic talent.

She adopted painting as a hobby, and over the next twenty years began to exhibit her works. With her son George going from strength to strength as an artist, Gretta decided to exhibit under her maiden name of Bowen, possibly to avoid the appearance that she was only hitching a ride on the coattails of her son’s success. At any rate by the 1970s her paintings had caught the eye of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, and they exhibited her works at three successive shows.

International recognition came to Gretta at the age of 99 when in 1979 some of her paintings were shown at the International Exhibition of Naive Art held that year in London. Critics were struck by her simple, unadorned style that so reminded them of her American near-contemporary that she was dubbed “the Irish Grandma Moses.” Working both in oil paints and water-soluble gouache, the unpretentious Gretta Bowen painted only what she knew, either local scenes of the Ulster countryside such as “Coal Boats on the Lagan” or recollected scenes from her childhood such as “Games by the River.”

Sadly, the year of Gretta’s triumph also saw the unexpected death of her son George on 18 May 1979. George had been inspired to paint, it was said, by the bombing of Belfast by the Germans in 1941, and had gone on to become a respected painter of still lifes and landscapes in Connemara and later in Spain. Later in life George returned to Belfast both physically and artistically with paintings that once again mirrored the wartime distress of his native city, notably in “No. 6 Patrol” (1973). The multi-talented George Campbell was also a recognized classical guitarist and a designer of stained-glass windows, one of which may be seen in Galway Cathedral.

George’s brother Arthur had also achieved recognition as a regional artist, though mainly in drawings and photography. Two collections of his drawings were published, Ulster in Black and White (1943) and Now in Ulster (1944).

Gretta Bowen, the Irish Grandma Moses, died at the age of 101 on 8 April 1981.

For more information on Ireland, see the Ireland Nation Page.

The stories featured in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from the over 1000 anniversaries of people and events from the histories of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann in the 2004 Celtic Calendar, now available from the Celtic League American Branch.

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