Ellis Rowan

Marian Ellis Rowan (1848-1922), natural history painter, was born in Melbourne on 30 July 1848, the first of seven children of Charles Ryan and his wife Marian, daughter of the botanist, sketcher and settler John Cotton. Ellis (as she was always called) had a normal middle-class girl's education, including tuition in watercolour painting. She may also have had private art lessons in both Melbourne and England (which she first visited in 1869), although claiming, with characteristic exaggeration, to have been entirely self-taught. She certainly had no formal training; indeed, her especial achievement was to turn an outstanding ability in the genteel female pastime of painting flowers into an internationally esteemed professional career.

Rowan seriously began to exhibit large collections of watercolours of native flowers and plants about the time of her marriage to Captain Frederic Charles Rowan (on 23 October 1873), mainly at intercolonial and international exhibitions of art and industry. Between 1872 and 1893 she won ten gold, fifteen silver and four bronze medals, starting with a bronze at the second intercolonial Exhibition in Melbourne and ending with a gold at the Columbian World Fair in Chicago. At the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880 Rowan and another flower painter, Catherine Purves, received the only gold medals awarded to any Victorian painters, although one was belatedly awarded to Louis Buvelot after an official protest from Melbourne's male professionals. By 1888 Buvelot was dead and, despite more protests, this time Rowan remained the only painter in any Australian colony to get a gold medal.

She turned her back on the Victorian Artists' Society and other art institutions, so it is hardly surprising that when the Commonwealth Government decided to purchase a large collection of Rowan's paintings in 1921 for a future national art gallery, well-known male painters complained that her work was totally unsuited for any art gallery, let alone worth the 21,000 pounds she was asking. (Norman Lindsay, ironically, labelled it 'vulgar'). Rowan was offered 2000 pounds for 947 paintings. This was eventually raised to 5000 pounds, paid a year after her death. Despite the existence of the Australian National Gallery, the collection remains in the National Library, Canberra.

Immensely prolific, Rowan retained this lifetime collection by making copies for sale and keeping the originals. Her biographer, Margaret Hazzard, estimates that she painted well over 3000 pictures. Her final exhibition, at Anthony Hordern's Fine Art Gallery in 1920, contained over 1000 exhibits, all for sale. It was said to have been the largest one-person art exhibition ever held in Australia and to have made a record 2000 pounds. Rowan also wrote and illustrated A Wildflower Hunter in Queensland and New Zealand (1898), published a children's story about her pet bilboa, Bill Baillie, His Life and Adventures (1908), and provided illustrations of scenery and plants for popular publications such as the Picturesque Atlas of Australasia (1886) and New Idea (January-June 1905). She also painted murals, and her wildflowers were used commercially on Royal Worcester china.

A tiny, softly-spoken woman usually dressed in the white lace she made herself, Rowan's appearance belied enormous physical stamina and absolute ruthlessness of purpose. She was as proud of her delicate, youthful appearance as she was of her trips to remote and difficult places. The one was exemplified by a face-lift in New York when in her early fifties, the other by two independent expeditions into the New Guinea Highlands to paint birds in her late sixties.

The Rowans had one son but he seems to have seen little of his parents, being brought up mostly with the Ryan relatives. Rowan's life was primarily dedicated to her own success. This took a lot of family money and influential connections as well as steely determination and unashamed self-publicity. But the fact that a colonial woman could make an international reputation from the despised female 'hobby' of flower painting - normally consigned to an artistic 'no-man's land' without scientific, economic or artistic value - was a considerable achievement.

Ellis Rowan died on 4 October 1922.

Joan Kerr

Margaret Hazzard Australia's Brilliant Daughter: Ellis Rowan, Artist, Naturalist, Explorer 1848-1922 1984