Ellis Rowan – the Wildflower Hunter

Friday, Aug 08, 2014 at 14:19


Now as we venture out across our country in the comfort of our modern vehicles, many of us have an interest in researching and following the tracks of explorers. It is as well to be reminded that not all of those adventurers were men. Ellis Rowan was one of the more prominent, but by no means the only woman to defy convention and venture into remote areas where few self-respecting Victorian-era women would dare to go. In her quest to find and document Australia’s native wildflowers she joined that intrepid band of explorers seeking inland seas, minerals, new grazing land, or motivated by scientific ideals. May she be a role model for 21st century women exploring Australia and all that it has to offer.

When Queen Victoria was on the throne, women were meant to be demure, accepting their place as homemakers and mothers. How different was Ellis Rowan. Despite a tiny stature, and always dressed in long skirts, high necked blouse (and corseted in whalebone) she made incredible journeys into remote, often dangerous and inaccessible parts of the country. She was in search of wildflowers, usually painting them on the spot. Tireless, intrepid and tenacious she built a formidable reputation as an artist, mounting several major exhibitions, and winning many prizes, despite scathing attacks from the then invariably male artistic establishment. Her name was a household word when she died in 1922. Sadly today she is almost forgotten.

Marian Ellis Rowan (1848-1922), artist, naturalist and explorer, was born in Melbourne. Her father Charles Ryan and his family lived at Mt Macedon, Victoria, in a home set in a spectacular 26-acre garden which was designed with advice from family friend Ferdinand von Mueller, the Government Botanist of Victoria. Ellis returned here regularly after her marriage, and was living there at the time of her death.
Ellis attended a girls' school at Brighton, Victoria, but always claimed to have no formal training in art. In 1869, she visited English relatives who advised her to continue painting wildflowers in her own style. It was good advice that brought her widespread fame.

In 1873 Ellis married Frederic Rowan a British army officer who had fought in the Maori wars. She returned with him to Taranaki on the north Island of NZ, where Rowan was a sub-inspector in the armed constabulary. There her son Eric (called Puck) was born and Ellis, encouraged by her husband, continued to paint wild flowers and to exhibit her work. In 1877 they returned to Victoria where Frederic Rowan took up a business career.

An important mentor and role model for Ellis was the English flower painter and world traveller, Marianne North, whom Ellis first met at Albany, W.A. North inspired Ellis with the ambition "to travel the world in search of flowers rare and wonderful". Ellis undertook to do just that by painting from life to show flowers in their natural habitat. She embarked on a succession of major field trips, travelling often unaccompanied by sea, rail and horse drawn sulky. One such trip in 1887, at the age of 39, she embarked on an ambitious scheme to illustrate the flora of Queensland, a mammoth task.

Many of the wildflowers that Ellis Rowan painted were classified and named by the Victorian government botanist Sir Ferdinand Mueller. Throughout her painting career she sent von Mueller drawings of the wildflowers she found, usually with samples of the flowers themselves. His annotations are to be found on the backs of many of her paintings.

From the 1870s on, Ellis painted thousands of watercolours of wildflowers. Like Marianne North, she travelled extensively, delighting in finding settings that were difficult to get to and dangerous. Her images ranged from small, intimate garden scenes, and of birds and insects to large, boldly coloured and botanically accurate, detailed flower studies. A lover of stories and storytelling, she confidently publicised – and probably embellished, her own adventures, as she visited places as far-flung as the Queensland rainforests and West Australian goldfields.

The tendency of newly picked flowers to droop and fade meant that Ellis had to work quickly to capture her subjects. So she often painted out in the bush, using her box of painting equipment that always accompanied her on her travels. Most of Ellis’ original water colour studies were painted in less than optimum conditions, in the heat and flies of the Australian bush. Yet her skills at composing a complex image, use of colour and her quick painting skills, without preliminary sketches, were often commented on.

The 1880s was a highly productive era for Ellis: she painted rare species for one scientist’s work and she made a number of copies of her more popular pictures for sale in exhibitions. This was a wise career move. Many engravings of her flowers and scenes were published, her watercolours became bolder in colour and presentation, and she began to paint in oils as North had encouraged.

