Ellis Rowan, born in Melbourne (1848-1922) earned an international reputation as a flower painter, naturalist and adventurer in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Regularly venturing into remote parts of Australia and further afield, Rowan would record unspoilt and botanically unexplored native flora and fauna. An emancipated woman ahead of her time, she turned what fellow Australian artists deemed the ‘genteel’ female pastime of flower painting into a successful and prolific career spanning fifty years.
Rowan first exhibited her flower paintings in 1873 at the Melbourne International Exhibition. Rowan stressed the importance of depicting subjects in their natural settings. Because of this practice of recording habitat in situ Rowan traveled extensively, and wrote accounts of her experiences in Europe, India, America, New Guinea, and around Australia. She travelled to Queensland several times, including the Ipswich region in 1912. On these trips she produced hundreds of watercolours of flora and fauna, meticulously drawn from life.
My love for the flora of Australia, at once so unique and so fascinating, together with my desire to complete my collection of floral paintings, has carried me into other colonies, Queensland and some of the remotest parts of the great Continent of Australia. The excitement of seeking and the delight of finding rare or even unknown specimens abundantly compensated me for all difficulties, fatigue and hardships.
[Except from a letter to her husband and family while on a trip to Queensland, 1887.]
Throughout her career she called on botanists to identify her subjects. At first, Rowan called on her friend; Government Botanist of Victoria, Ferdinand Mueller and later, on his Queensland counterpart; Frederick Manson Bailey. Bailey also named plants after the artist; including a Murray River spotted orchid which he named ‘Mrs Rowan’s Phais’. By the time of her death, her fame was widespread, and Federal Parliament posthumously acquired a large collection of her work for the nation, now housed in the National Library of Australia. The Queensland Museum also holds a large collection of her works, acquired in 1912.