Artist’s picture of missing airmen on Anzac stamp ‘like painting ghosts’

By | April 21, 2020

, This was published 6 months ago

If you have recently queued at the post office you may have noticed the new issue stamps commemorating Anzac Day. The one with an image entitled Bomber Crew is worth a closer look. None of the airmen are looking at each other and they have a haunted look about them. There’s a reason for that.

It is from a painting by Australian artist Stella Bowen. She left Adelaide for England in 1914, never to return, at the age of 20. It seems her mother had difficulties with her studying the naked human form. She was one of only three women to be commissioned by the Australian War Memorial as official war artists of the Second World War.

For her best known painting Bomber Crew she was stationed with the Royal Air Force at Binbrook, Lincolnshire, where No. 460 Squadron was based.

Stella Bowen’s Bomber crew 1944: Back row, from left: Sergeant D G Champkin of the RAF, flight engineer; Pilot Officer Thomas Lynch, rear gunner; Flying Officer Hector Harrison, wireless operator; Flying Officer Ronald Neal, mid upper gunner. Front row, from left: Flying Officer Marmion Carroll, navigator; Squadron Leader Eric Jarman, pilot; Flying Officer Francis Jackson, bomb aimer.Credit:Australian War Memorial

She started drawing the crew of a Lancaster bomber before they went off on a mission on April 27, 1944. Preoccupied with their preparations, the men expressed no particular interest in Bowen’s attempt to draw them, but their bravery and youth captivated the artist, according to the Australian War Memorial which has the painting in its collection.

It states that night their operation took them over Friedrichshafen, a vital industrial centre on the shores of Lake Constance in southern Germany near the Swiss border. By morning, Bowen’s subjects were reported missing.

The artist had only made preliminary sketches, but she returned to her London studio to complete the painting, working from pencil sketches (also in the collection), and official photographs. She later wrote to her brother: “It was horrible having to finish the picture after the men were lost. Like painting ghosts.”

Sketch of Thomas Lynch by Stella Bowen hours before the stricken bomber sortie.Credit:Australian War Memorial

The Australian War Memorial notes: “The crew is depicted in front of the menacing image of their Avro Lancaster bomber, looming above them like a bird. They are shown wearing their full flying gear including ‘Mae West’ life jackets, flying helmets and headphones. Their names appear on the helmets and are repeated on the wreath-like ribbon that scrolls across the canvas, complete with their RAAF wings floating like cherubs.”

Pilot Officer Thomas Lynch, a rear gunner, was the sole survivor. He wrote in his diary under the heading ‘P.O.W Germany’: ” I woke up in hospital on the 5th of May 1944 in a place I was later to learn was Baden Baden. I could not recall how I came to be there in strange surroundings.”

He was about to look under the bedclothes “because everything did not seem as it should be” when a nurse and doctor entered the room. “She said: ‘How are you Thomas – for you, the war is over.'” It was only when they left the room that he learnt that his right leg had been amputated.

Australia Post philatelic manager Michael Zsolt said the beautifully designed stamps captured experiences from the two World Wars, both at home and abroad.

William Dargie’s Group of VADs, 1942.Credit:Australian War Memorial

“The stamps feature works by four artists; William Dargie and Stella Bowen who were both official war artists during World War II, and Grace Cossington Smith and Hilda Rix Nicholas who painted subjects that had particular personal significance,” Mr Zsolt said.

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,, The Sydney Morning Herald

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