Because of her fame, Ellis became an important example of the independent Australian female artist earning a living from her work. Of course male artists, including prominent members of the Heidelburg School may have dismissed her paintings as “Not Real Art”. And they may have had a point as her work was at the boundary between art and natural history illustration. More than being just an accurate recording of the physical appearance of plants, each painting revealed a strong sense of design and colour, and her flower and bird images were often set in an environment which was rendered in an impressionist style.

After the deaths of both her husband and son, Ellis set about editing letters and journals from over the course of her married life. The resulting account of her adventures, “Flower Hunter in Queensland and New Zealand” was published in 1898 and was well received. Flushed with success, Ellis left on what was intended to be a short visit to America; she stayed for 7 years. In New York, she met another young female botanist, Alice Lounsberry, and together they travelled the USA and West Indies, collaborating on 3 books which became standard texts for botany students: A Guide to the Wildflowers 1899, A Guide to the Trees 1900 and Southern Wildflowers and Trees 1901. Her book illustrations was hugely successful.

When Ellis eventually returned to Australia in 1905 she set a new goal for her art: to find and record every species of wildflower on the continent. During the hardships of WW1, Ellis used her work to raise funds for the war effort.

Then when she was nearly 70, the war provided an opportunity for a new adventure when the Germans were forced out of the northern part of New Guinea. The Royal Worcester Porcelain Company commissioned her to paint flowers and birds of paradise in New Guinea. Seizing the opportunity she arranged her journeys and between 1916-18 she twice visited Papua and New Guinea, finding and illustrating many previously unknown flowers. On her second trip, she sought and painted endangered birds of paradise. (The birds were in danger of extinction even then, being widely hunted for their beautiful plumage used to adorn both local tribal headdresses and the hats of fashionable ladies in London and Paris.)Travelling only with local guides and living in primitive conditions in unmapped territory, she succeeded in painting forty-seven of the fifty-two known species, setting the birds free afterwards.

Finally, broken in health from malaria and fatigue she returned to Australia, and in 1920 held a vast exhibition of 1000 paintings in Sydney, the largest collection exhibited up to that time in Australia. The following year, in response to pressure from women's organizations, the Hughes government agreed to purchase the collection for the nation, but debate in Federal parliament over the price brought conflicting opinions. Ellis's health deteriorated; and no decision had been reached by the time of her death at Macedon on 4 October 1922.

In 1923, a year after her death, her surviving collection of 952 paintings was offered to the Australian government. The offer was debated in the House of Representatives and Parliament eventually agreed on a price of 5000 pounds for the paintings, half the asking price. And so the paintings became the property of the Australian Commonwealth, despite the protests from a number of disgruntled artists who objected to the purchase of 'vulgar art'. The collection was stored in the vaults of the Federal Treasury in Melbourne until 1933, when custody was transferred to the Commonwealth National Library. They are now housed at the National Library of Australia in Canberra. A further 125 paintings are held at the Queensland Museum, 100 watercolours are held at the Adelaide Botanic Gardens with smaller numbers spread across many state and regional museums and galleries. The Australian Club in Melbourne has a room with the walls entirely covered in murals by her, painted as a result of a commission from the Club.

A portrait of Ellis Rowan paid for by public subscription, and painted by Sir John Longstaff, was unveiled in 1929. It was the first national portrait of an Australian woman.

Several accounts of Ellis Rowan have been published including:

Australia’s Brilliant Daughter Ellis Rowan: Artist, Naturalist, Explorer 1848-1922 (1984) by Margaret Hazzard ISBN 0-909104-73-5

Flower Paintings of Ellis Rowan from the Collection of the National Library of Australia (1982) by M. Hazzard and H. Hewson ISBN 0-642-89730-1

Ellis Rowan: A Flower-Hunter in Queensland (1990) by J. McKay

The Flower Hunter: Ellis Rowan (2002) by Patricia Fullerton

Wild Flower Hunter – the story of Ellis Rowan (1961) by her niece H. J. Samuel

The Flower Hunter – The Remarkable life of Ellis Rowan by Christine and Michael Morton-Evans

The reproductions of Ellis Rowan’s flower paintings used here have been photographed from the “Comprehensive Catalogue of Queensland Plants” by F. Manson Bailey, Colonial Botanist, Queensland.
J and V
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
- Albert Einstein
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